#NotJustALabCoat — An interview with Jon Noble

Posted in: Community, Interviews

Jon Noble is a first-year PhD student at the CSCT who works trying to replace fossil fuels in the production of energy. Often referred to as 'the dad' of Cohort '18, Jon's life experience is his very own weapon - he uses it to persevere in his research and keep his wonder for research as a guiding arrow, but also to mess about and have the best possible time with his colleagues. 

Amateur actor, endurance runner and handyman of sorts, Jon tells us more about his current research, a past life working at BP, his acting career and the odd (safe!) lab prank.

You worked as a process engineer at BP for a number of years. Can you tell us what made you come back to studying a PhD, and why you chose the CSCT to do it?

(The views contained below are mine, and do not necessarily reflect those of BP or the CSCT).

Quite frankly, I’m a geek – I like taking stuff apart, seeing how it works and putting it back together again. I’d been considering a PhD right from when I first graduated fifteen years ago, and each time I changed jobs, I found my mind wandering back to it. When you first start out in life, it’s easy to become focussed on getting a job and paying the bills. This time around, I decided that the time was right for me to do something for myself and to give something back.

When I joined BP, they had a significant commitment to renewable energy and developing sustainable chemical conversions technology. Then, in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig tragedy occurred, killing or injuring 28 people and spilling millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The clean-up operation was monumental and, in many cases, showed BP’s people working at their best; in the years that followed, BP spent around $85 billion to contain and clean up the Gulf of Mexico, but it was a response to an incident that should never have happened.

With a third of the value of the company wiped out, they chose to focus on their core business of oil and gas, and I became increasing uncomfortable with the pricking voice of my environmental conscience. So, I did what all good engineers do and started looking at the numbers. How hot can the world afford to get? How much atmospheric carbon dioxide would this take? Is there enough oil and gas for this to happen? The simple answer to all of this is that “business-as-usual” or even “let’s give it some effort” is not enough to prevent the effects of climate change from radically altering the world across the course of my lifetime. Time to become part of the solution. With its focus on renewable chemistry, manufacturing and processes, a PhD at the CSCT seemed like the perfect place for me to pursue this.

Can you give us more details about your PhD project?

Chemical reactors transform raw materials into the things that enrich our daily lives, from clothes to toothbrushes, cars to smartphones. The chemical conversion process accounts for a huge amount of global energy consumption, over 18 exajoules a year. To put this in perspective, this is equivalent to a small atomic bomb going off somewhere in the world once every two minutes. The majority of this energy comes from fossil fuels, and it is clear that alternative sources of renewable energy are required in order to transition to a sustainable future and prevent the impacts of catastrophic climate change.

Across the world, we are witnessing a major transformation in renewable, low-carbon electricity generation, with the UK being a world leader in offshore wind power production. Last year, over 70% of the new global electricity capacity was from renewable sources. Despite this, the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable electricity in chemical reactors doesn’t feature in the UK and EU climate strategies for meeting their commitments under the Paris Climate Accord.

Some electrification technologies, such as microwave heating, are difficult to scale-up, are expensive and have significant safety implications. Others are not yet technologically mature enough to have an impact in the next five to ten years, and this is where my PhD comes in.

I’m looking at whether we can replace fossil fuels with renewable energy by using electromagnetic fields to heat them directly. As anyone who has used an induction cooker knows, they instantly get hot when you turn them on, and this opens up the possibility of running chemical reactors that start up and shut down very quickly, whenever the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. If we can use chemical bonds to store renewable energy rather than batteries, then this could represent a paradigm shift in how we store and transport renewable energy. Plus, I get paid to play around with high tech equipment and pick the brains of people at the forefront of their field. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

A year into your PhD, what have you found challenging so far in the journey?

