Peter McOwan

Peter McOwan

Peter McOwan

A tribute to Professor Peter McOwan

Here are a few memories of a much-missed colleague, Peter McOwan. If you would like to make your own written tribute to Peter, please go to the memorial book in the Queens' Building Reception on the Mile End campus.

Dr Paul Edlin, Queen Mary's Director of Music

When I started working at Queen Mary in December 2013 I was advised to meet Peter, and we did so in early 2014. That meeting remains in my memory for so many positive reasons. Peter was finishing an email to a student. He gently turned to me, smiled, said “Hello”, and then continued “I just need to add a smiley face to this email.  I always think a smile helps give a student confidence”. I felt instantly ‘at home’. Our meeting was hugely positive and inspiring, and I left with an ambitious mission as well as feeling among friends.

Peter was such a deeply special man and colleague, and I frequently turned to him for advice and support. That support was constant and unwavering, and Peter’s mix of energy, kindness and grace meant that things could happen at a pace that is not always easy in universities. Peter would often email with a simple message of “How’s things?”  That message was always music to my ears, because I knew Peter was genuinely interested in what was happening and keen to support where possible

In October 2018, the General Manager of the London Chamber Orchestra wrote to me and asked if there was any way of seeing a greater collaboration with Queen Mary. I immediately contacted Peter, and in February 2019 the LCO moved its office to Queen Mary. Peter’s enthusiasm and vision for such cooperation ensured everything moved forward with such speed and positivity. Now an unparalleled relationship between university and leading orchestra exists in the university sector. Peter saw the benefits for students and staff alike, and we will be in his debt for years to come as a result of his vision and generosity of spirit.

Peter McOwan was a man who led by example and has been a model of how to achieve things through his caring, nurturing and kindly nature, as well as through his positivity and active involvement. Peter has left a marked impression on me, and it is fair to say that I try to emanate his approach wherever and whenever possible. And, very importantly, he made us think anew about the relationships between science and art. That has made a serious impact on the way I now plan activities, both at the university and in other arts organisations.

There are a few deeply special people that we have the privilege to know and work with. Peter is one such person, and I will miss him hugely. I know there will be many of us who will do all we can to help ensure his legacy continues.

Becky Parker, Director of the Institute for Research in Schools and Visiting Professor at Queen Mary

Peter was a force of nature – there was never anything too much for him to put his full support behind and he was so giving and supportive of all in his outreach work.

I remember a wonderful summer with students in 2009 at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition where Peter was exhibiting with Richard Garriott. My students were a bit awestruck and when Peter and Richard suggested we go to the park for soda pop they just couldn’t believe they were walking with such giants who were also so friendly!

He was so lovely to me personally and pushed for me to have an inaugural professorial lecture which, when it happens, I will dedicate to him. His own output, and his support for others to do stuff was amazing. He was such a presence and his legacy continues to enhance, develop and improve the world.

Nurull Islam, Co-founder of the Mile End Community Project

I had the honour and pleasure of knowing Peter. My friend’s energy engulfed everything around him. His immense positivity was contagious, a part of which was the guarantee he had a funny comment up his sleeve for every stage and situation.

I recall informing him that growing up in Mile End, Queen Mary was merely a Bancroft Road shortcut. I think he then made it his personal mission to ensure that our relationship was much more, as now, some weeks I find myself investing greater time on campus than in the office! Peter’s efforts mean that our link with Queen Mary is stronger than we could have ever imagined now on multiple levels.

He will be deeply and sadly missed. Our memories will preserve him for the immense character he was and his brilliant efforts to improve our little world.

Heather MacRae, Venture Thinking

I was introduced to Peter at a dinner at Queen Mary. We discussed our love of education outreach and space. Before we knew it we were working together on a range of fantastic education programmes with Richard Garriott, Lucy Hawking and then Tim Peake. Through the projects that Peter supported we worked with thousands of students from less advantaged backgrounds using magic tricks, astronauts and robotics to inspire interest in science. I can remember Peter’s presentation well with a picture of him as a child with a cardboard robot. His magazines CS4Fun and the EU TEMI projects reached even more students and teachers.

Peter always responded to emails - with positivity and speed - especially late at night. He was always encouraging and cheerful and generous with his vast knowledge but never made you feel intimidated by his extraordinary intelligence. I loved seeing him chat to primary school children who had never met a university professor before. His smile, lovely accent, warmth and converse shoes made them feel at ease.

A favourite memory is when Peter nominated me for a fellowship at Queen Mary. It was a boiling hot day in bright red and yellow robes and Peter gave me lessons in how to doff my hat. The day was one of the proudest in my life.

Peter has been a dear friend, mentor and colleague.  I shall miss him so much. I don’t know if he ever really knew the impact he had on so many people.

