The Passionate Professor

29 Mar 2023

ProfDavidParker ProfDavidParker
When Science and Arts meet: Professor David Parker, JC STEM Laboratory and Global STEM Chair Professor, shares his passion for finding beauty in science and poetry.


Following a distinguished career at Durham University in England, Professor David Parker, joined the Department of Chemistry last October as Director, JC STEM Laboratory and Global STEM Chair Professor, the most prestigious Professorship under the Global STEM Professorship Scheme, a world-renowned scientists recruitment initiative launched and supported by the HKSAR Government. A Fellow of the Royal Society of London (“FRS”) since 2002, Professor Parker was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) Tilden Lectureship and Silver Medal (2003) and the RSC Ludwig Mond Medal for Inorganic Chemistry (2011). In 2014, he was named a RISE Fellow of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (“Recognising Inspiration in Science and Engineering”).

What do you like most about HKBU? 

The People and the Ethos: the habitual character of HKBU and especially HKBU Chemistry is one of building a community of creative, supportive people who operate together, for example at the lab bench where technical and support staff work in harmony with the academic cohort. As a Chair Professor, my prime role is to educate, inform, inspire and seek new knowledge. We all need to believe in each other to get things done, to be unafraid of taking on new challenges e.g. beyond the HKSAR. We must respect the fact that we each have different gifts: the sum is much more than any individual contribution.

Can you elaborate on your current research interests and how they can drive the research and development at HKBU and Hong Kong? 

The overarching aims of our work rely upon the skills of the chemist as a molecular engineer, to find new ways to take images of the living cell or the body, using light or radiofrequency as energy sources.

Rare earth elements are used widely in society and industry in the 21st century. Even your mobile phone contains up to nine different rare earth elements, harnessing their unique magnetic and optical properties.  Over the past decade, we have been seeking to understand better the magnetic behaviour of the rare earth elements and the ramifications of the directional dependence of their magnetism.  This behaviour has important consequences not only in the design of new magnetic materials, but also in their use in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Since 1988, rare earth compounds of gadolinium have been used as “contrast agents” to assist in the clinical diagnosis of disease. Our own interest has extended to other rare earth elements and we have created several new probes, that in principle can lead to the acquisition of a scan in 30 minutes that gives local pH or temperature maps of the human body. If results turn out to be encouraging in pre-clinical studies, the imaging agents could be translated from animal to human subjects. In time, collaborative work could begin to conduct clinical trials under financial support from the University, or local charities and via collaboration from external parties in industry. This scientific work is intrinsically interdisciplinary in nature and can only succeed if we cooperate and collaborate with colleagues in HKBU, as well as with scientists in local Hong Kong Universities, and with my long-established contacts in UK and European universities and global industry.

What is the best part of your job?

The people again. It is our privilege as chemists that we can be both observers and creators of the molecular world, as we seek to understand the ‘why and how’. On that journey of discovery and creativity, we engage with and inspire talented young people around us (undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral) to explore and reveal the boundaries of science and stretch the limits of our understanding. And in due course, these people grow and become your scientific family, that expands and is enriched through time, making enduring covalent connections across the world.

What is your advice to young emerging scientists?

Dare to be wise; reach beyond your grasp and believe in yourself and your ability to make a difference. And on your journey, be patient, and when opportunities arise, take a moment to breathe in, then act; be courageous and grasp the opportunity with passion and energy.

What do you do in your spare time?

In Hong Kong, I occasionally play non-competitive squash with colleagues, dine with close friends in the marvellous myriad of international restaurants that Kowloon and Hong Kong offer (Malay/Thai/Cantonese/Japanese). I walk along the tracks and paths that lead you to the verdant hills of Kowloon, to the dramatic mountains on Lantau Island and along the delightful southern shores of Hong Kong Island. In Durham, I occasionally play golf (still break 90) and I watch sport: my great loves from a sporting youth were cricket and football, i.e. soccer, the beautiful game with the correctly shaped ball. Happily, my eldest Grandson is a very enthusiastic goalkeeper, like his brilliant Dad.

I write creatively every week, usually linking it to an enjoyment of the natural world; the beauty and joy to be found in art and music and the peace and tranquility found amongst the hills and mountains near us. I like to hike to the top to take in the view, with the world and all that lies ahead, beneath your feet.

Often, I write about rather personal feelings, encoded in a different context. The inspiration: well … that came first from loving and being loved … launching me on a journey to write a thousand poems: well over halfway now; I began writing in 2016.

OK, you might reasonably call me “The Passionate Professor” as I do enjoy writing emotional poetry. Some may wonder why I do that. Well, not all scientists wear white coats. To paraphrase William Wordsworth: “Poetry is the spontaneous outpouring of deeply held feelings, originating from emotions recollected in tranquility that are alive in your subconscious mind.”

The practice of writing a poem is the opposite of writing a scientific paper/patent (>430 articles in my CV) which is usually the rational collation of experimental scientific data, designed to probe a hypothesis with the tools of logic and reason. Writing a poem in contrast simply requires quiet meditation: clear the mind and let it flow from deep within.

There is great beauty, passion and creativity in science. I work in Chemistry, the central and most creative science; the one that connects us to the nano-world. There is deep joy and beauty expressed in a poem and also in many carefully crafted research papers. They each require focused human endeavour: a poem takes me less than an hour of quiet composition; a scientific paper may reflect more than 10 man-years of teamwork.

By the time I'm 100, I would like to have seen: my five grandchildren and their great-grandchildren grow and learn to love life; my genetic and scientific families find fulfilment and peace within themselves; the darkness of greed and narcissistic self-entitlement lifted; how solar and fusion energy rapidly solves the short-term energy crisis.


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“Eternal Blossom” by Professor Parker.