My original plan for the first three months of my PhD was to develop some of the experimental work from my Masters to the point where I could publish a paper on it. For nearly two months, I troubleshot this work to try to replicate the experiment, each time getting different results. In the end, I found that a relatively minor change made to the equipment during an annual service caused a huge difference in the results of the experiment. This is one of the great things about research – although this was greatly frustrating at the time, it led to a deeper understanding of the underlying science.

Another big challenge is that whenever I try to use standard “off-the-shelf” equipment in my experiments, as soon as it gets near the induction heating coils it heats up and it either melts, smokes, or goes “pffffft” and never works again. Almost everything I need for my experiments needs to be built from scratch from carefully selected materials – which is probably one reason that this area of science is under-researched. But isn’t that half the fun? You build something, it breaks. You learn something, you build it again, but better this time. It’s quite a nice metaphor for life in general. As Mary Anne Radmacher put it: Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow.”

What do you think are the biggest advantages and disadvantages of undertaking a PhD as a mature student?

The advantages and drawbacks are, in many ways, two sides of the same coin. In industry, I could routinely justify spending tens of thousands of pounds to better understand a problem and try to fix it. I was part of a large team whose experience I could draw on and who were all working towards a common objective. And yet, a lot of my work was set by my boss or by responding to problems that arose on a day-to-day basis. When something goes wrong on an oil platform, the costs can quickly add up to millions of pounds, so there is a lot of pressure to fix things and make sure that you are focussing on preventing things going wrong in the first place. Being part of that environment allowed me to have a big impact – such as a project that I implemented which saved half a million pounds a year whilst making our operations safer and more efficient.

With the PhD, it’s the other way around. I have a very small budget but complete autonomy to follow whatever route I choose to go down. As I am part of a very small research group, I’m having to learn expertise rather than having other people who I can go to and ask for the answer. This suits me quite well, as I view my PhD as much as a personal development journey as a technology research role.

I think having some industrial experience also brings a broader perspective of how a technology can be developed all the way from the lab to an end product that enriches people’s lives. When you work in research, it’s easy to zoom right in on the details without looking at the wider context of how this piece of research fits into the bigger picture.

Finally, my wife and I have settled in the sleepy Wiltshire village of Mere, about a 45-minute commute out of the University. It’s a nice place with a great community and lots going on. At the same time, I miss some of the more social aspects of university. Dropping everything to go for a quick beer just doesn’t quite work if there’s no easy way to get back home afterwards.

The best tip / piece of advice you have received so far as a PhD student? (and why was it the best)

There are lots of great pieces of advice floating around. One of the best things that I heard came before I started the PhD. If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest that you go and read "You and your research" by Richard Hamming. It’s an excellent walk through questioning why you are doing what you are doing, the importance of hard work in success, and knowing that you have to fail to get better and succeed.

The best advice that I am still struggling to follow is to write as you go – I hold far too much in my head and really need to get it down on paper more often. It’s partly how my mind works – it likes to shoot off in new directions after shiny new ideas, but I recognise that writing things down in a structured manner can actually lead to a much better understanding of the research. I’ll be really happy if this is one of the habits that I manage to take away from our weeks in Coronavirus lockdown.

Who are your mentors, or who are you inspired by?

To me, Grace Murray Hopper is inspiring not just for the invention of the machine-independent, high level (plain-English) computer programming language, but for the fact that she succeeded as a pioneer in a male-dominated environment, and persevered despite being repeatedly told that it couldn’t be done. The vision and tenacity to persist in such an environment are really inspiring. An approach that I like to carry forward into my work is to change “can it be done?” to “how can it be done?”.

I’ve had a few people who have unofficially mentored me through my career. Over time, you start to realise that you can learn something from pretty much anyone. Sometimes those lessons are positives, and sometimes they are a guide as to what not to do.

It took me many years to realise it but, if you want to achieve mastery of anything, it’s a good idea to start by achieving mastery of yourself. I’m at that sort of phase in my career – the PhD is as much a journey of personal growth as it is about technical learning, which is why my training log includes courses in psychology, personal effectiveness presenting to large audiences and mentoring.