Paul Curzon, Professor of Computer Science at Queen Mary

Peter was a wonderful friend. I was actually introduced to him on the day of my interview as it was thought we would get along well. We did, and once I started at Queen Mary we quickly started sharing ideas and working together on outreach projects. It was always a pleasure when he called by my office. Working with him was never work. He ensured my life was lots of fun.

We spent lots of time plotting ways we could excite kids about computing with the lofty goal of inspiring everyone, anywhere in the world, which ultimately we made pretty good headway towards. He was always brimming with ideas and was a joy to share ideas with. He passed on his excitement for science, maths and computing to thousands of school kids in person and tens of thousands more through our magazines (and a lot of adults too). He was particularly proud that Professors of computing could learn something from our magazines, not just kids, and the serious but fun activities we produced together are used by teachers around the globe. I constantly meet teachers who tell me about how they have used a particular activity or magic trick in their lessons and how big a difference they made.

The earliest thing we did together was a double act stall telling Artificial Intelligence stories at a Queen Mary careers festival. We decided not to focus on careers and instead just enthuse the kids we got to talk to about computing itself. The feedback was amazing, and we both enjoyed it enormously, so started to do lots more school “shows” together.

When doing talks, Peter realised we needed ways to compete with the likes of the chemists, who could just set off an explosion to raise the excitement levels! He had the idea of using magic as a naturally exciting way to enthuse kids about computing. He always loved magic and had been doing amateur magic all his life, having even helped set up a local magic club as a teenager. He was generous enough to teach me how to do tricks (I had no experience at all at that point), so we could do shows together as a double act.  Peter didn’t just do computing magic: he worked with a whole range of people - doing maths magic, and science magic too.

His research was selected for the Royal Society Summer Exhibition four times. I can’t imagine there are many people, and certainly not in Computer Science, who have had four completely different projects selected for the Summer Exhibition. He was certainly special in the breadth of science projects he was involved in, as well as the quality of the science he did, always with a twist of natural fun. He also made it a point of principle that he would involve our students (whether PhD or undergraduates) helping with presenting at the exhibitions, giving them an experience of a life time. They have certainly been some of the most pleasurable and memorable things I have personally done, all thanks to Peter.

He was amazingly kind, patient and generous and always a great friend and mentor to me as well as the many students he was closely involved with.  I miss him a lot. 

Professor Mike Curtis, Professor of Microbiology and Executive Dean of Dentistry, Kings’s College London

I first got to know Peter when we both applied for the same job of VP Public Engagement at QMUL. Peter was already an established star in the field with his absolutely marvellous use of magic to illustrate the workings (and sometimes non-workings) of the human brain and his brilliantly innovative computer science for fun (Cs4fn) project which produced a magazine and website to inspire school children about the broad field and careers in Computer Science. I, on the other hand, was an enthusiastic organiser and supporter but non-practitioner of PE who recognised its importance to the University mission.

Unsurprisingly and completely justifiably, he got the gold mine and I got the shaft! In other circumstances, this could have led to a distance between us but far from it. Largely because of Peter’s bounteous grace, charm, inclusivity and above all humour, we worked together for several years on the development of PE at QMUL. Although he was the absolute wizard and I was the absolute apprentice, Peter was always at pains to say how we worked as a team and the progress made was the result of equal contributions.   Of course, nothing could be further from truth and it was a hugely fitting tribute to Peter’s commitment, innovation and imagination that QMUL became the first institution in the UK to be awarded Gold Engage Watermark for public engagement in 2016.

Generosity of spirit is an over-used term but I can think of no better descriptor of Peter. I truly believe that every action he took, every word he spoke and every smile he gave in your direction was a representation of his deep humanity and ability to view the world and those before him through a human lens – the one that sees everyone as the same. He is a huge loss to all of us but also a huge reminder of how we can all sometimes fall short of these standards.

Dorothee Loziak, Research Project Manager at Queen Mary

Peter recruited me in early 2008 to work as a project manager on a large European project he was coordinating. I still remember the job interview and the feeling when I left the room that these would be nice people to work with. And then started nearly 10 years of close collaboration, on a first and then second European project and a few calls for proposals…

I learnt so much working with Peter. We would very much work as a team, exchanging daily a few emails and meeting up every week. He was such a busy man and yet he would answer questions and emails very quickly, allowing me to get on with the work. It was clear that he was a workaholic but in positive way, because of the passion he had for science and the care he put into the projects he was responsible for.

I liked his non conflictual managerial approach and in European projects, made of diverse cultures and personalities, his coordinating style helped keep the teams together, ease tensions and ultimately achieve great results and impact. I remember sitting with him while he was writing an email to a difficult partner and the absolute tact he was deploying. Being French, I would have used at that point a more direct and frontal approach, but Peter excelled at British diplomacy, telling in a very polite yet effective way what he expected!

