Alumni

Alumni profile - Andrew Proctor

On arrival at Queen Mary College as it was known back then, I was fascinated by the interface between biology and chemistry. After graduation I explored various avenues including clinical biochemistry and biology lecturing before finding food science, which was a perfect fit for my interests and background.

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Why did you decide to study BSc Biology and Chemistry at Queen Mary? Did you have a particular career path in mind?

On arrival at Queen Mary College as it was known back then, I was fascinated by the interface between biology and chemistry. I did not have a specific career path in mind other than an interest in organic chemistry and biochemistry and their role in biological phenomena, including plant and animal physiology. After graduation I explored various avenues including clinical biochemistry and biology lecturing before finding food science, which was a perfect fit for my interests and background.

I was the first person in my family to go to a ‘university’. My parents and grandparents did not go to university but were very supportive of my education. My elder brother went to a polytechnic in Teesside and my younger sister went to a teacher training college in Bangor, Wales, so my university experience was a new one to be shared by all the family.

What did you enjoy most about studying BSc Biology and Chemistry? Do any modules or academics stand out from your memories of your university days?

My interest was in organic chemistry and biochemistry and how they applied to physiology. Courses I particularly enjoyed were: ‘Organic Chemistry I & II and III & IV’, ‘Natural Products Chemistry’, ‘Endocrinology’ and ‘Plant Physiology’. Having three years of organic chemistry proved invaluable for conducting research in food science and food processing.

Food science deals with solving real problems that people can relate to i.e. producing safe nutritious food using chemistry, biology and engineering. This involves understanding the chemistry involved in texture changes, flavour development, and nutritional changes during food processing. The current trends for ‘green’ technology and nutritious foods provides new opportunities for young professionals. I recently edited a book, ‘Alternatives to Conventional Food Processing’ which highlights new ‘green’ methods of safely producing food with less energy than thermal processing or freezing.

What was it like to study during the 70s and how might your experience differ from the experience of current Queen Mary students?

The main difference would be the absence of modern computers. Computer Science during my studies involved the use of punched cards for Fortran programming, which now seems very archaic!

Food science deals with solving real problems that people can relate to i.e. producing safe nutritious food using chemistry, biology and engineering. This involves understanding the chemistry involved in texture changes, flavour development, and nutritional changes during food processing. The current trends for ‘green’ technology and nutritious foods provides new opportunities for young professionals. 

What was special about your time at Queen Mary? Were you a member of any societies or volunteering groups?

Overall, I found the wide diversity of student organisations from communist, socialist, PLO clubs to Jewish, various Christian and political conservative clubs, very eye-opening. The diversity was much more ‘progressive’ than I had previously experienced and widened my horizons considerably. This diversity was much greater than what I have subsequently observed working at US universities. My time at Queen Mary College certainly began to open my mind and made me more culturally sensitive.

I will always remember a talk given by the novelist and journalist, Marghanita Laski on a Sunday evening at a hall of residence. She discussed atheism as a belief in an amazingly gracious and courteous manner. Her logical arguments challenged my thinking at the time and she clearly demonstrated the importance of civility in public discourse. She was a remarkable thinker and a very articulate speaker.

Marghanita Laski seems to have had a lasting impact on you. Who else has inspired you throughout your lifetime? Do you have any particular role models?

There is no single person that I can point to as a role model. However, as I am getting older, I am realizing the importance of the teachers I learned from at all levels of my education. There is something unique about the British system from late 1950’s to mid-1970’s that provided a mixture of high student expectation and quality curriculum. My PhD supervisor, Harry Snyder, was a great source of encouragement and support, he provided a stable environment for my academic development and taught me that students will perform well if you expect them to, which is known as the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Congratulations on recently being appointed Visiting Professor at the University of Suffolk. Please can you describe your career path since you graduated in 1975?

On graduating from Queen Mary College I spent a number of years exploring career options. After a year as a clinical biochemistry technician in a hospital pathology lab, I spent four years teaching in a technical college before being recruited in 1982 by the University of Arkansas as a postgraduate student in Food Science.

I completed a Masters degree in 18 months, including a thesis on ‘physicochemical properties of milled rice’ and began a Food Science doctoral degree in lipid (oil and fats) chemistry. My organic chemistry and biology education from Queen Mary College provided knowledge that was invaluable in my postgraduate research and subsequently in developing an academic research career.

My first academic position was as an Assistant Professor in Food Science at The Ohio State University. I conducted food chemistry research in lipid adsorption and taught food law and food chemistry and was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in 1992. In 1992 I was also invited to apply for my doctoral advisor’s position on his retirement. I returned to the University of Arkansas as an Associate Professor in 1993 to conduct lipid chemistry research and teach lipid chemistry and food law. I continued to work in the area of lipid chemistry and food processing and made various significant research findings. I was promoted to the rank of Professor in 2002.

My research work on the utilisation of agricultural co-products resulted in invitations to teach at international short courses and be involved in collaborative research with European universities, including University of Gent, Belgium and University of Graz, Austria with whom we developed EU/US government funded research exchange programs with other EU and US universities. This is still ongoing.

My research and international success led to my appointment to University Professor in 2013 and being awarded a 2015 Fulbright-Austria funded sabbatical as Visiting Professor at the University of Graz, Austria. Following my retirement in 2018 I am still involved in international education and research as Professor Emeritus - most recently as a Visiting Professor in food science at the University of Suffolk, and I am also planning another possible sabbatical at the Institute of Chemistry at Karl Franzens University, Graz.

