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My best teacher

Graham Gilbert was my chemistry teacher at St Thomas Aquinas RC grammar school in Leeds. He was inspirational. He really got you interested in what chemistry was and how it fitted into the world. I had done general science at primary school and, like any 11-year-old, I was very interested in bombs and fireworks. When I passed the 11-plus my parents bought me a chemistry set, so I was kind of ready for it. I knew it was something I liked the look of.

He was an engaging character, he had lots of enthusiasm for the subject and was very thorough. But he also went outside the syllabus where there were things that were interesting, like colour chemistry. We did chroma-tography tests - when you get the ink from a Biro and make the colours separate out - and it was magic. I remember him fetching a guy in from Leeds University to talk to us about dyes and how you made colour. That sparked my interest in applied chemistry and polymers.

He also ran the cross-country and athletics team, and I did both of those. I'm no cross-country runner - I was a big, fat kid, a sprinter, and I was the city 100 metres champion. But in the winter I ran cross-country because he was the guy I wanted to impress. If teachers can do that, if you have a teacher you want to respect you, who you want to impress, it makes for good students.

He took a group of lower sixth kids Munro-bagging, staying in youth hostels in Scotland. It was on one of those trips I found out I could cook, and the first time I climbed a mountain was with Graham.

He's a classic fell runner type - wiry, with not an ounce of fat on him. Back then he had a beard and square glasses. He looked like a bit of a nerd I suppose. He was your classic caricature chemistry teacher - white coat, beard and glasses. My overwhelming memory of him is that he was very enthusiastic about everything, he always bounded into the room full of beans. He was firm - you didn't mess about in his lessons - but always fair and he never persecuted kids. And the kids who weren't too bright got just as much attention as the rest. Pretty much everybody liked him.

I wanted to do psychology, economics and maths but the school wouldn't let me because they couldn't timetable it. It was 1976, I was highly politicised and I wanted to be a freedom fighter. Freedom fighters need economics and psychology, right? I knew how to make the bombs already. Thank God the school didn't let me do it, and I did maths, physics and chemistry instead.

Graham had spotted the polymer department at UMIST was running this week-long residential course for lower sixth, and sent me on it. I came back thinking, 'That was great, I'm gonna do that course'. I got a B at A-level because the course at UMIST gave me a two Es offer, and all I did was chase girls and drink beer for six months. He gave me a bit of a bollocking about that.

When I was doing my PhD I used to go back to the schools in Leeds and do lectures. I took over from the guy who came to talk to us about dyes. So I kept in touch with the school. Graham came to my inaugural lecture and gave my wife a whole load of old photographs of me as a teenager on school trips - he'd probably developed them himself. It was really nice.

When I went to his retirement do three years ago, he said to me:"I don't know if you realise it, but we started at the school on the same day." I'm not sure whether or not it was his first chemistry lesson and my first chemistry lesson, but it was something like that.

A really good chemistry teacher can make the fact that you can do a calculation and predict a result as interesting as all the pyrotechnics and flashes and bangs. If you can put that beauty over to children, you can really capture their imagination. You have to be a special type of chemistry teacher to be able to do that.

Scientist Tony Ryan was talking to Harvey McGavin


1962 Born in Leeds

1973 Passes 11-plus, attends Thomas Aquinas RC grammar school

1980 BSc in polymer science and technology at UMIST

1988 Finishes PhD; 18-month NATO research fellowship in Minnesota

1990 Lectureship in polymer science and technology at UMIST

1997 ICI professor of physical chemistry; head of department of chemistry, University of Sheffield

2002 First senior media fellow of the Engineering and Physical Sciences

Research Council; gives Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on the science behind everyday phenomena from Boxing Day on Channel 4, available on www.channel4.comsmartstuff

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