Gareth Morris

Professor of Physical Chemistry

Gareth Morris

Teaching brings many rewards, but one of the best is seeing students gradually grow in confidence as they get to grips with the subject, arriving as nervous sixth formers and leaving as mature, independent thinkers and researchers.

 

How would you summarise your research to undergraduates?

Over the last 50 years, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy has changed the way chemistry is done. Synthetic chemists now use NMR spectra routinely, day in day out, to monitor the progress of reactions and to identify new products and materials. In part this has come about through developments in automated instrumentation, and in part through a great blossoming of new experimental techniques that tailor the information that NMR experiments provide to meet chemists’ needs.

We are continuing to develop new experimental methods that make NMR a more powerful tool for the chemist, making it easier to determine chemical structures and making it possible to tackle bigger and more complex structural problems.

How would you summarise your research to postgraduates?

We design, develop, analyse, implement and apply new experimental methods in liquid state nuclear magnetic resonance.

One of the beauties of the phenomenon of NMR is that the same theory underlies applications across the whole range of science, so our work is interdisciplinary and often involves colleagues from other departments and institutions. The common thread that runs through all our work is the drive to exploit magnetic resonance to solve scientific problems, whether they be in chemistry, medicine, pharmacy or elsewhere. Thus in chemistry we are currently working on "pure shift" methods, that suppress the effects of interactions between spins, and diffusion-ordered spectroscopy (DOSY; NMR is full of silly names!), that allows us to analyse mixtures of different species.

Many of our developments have been prompted by collaborations with academic and industrial colleagues, with new types of chemical problem inspiring new NMR solutions. The same is true of other areas of our work, for example medical imaging, where we have worked on developing new contrast sources for brain imaging.

What do you think makes the School distinctive?

As one of the largest chemistry departments in Europe we have a unique mix of expertise and facilities.

Magnetic resonance is a particular strength, with internationally-competitive facilities including a dozen superconducting NMR spectrometers and a national service for multi-frequency continuous wave and pulsed EPR spectroscopy. The breadth of research interests across the staff makes it both a wonderful place to do research and a great place to be a student.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Teaching brings many rewards, but one of the best is seeing students gradually grow in confidence as they get to grips with the subject, arriving as nervous sixth formers and leaving as mature, independent thinkers and researchers.

How do you make your teaching up-to-date, innovative and inspirational?

Physical chemistry can seem a dry and prosaic subject, but at its heart it is about our understanding of the world around us, and about what drives change in that world. Working in a research-led university means that we can bring the latest research results to our teaching, and we have extensive support for innovation in electronic delivery of teaching materials, but the thing that most inspired me as a student in physical chemistry was being shown those deep connections to fundamental principles that shed light over the whole breadth of science.

What do you enjoy most about research?

I wish I could say that our research is motivated by a grim and determined assault on the great unanswered questions of science, but alas one of the main reasons we do it is simply that it’s enormous fun, full of twists and surprises.

As an experimentalist I like making things work, so I still get a buzz out of going into the lab and trying out new ideas myself, or solving the crossword puzzle of a new chemical structure. On a deeper level, one of the great privileges of being an academic is the opportunity it gives to think things and do things and (particularly for chemists) make things that have never been thought or done or made before.

What have been the highlights of your career?

I’ve had several great strokes of luck in my research life. In conventional terms, the high point was probably being awarded the Russell Varian prize, one of the top honours in magnetic resonance, a few years ago. This was for a chance discovery made 30 years earlier, in the few weeks between finishing my doctorate and leaving for Canada to start postdoctoral research, and has ended up being used in almost every NMR lab in the world.

From a personal point of view, one of the highlights for me has been seeing how ideas can take on a life of their own after they are published, with experiments that we designed to help chemists solve structures ending up being used in heart transplant research or structural biology or quantum computing.

How long have you been at the School?

Mine is a slightly unusual story. I came to Manchester over 30 years ago, in 1982, expecting to move on after a few years. Shortly after I arrived I landed up in coronary care with a heart infection, and in the years that followed I was often either restricted to a short working day or unable to work at all.

Throughout that time, the Chemistry department was extremely supportive, my colleagues patiently and cheerfully covering for me as needed, so by the time my health improved and job offers from other universities began to come in I felt a strong loyalty to Manchester.

Since then I have done my best to repay my debts, but for me Manchester remains one of the best places in the world to work, with good students, excellent facilities and great colleagues.

When a student completes their course, what for you are the measures of success?

We all of us come to university not so much to be taught, but to learn how best to learn for ourselves. No two students are the same, but for every student our ambition is that they leave more fully in possession of their mental capacities, equipped with the intellectual skills and critical faculties to make the best use of their abilities in whatever they go on to, whether in Chemistry or in any other walk of life.

How do you think students remember you?

Beard, glasses, and no dress sense for the most part I should think.

More seriously, when former students return and talk about their time here I am often struck by the specificity of memory – they recall individual tutorials or lectures or revision classes where things finally fell into place.

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