I gain most satisfaction from seeing my graduate students succeed. This includes their student research awards but also hearing of their subsequent career success. It is rewarding to know that the skills and knowledge they gained as food science students will not only provide a job, but a life-long career in an industry that values their skills in a field where there are more job vacancies than candidates to fill them.

You have clearly had an extensive career as an academic food chemist. Upon reflection, what have been some of your career highlights? Have you had any moments where you’ve realised that you’re doing a job that you really love?

I gain most satisfaction from seeing my graduate students succeed. This includes their student research awards but also hearing of their subsequent career success. It is rewarding to know that the skills and knowledge they gained as food science students will not only provide a job, but a life-long career in an industry that values their skills in a field where there are more job vacancies than candidates to fill them.

Recently, I heard from a former student who told me that he is joining a large company to head up a major coffee company. He has worked his way through the research and marketing ranks at a major US Chocolate company and is now moving onto even greater challenges. My best student memory however, is from my last doctoral student who is now a professor at Fresno State University in California. During the graduation ceremony the speaker gave advice to graduates to ‘always hire people smarter than yourself’. She leaned across to me and whispered, “You did really well”! A reunion of all my former graduate students is currently being planned for after the COVID crisis and I am really looking forward to it.

My most gratifying research experiences were when the ‘green’ technologies we developed were commercialised. Liquid sodium silica and carbon for the ceramics industry, and amorphous carbon for the water purification industry were produced from rice husk waste. We also developed a rapid means of measuring milled rice surface rancidity for the brewing industry by infra-red spectroscopy. This avoided the use of chemicals to instantly determine the potential of milled rice to develop off-flavours in beer when used as a fermentable starch.

My most memorable teaching experience was when teaching international students regarding the technologies outlined above. It was fascinating to interact with multicultural classes and learn how various national social priorities and perspectives affect research priorities, particularly regarding green technologies. This later led to EU-US government funding for academic student research exchanges which still continues. It is immensely rewarding to see how students were transformed by their transatlantic academic experiences.

How has your degree helped you throughout your career and in life?

My degree was foundational to everything I did after leaving Queen Mary College. Although my undergraduate career was not very successful, my undergraduate degree provided me with latent knowledge and skills that were ‘awakened’ and proved invaluable in my postgraduate studies and subsequent academic career. My Queen Mary College education enabled me to be very competitive in the USA, both as a student and as a professional academic.

What advice would you give to a prospective student considering studying either Biology or Chemistry at Queen Mary?

Both subjects provide a strong foundation for a variety of applied sciences that are needed by both academia and industry. These applied sciences include: medical clinical chemistry, food science, agricultural science and environmental science with opportunities in government, industry and academia. Additional opportunities exist internationally, particularly in the USA and Canada.

Stereotypically speaking, there is a disproportionate number of men opting to study a STEM subject or pursue a STEM based career compared to women. What do you think needs to be done to correct this gender imbalance?

There are slightly more women than men students in food science, however, in science and engineering the disparity may be due to STEM being marketed as disciples rather than what they can be used for. The goal of science is to solve problems and expand knowledge through multidisciplinary collaboration. Science and technology are the tools and not the end. If young people could be introduced to problem solving and discovery as exciting activities, then they may realise the need to acquire quantitative skills to pursue their interests. So, I would say that greater education is needed at primary and secondary school levels to normalise STEM subjects as being open to everyone regardless of gender or any other characteristics.

My degree was foundational to everything I did after leaving Queen Mary College. It has enabled me to be very competitive in the USA, both as a student and as a professional academic.

Have you been back to campus since you graduated and are you still in contact with any of your former peers?

Sadly, I have not been in touch with Queen Mary College as the decades seemed to have gone quickly. However, on my retirement I have reflected on the role of my education in my career development. In particular, my undergraduate education. I would be happy to interact with Queen Mary College personnel and current students and visit Queen Mary if I can be of service.

Lastly, now that you are semi-retired, how do you spend your time when you are not working?

The COVID situation has significantly hampered non-work leisure activities. I usually enjoy European travel visiting friends, colleagues and family in England, Germany, Belgium and Austria but I have not travelled for over a year. I visit the gym when safe to do so and spend time walking round local trails and state parks. I enjoy gardening and I am currently cultivating small olive trees in pots, although the recent artic temperatures has made me bring them indoors!

I currently live in a small university town in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. The town consists of a mixture of academics, students, ‘old hippies’, small artisan businesses, business professionals and a large corporate headquarters which brings a diversity of local, national and international influences. This produces a vibrant music scene from local folk, blues bands, to the Symphony Orchestra of North West Arkansas (SONA) and a number of microbreweries.

I am still transitioning into retirement. On my retirement in early 2019, I spent most of the year finishing up work related projects and handling international programs. This included organizing and hosting an autumn 15 Year Anniversary Conference of the research and academic collaboration between the University of Gent, Belgium and University of Arkansas. In December 2019 I was part of an annual trip to Gent to recruit students for semester research experiences at our Department of Food Science at the University of Arkansas. I am now looking forward to seeing what life beyond the pandemic looks like!

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew or engage him in your work, please contact Nicole at n.brownfield@qmul.ac.uk.