Author: Christine Richard OBE FRSA

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Monday, January 11th, 2010 at 11:35 pm
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A New Principal for a New Decade

Professor Steve Chapman was appointed Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh in September 2009. His impressive c.v. includes a NATO fellowship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chair of Biological Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh and eventually Vice Principal there for Planning Resources and Research Policy. He has published over 200 scientific papers and in 2005 was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Now, many people consider scientists to be rather boring people, even “geeks” but not this one!

I visited Professor Chapman, who prefers to be called Steve, in his workmanlike office at the university complex on the outskirts of Edinburgh at Riccarton. He has surrounded his space with family photographs as well as molecular models and there is an atmosphere which manages to be both relaxed and businesslike.

In answer to the question, “What drives you?” he immediately said, “I am enthralled by the power of education. I was the first member of my family to go to university. Where we lived in South Shields aspirations were low. But I applied myself and never wanted anything else. I also have the working class trait of being nervous of debt in my own life. I feel the same about the university.”

Although Steve spent his early years in South Shields the family later moved to Ambleside where his mother was warden of an old people’s home. “I used to help Mum with that,” he recalls.

The years he and wife, Karen spent in the United States of America as lecturers, she at Harvard and he at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were great times and important years. But this enthusiasm positively sizzles when he talks about his return to the UK.

Steve Chapman“The last four months have been fabulous. Being Principal here is like Christmas every day”.

Steve is very proud of the fact that Heriot Watt awards 50% of degrees abroad, to students in Dubai, Hong Kong, Moscow and Trinidad and Tobago. He recommends that if you are in trouble anywhere in the world, find the nearest brewery or engineering factory and the chances are there will be a Heriot Watt graduate working there able to help!

The birth of his three children he describes as the best thing to happen to his life thus far. He says, “Birth is so commonplace yet an astonishing miracle. It was a transforming period in my life and relationship with my wife.”

Steve is a deeply committed family man and the loss of both his parents touched him deeply. Christmas day 2009 was the first anniversary of the death of his mother and his father died in the 1990s. He says, “True grief only happens once in your life, adding, “Children are great levellers. Mine are very sceptical about the importance of my role and not particularly impressed. We do, though, always try to have dinner together when we can. My children, are all musical and play a variety of instruments including the clarsach, oboe, bassoon, saxophone, violin and double bass. They, and my wife are the rocks of my life.”

He is very honest about mistakes on the work front. He said when he took over the School of Chemistry at Edinburgh University it was very traditional and “I shook it up but I was not sensitive enough to the concerns of staff and my people skills lagged behind my business ones. I was harder on people than I should have been.”

He paid a very warm tribute to his previous Principal, Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh who, he says, was an invaluable guide and mentor as he progressed through the University. Becoming a Professor at the age of only 35 he rates as another of his greatest achievements in a life driven by passion and ambition.

Given the opportunity to change anything in his life so far, he returned to the topic of making changes at his previous university and is clearly determined to be empathetic across the spectrum of the human dimension of his staff and students in his new role as Principal of Heriot Watt University.

Steve’s hero is Captain James Cook, the famous voyager who never lost a single sailor to scurvy, who understood the cultures of the countries he encountered on his scientific mission looking for the ‘missing continent’. Cook was another North East man, coming from Staithes. Steve’s academic hero is Henry Gray who discovered the interface between chemistry and biology and founded CALTECH..

There clearly is not much time for this busy man to relax but he loves walking, especially in the Lake District, away from everybody and wants to keep this going. He took his son to walk St Cuthbert’s Way, a journey of some 60 miles and together they made it. His other relaxation is reading and in particular detective novels. He is also very fond of Italy.

Looking to the immediate future, Professor Chapman sees his next big challenge to guide the University through the coming difficult three to four financial years and to “come out better than we went in.”

If I were a gambler I would put money on him to succeed in doing just that.

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