During ‘moments of darkness’, what makes you smile?

It’s a great question. Everyone has their own personal demons, and when I fall into the dark place I fall hard and tend to dwell. The thing is, life isn’t objectively good or bad – it’s the context and meaning that we impose on events that dictate whether you sink or swim. There’s a quote by Will Smith:

The question isn't ‘can you handle the situation?’. The question is ‘Can you handle your mind? Can you manage the thoughts and emotions that are trying to poison your progress?’

To an extent, the PhD brings some of the meaning and motivation in itself – I’m looking to provide one small part of the solution to a problem that will affect millions of people world-wide. Sometimes, though, it’s the moments of silliness, the acts of slight insanity, that keep you sane. Such as the time that Professor Tim Mays left an empty hydrogen cylinder in our lab at Christmas time, so we wrapped it up and sent it back to him.

How do you expect your PhD to change your professional trajectory?

I consider that my professional career so far has given me a reasonable handle on the technical engineering skills.  Part of the PhD is about stepping back and critically appraising myself, actively identify those areas where I am weak and improving on them. These include learning how to develop my emotional intelligence and how to manage myself, how to pick what to work on and what to let go, how to plan and manage the research programme, and how to connect more with those around me.

So many people at university seem to be focussed on learning the technical skills only, but the CSCT and the University have so much more to offer in terms of wider learning and opportunities.

What are the best moments of your PhD/MRes so far?

A great way that I find to motivate myself is to consider my PhD for what it is – it’s about expanding the boundaries of human knowledge, which means first understanding where those limits are, and then doing something completely new. It takes some dedication, hammering away on the anvil of science day in, day out. But, as far as I am aware, I am the only person in human history that has performed ethanol to ethylene conversion over a zeolite in an induction-heated flow reactor. To do something that no-one has ever done before – that’s pretty awesome.

You are involved in several public engagement activities with the CSCT. What do you feel is the most important contribution made by PE, and what do you enjoy most about it?

The great thing about public engagement is how broad it is. Seeing the look on children’s faces when they get that “wow” moment from a well-developed public engagement activity is great – you know that moment will stick with them and inspire them to look at the world in a slightly more curious manner.

At the same time, having a good debate with a member of the public is also brilliant – I love how well-informed and engaged people are on the subject of sustainability and, contrary to what most people think, I’m really happy to be proven wrong and learn from people who know more than I do.

As part of my public engagement work, I delivered an hour-long talk to the people of Radstock, which was a great opportunity to make science more relatable to people with a few jokes along the way. I love the moment when people laugh and then you can see the changes on their faces as they suddenly think ‘huh, I’d never thought of it that way’.

One thing that I’d really like to try my hand at is Science Improv. Being spontaneous isn’t something that comes naturally to me, and I’d like to develop that in a one-to-one setting where you get immediate feedback.

Can you tell us more about ‘A Mere Christmas Carol’?

I’ve been involved in the local Mere Amateur Dramatics group for the last few years. It started as a bit of a challenge to see if I could actually do it – I approached them to see if they had a small part and they threw me in at the deep end. It’s been a great opportunity to get better at mastering nerves and public speaking, and it’s really rewarding once the curtain comes down and you know that the audience has enjoyed the show. I often get dirty looks from the director because I muck around too much in rehearsals, but it’s part of what makes it fun, and you know that the other actors have your back once you’re on stage.

I like to try and find the humour in things and, as my acting career went on, I started adding jokes into the scripts that we were rehearsing and writing sketches for a variety show that we put on. When the opportunity to co-write an adaptation of A Christmas Carol came along, I jumped at the opportunity. A parody is the easiest thing to write, as everyone is already familiar with the characters, so you can jump straight into the plot. Being intimately familiar with the script, it made sense to then co-direct it, which was a learning experience in itself. There were plenty of things that could have been better, and it’s definitely a lot to take on as I was writing, co-directing and acting in the same performance.

