An Interview with Dr. Bruce Sinclair

Transcript of highlights: Insight Ep. 2

We talk to Dr Bruce Sinclair, one of the faces that welcomes new students to the university in his role as Director of Teaching. We take a look at Dr Sinclair’s achievements, he gives a shot at explaining what he would take to a desert island, and Dr Sinclair describes what it is that makes St Andrews so special.

Sam: Could you tell us about your positions here in St Andrews?

Bruce: I came to St Andrews as a student a very long time ago, back in 1979. I had the distinction of being the 1st year class rep, back all those years ago. I got my degree here. I got enthused by Physics, got enthused by some of the teaching staff here at the time. Then I did a PhD here with Dr Malcolm Dunn. From there I went to postdoc with Malcolm and Wilson, temporary lectureship, lectureship, Senior Lectureship Reader, and for the last while, I am absolutely pleased to be the Director of Teaching in the School. I’ve been here for a while. *laughs*

Sam: Is there something you are particularly proud that you have done in your life, like a hike, an adventure, something maybe a bit outlandish?

Bruce: I can try and join a couple of those together. I’m going to comment briefly on two hikes that were never intended to be so. A number of years ago, having been to a research conference in California, a small group of us went to Yosemite and decided to hike up a side of a valley. We just kept walking. We ended up walking up this thing and looking back to the valley, which was absolutely incredible. We had enough water with us, but frankly, we didn’t have as many resources as we should have had. We got back to the car, rather hungry by the end of the day, and we drove to a Diners just outside the park. And this waiter at the service desk said: “Gee guys, I bet you got a story to tell!” just by how we looked. But it had been an absolutely fantastic day, albeit an unexpected one. I join that with a slightly different story of when I was with my family in north-west Finland, at the corner of three countries. We’d done a shorter walk earlier in the day, as with my older son who was, I guess, an early teenager at the time. We again started a short walk in a nature trail, and he and I just kept going to the top of…Saana I think it was called? Which is, you know, a respectable hike. We saw the midnight sun (or the midnight light at least) at the top of this thing, walked back down and just collapsed into the cabin at two o’clock in the morning having had a really satisfying day walking.

Sam: A question that was popular amongst the students was: What are the three things that you would take to a desert island? Popular with every interview.

Bruce: Three things, right…Well I think the first has to be the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Probably some modern equivalent of this in terms of a smart phone and a satellite connection. Is that permitted?

Sam: Oh, I don’t know.. I mean…

Bruce: Or is that two things?

Sam: Well I think the smartphone connection is going to be patchy and bad…

Bruce: What about satellite connection?

Sam: I’ve been told I was too lenient last time, so… no.

Bruce: No, right. And… I was thinking about this… I can’t really take my wife as a thing, can I? That would be a bit rude calling her a thing…

Sam: Yeah I think so… You can invite her along, but…

…(Bruce is denied an escape mechanism and assured that there are plenty of bananas and coconuts on that island)…

Sam: So what would you take? Maybe a favourite food?

Bruce: Some good chillies then. And am I allowed an occasional glass of cider? And there has to be some music as well, I think.

Sam: What was one of the concepts that you struggled with as a student?

Bruce: A story that quite a number of students already know about, because it’s an example I use, is 2nd year Linear Algebra. I was doing ok with it, but there was one particular week when I had been working for a long time on tutorial problems and I was getting absolutely nowhere, or at least that’s how I felt. My tutor in Mathematics at that time was a person who I was a bit nervous of. For no particularly good reason, but I was a second-year student! Something in this linear algebra just wasn’t going right. I got on my bicycle, cycled from my halls of residence to the basement of the Maths building, knocked on the door of this person who I was nervous about. After ten minutes of talking with me, she found exactly where the miscomprehension was. It turned out that this person, who I’d thought of as being a tad dragon-like, I was an absolute fan of. She was really professional while helping to find where the issue was. She took me from a bit of mathematics where I had reached the stopping point and helped me to find a way around a stopping point. I frequently use this story – I’m sorry- with students that talk to me about their difficulties as an example where I hit a brick wall, contacted a member of staff and they helped me to find the door through it.

Sam: During your time here, could you maybe describe what changed – either in Physics at large, or here in St Andrews, or the University?

Bruce: What has changed… Well, I can say that some things stayed the same. I know that it’s not the question you asked, but some things stayed the same and one of them is that we have a great bunch of students here, and we have a community that’s here, and I think that’s really important. Another thing that is important is that we still have students who are not afraid to be different.

That was the case when I was a student here, and I understand that it’s ok to be who you want to be, rather than who the crowd wants you to be, today. In terms of what has changed, the biggest change is that there are way more people here now than when I was a student. There’s also, very positively, a much larger research programme in the school. It’s really nice to see the school develop and be recognised in its research and its teaching even more highly than it was when I was a student. … Clearly, there’s ups and downs over the years, depending on how research funding does or doesn’t flow into the building, or what’s happening around us. The world can be a strange place sometimes, but I think there’s a lot that we can be thankful for.

Sam: To finish off our interview, could you tell us one thing that you find the most special about St Andrews? We’ve already touched upon this, the community, but St Andrews, the university, the town… We’d love to hear what you think.

Bruce: I’m going to come back to the community. Because what makes my job so pleasant is the community I work in. It’s a community of my colleagues, it’s a community with the students in the town, it’s a community with the town’s people. And there are lots of overlaps amongst those. Something that I really value is this wide-spread recognition of each other’s worth, this wide-spread idea that people are here to support each other and to enjoy each other’s company. That crosses all sorts of potential barriers and we’re all in this together. That feeling of mutual respect, of working together, in some cases playing together, doing things together in a whole variety of situations, that is something which is very special to me.

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