Looking back on all these years working together, I feel grateful and lucky to have worked with someone truly special. Peter allowed me to grow and gain strong experience of managing international consortia and I owe him for that.

The last trip we did together was in Leiden in The Netherlands where our project held a congress for about 150 science teachers, coming from all over Europe. The congress was a huge success with wonderful examples of how to teach science using mysteries.  This was the concretisation of Peter’s vision for science education and the impact he had on people is huge.

Richard Garriott De Cayeux

It has been an honour to call Professor Peter McOwan my friend. He enriched my life whenever our paths crossed, and I watched him enrich the lives of so many others along the way. Peter was simultaneously enormously knowledgeable and had a contagious enthusiasm for the subjects of science, maths and magic that we shared a passion for. He welcomed me into the Queen Mary family, which I will treasure throughout my life.

Professor Ursula Martin, University of Edinburgh/University of Oxford

I first met Peter McOwan when I joined Queen Mary in 2003.  I loved his “sodarace", where users created online lifelike virtual racers out of masses and springs to race over terrains. That was just one of many creative ideas he developed over the years, building on an incredible range of interests and expertise: computer science, magic, punk, robots, psychology and education. He didn’t just talk about public engagement, he did it with a hands-on enthusiasm and passion, whether at the Royal Society or a primary school and had a unique ability to motivate and encourage others to do the same.  He was a real pioneer, long before public engagement became fashionable, measured and rewarded.  It was a real pleasure to see his unique combination of leadership and enthusiasm become increasingly recognised at Queen Mary and more widely, working with the  British Association, the Research Councils, teachers' organisations  and a host of other bodies in shaping national strategy. Although many people, including me, tried to tempt him away from Queen Mary, he always said that running the Centre for Public Engagement was his dream job, and it is thanks to Peter that Queen Mary is recognised as such a leader in the field today.

I left Queen Mary, but we continued to collaborate, and I’m so sad to be taking forward our latest project, schools activities based on the work of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, without him.  I’ll cherish the memory of his kindness, creativity and commitment, and hope to follow his example and inspire others in the way he inspired me.

Dr Tina Chowdhury, Institute of Bioengineering at Queen Mary University of London

I approached Peter during a difficult time when I realised there were only five female academics working in the Department of Engineering and the majority of our academic and student population were men. Peter encouraged me to think differently and that social class diversity, ethnicity and gender did not matter. Peter’s vision taught me how to “Think Big, Then Think Bigger” and with this know-how, we worked together on a plethora of student engagement projects to boost confidence and inspire young people from all walks of life.

Peter’s thinking was always authentic, stimulating and exciting. He fuelled a sense of energy that stirred my head to the point that it never mattered what time we spoke. I loved the fact that Peter would end an email with a Mr Smiley and that our conversations always provoked another rollercoaster of ideas that were both cool and challenging at the same time. The world of digital computer technology and STEAMM collided and we created a novel trend in educating students from multiple disciplines and backgrounds. Peter made me think I could be a software engineer even though I was (and still am) a biologist.

I now realise that Peter’s legacy will continue for at least another 70 years. When Peter met my daughters at the 2016 Queen Mary Festival of Communities, my daughter, who was six at the time, watched Peter’s Maths show and said “How did Peter trick me? Is he magic? ”

The impact of our work has hit thousands of young people all around the world, helping to change mindsets and build communities from different disciplines, cultures, social class and gender diversity. I am proud to continue to drive Peter’s legacy with our communities of young people by mixing the best in STEAMM with healthcare technology. Peter played a big part in my life, both at work and at home. Whilst the children and I will miss him, I know that Peter will smile and cheer us on.

Eulogy for Peter McOwan delivered by President and Principal of Queen Mary University of London, Professor Colin Bailey

"For those of you who do not know me, my name is Colin Bailey, and I am President and Principal of Queen Mary University, where Peter spent much of his professional life, and a place where his legacy will live on.

It is difficult to do someone like Peter justice, with his rare breadth of achievements and skills, and it is a great honour to be here today, sharing memories of Peter with his closest family, friends and colleagues.

Peter made a profound contribution to Queen Mary. In some ways, one can think about Peter as having had two successful careers: firstly as an internationally renowned scholar of Computer Science – a scientist operating very close to the top of their profession, who attracted of millions of pounds of research funding.

Secondly, as an innovative and creative communicator, with a particular flair for engaging with children and young people, who spent hundreds of hours in classrooms up and down the country working directly with children and young people.

Indeed, it is this second area of work that Peter became best known for, and where his impact will be felt forever at Queen Mary.