I have so many new ideas, so maybe next time it will be a completely original plot (a comedy, of course). Until then, you can read the review for A Mere Christmas Carol here.

What fuels all the endurance running you do?

I first started running to lose weight and set myself a challenge to complete a marathon before my 30th birthday, and it’s all taken off from there.

Having a race to train for helps get me off the sofa when it’s windy and wet outside, and I love the atmosphere during a race day event. At the end of the day, you’re only racing against yourself, and for me it’s about running further or faster each time I do it – last year I ticked off the Olympic triathlon and my first ultramarathon.

My favourite endurance event is the Endure24 event. It’s a team relay race around a forest near reading, with the aim to complete as many five-mile laps as possible in 24 hours. Trail running in the dark at 3am is really serene, and there’s something about being able to motivate yourself to keep going and complete another five-mile lap when you’ve already run 25 miles and have had no more than three hours of sleep. It becomes part of your identity, something that you can draw on in times of need. It also made me realise that you can get better at most things in life with training and focus. If you can run one mile, you can train for five, until it becomes second nature. There was a time that running more than half a mile would get me out of breath. Now, I don’t think twice about taking a nice ten-mile run from my house, through the Wiltshire countryside and up to the Stourhead National Trust property. Sometimes I get into the zone, relax into a rhythm, and it feels like I could run forever.

Any other things you enjoy doing when you’re not PhDing?

I like tinkering with things and have developed a reputation amongst my neighbours as someone to come to when things are broken. I’ve fixed microwaves, dishwashers, washing machines, chainsaws, etc. This Dilbert video could easily have been written about me.

I think a lot of my skills with making and fixing electrical and mechanical things come in handy in my PhD, where I have to build new instruments and experimental set-ups. I got a 3d printer for Christmas and have been heavily modifying it; it now runs at twice the speed, is whisper quiet and prints plastics at temperatures much hotter than it was originally designed for. My next project is to make a filament extruder so that I can recycle the household plastic that we use into something more useful, like a hydroponic vegetable garden.

Fun facts about you?

When I was 17, I won a bet by memorising pi to forty decimal places. I can still remember it, 20 years later. I think the prize was a Twix.

I’ve managed to break three beds in my life (don’t ask…) so I decided to build a double bed from scratch; the headboard made from stair banisters, stained with Danish oil and finished with beeswax coating. It’s lasted 15 years and counting, and I still have a small scar on my hand, which I acquired while building the bed by slipping with a chisel. I ended up in Hull Royal Infirmary.

I don’t encourage binge drinking, but I can drink a pint of beer in under three seconds. If you don’t believe me, feel free to challenge me on it. If I win, you’re paying.

I’m a big fan of Stoicism as a practical philosophy for guiding your daily life. When faced with something negative outside of our previous experiences, a natural response is to respond with anxiety or fear. But people are so much more adaptable and resilient than they realise. I’ve found that one way to build mental strength is to practice voluntary hardship. Having gone three days without food, I’m no longer fearful of missing the odd meal or even being in a situation where I wouldn’t be able to eat for a week. And there’s something about the mental transformation that happens when you step into a cold shower – starting with “holy monkeys! That’s freezing” and then a gradual adaption such that by the end of it, it's just cold water and feels completely natural. A degree of mental calmness that makes you realise that it’s your fear of the cold water that makes it unpleasant, not the cold water itself.

Through a bizarre set of circumstances, I once found myself drinking whiskey at the home of a BBC Scotland producer on the Isle of Lewis at 3am. Over the years, I’ve started to develop a sixth sense about these sorts of experiences – life’s a lot more fun if you push yourself out of your comfort zone and take the road less travelled. Sometimes you find yourself in a completely mad situation and, rather than avoid it, I’ve learnt that it’s so much more fun to embrace it wholeheartedly.

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