The sector is slowly waking up to the idea that communicating our work to children, and society at large, brings substantial benefits to universities, and is actually part of our contract with society as publically funded bodies. Peter realised this decades ago, and it is not an exaggeration to say that he – personally – has had a profound impact on the way that scientists, and indeed academics, seek to engage with the public.

Engaging with the public is something which ran all the way through his work. His use of magic as an inspiration to explain and provoke thought about computer science and maths is widely cited as a textbook example of public engagement – reducing incredibly complex mathematical phenomena into exciting, accessible, and explainable concepts.

As well as establishing some textbook examples, as a member of the government working group which developed the guidelines for ‘impact’ for the most recent national research assessment exercise, it could be said that Peter actually wrote the textbook. Peter was critical in expanding the traditional way impact is viewed, to include engagement with the public, embedding the work he pioneered in the fabric of UK research.

He built up his reputation with decades of hard work. Peter was selected for the prestigious Royal Society Summer Exhibitions on four separate occasions – showcasing his Outreach work. He was a founding member of the Computing at School Group, which has campaigned successfully for changes to the ICT curriculum – highlighting the damaging effect that our previously mundane national curriculum was having on the future of a discipline he cared passionately about.

He was joint holder of the joint-largest ever public engagement grant from one of the UK’s major research councils, which funded the creation of the ‘computer science for fun’ website, supported by Google and Microsoft, visited by more than 15m people from across the globe annually. His work on the first artificial intelligence-created magic tricks and resulting smartphone apps received international media coverage.

He has worked with a number of television programmes, including Richard Hammonds Miracles of Nature on BBC One, and recently worked with the UK Space Agency to develop resources for schools based on Tim Peak’s recent voyage highlighting how central the use of maths is to space exploration.

In 2011 he received the prestigious Institution of Engineering and Technology Mountbatten Medal for communicating computer science to diverse audiences.

His outstanding pedigree, and reputation as a scholar, meant that when Queen Mary was seeking to make a step-change in its public engagement activity, Peter was the obvious choice for this role, and he became Queen Mary’s first Vice-Principal for Public Engagement in 2013.

As a full member of The Queen Mary senior executive team, Peter has had nothing short of a transformational impact on Public Engagement at the University, tapping into something which is embedded in our DNA, and allowing it to flourish in the 21st century.

As with much of Peter’s work, his incredible personal drive and energy was not devoted to personal accolades or grand-standing, but putting in place structures and people to ensure that his work endured in a sustainable way, creating lasting impact that lives on today.

As Vice-Principal, Peter created and supported the Centre for Public Engagement, and was constantly pushing us to be bigger, bolder, and more ambitious in the way we engaged with our local community, and society at large.  Peter’s inspirational leadership led to Queen Mary achieving the distinction of becoming the first UK University to achieve an Engage Watermark Gold Award – the equivalent of a royal charter mark – for our work in public engagement, and we hope to honour Peter’s legacy by becoming the first university to achieve the newly created platinum award in due course.

Peter’s legacy also lives on through the Festival of Communities – a celebration of everything that makes East London special, with hundreds of free activities laid on and enjoyed by thousands of members of our local community.  This embeds Queen Mary in our local area, and spawns dozens of links with local community groups and organisations, creating impact and energising the entire community. 

More than anything, however, aside from his lasting contribution to the University, what Peter will be remembered for is his generosity of spirit, his enthusiasm, his humour, and his warm and gentle nature.

Amidst the dozens of messages that have come through, there has been a groundswell of affection, and an outpouring of sadness at the loss of someone who brought so much to Queen Mary.

Colleagues who worked with Peter each have their favourite story of Peter. Such as the time Peter livening up a team meeting of the Centre for Public Engagement by wearing a different hat every 20 minutes – starting with a deerstalker and ending with a Fez. Or the time that a senior colleague jokingly confided in Peter their disappointment about missing out on recognition at Queen Mary’s Engagement and Enterprise Awards, to which in reply Peter produced a lump of blue-tac from his pocket, fashioned a quick miniature trophy, and awarded it there and then to the individual.

Not many colleagues know that amidst the science textbooks in Peter’s cluttered office there also contained entire drawerfulls of Lego, which Peter used to explain his science, and an entire cupboard full of hats.

These stories are what made Peter so treasured at Queen Mary, and what makes him irreplaceable. The fact that his team has travelled here from London is testament to the esteem in which he was held.

His loss has been a great shock to everyone who knew him at Queen Mary. It is a measure of the man that in the last few months, with his health declining, his priority has been his team, and the University at large, continuing to advocate for Public Engagement and Queen Mary, even with his own struggles to overcome.

It is no exaggeration to say that we will never see the like of Peter again. He was such a special individual, and he will be greatly missed by all of us."