Principal's Update November 2014

Principal's Update November 2014

The latest update for the University community from Professor Sir Ian Diamond.


Opportunities to remember

I would like to begin on a rather sombre note. Today, Tuesday 11 November is of course Armistice Day.  As a mark of respect, I would like to extend an invitation to all members of our University community to participate in this act of remembrance for the many Aberdeen students, staff and alumni who lost their lives fighting for their country, by observing the two minute silence at 11am.

Our annual Remembrance commemorations have certainly had a special significance this year, with 2014 marking the centenary of the start of the First World War. Throughout the year colleagues have organised a variety of events and opportunities to find out more about the involvement of Aberdeen staff and students in the Great War and details are available here.  

Particularly poignant was The Death of Innocence last Friday at Suttie Centre, with Professor Steve Heys and Mr Tom Scotland hosting a moving evening of poetry and storytelling of innocent young men from across Great Britain who went to serve, and very often met with terrible fates. Our annual Remembrance service this Sunday past was a powerful reminder of the qualities of our student cadets today, and of the many before them who fell in armed conflict throughout the last century. I’m sure I was not alone in finding this a very moving Remembrance.  

Strategy, investment and engagement

I want to thank all colleagues who have contributed so far to development of our next Strategic Plan. We have had some excellent discussion in workshops and open meetings, and it is good to see colleagues engaging with enthusiasm and great ideas. There are further opportunities to input, and I stress that this is a wonderful chance for every member of the University family to help shape our priorities and objectives over the next five years. You can find the background documents here and you can email your comments and suggestions to

One important group in terms of engagement is that of our MSP, MP and MEP representatives (including several alumni), and I am looking forward to our regular biannual meeting later this month to share our thoughts with them, and discuss issues of mutual interest.

Underpinning our ambition must be the world-class facilities to deliver teaching, research and student experience of a quality which will mark us out as a top 200 university.  Next month we will begin a wider consultation with our local communities and relevant stakeholders on our ambitious long-term programme of development of campus infrastructure. 

Postgraduate Open Day 2014

Postgraduate Open Day on 1November attracted around 150 potential postgraduate taught and research students to campus, from all over the UK and as far afield as Germany. Professor Margaret Ross welcomed everyone and chaired an informative student panel. In addition to the academic fair, visitors attended information sessions on student funding, geosciences and the PGDE route. SRAS would be unable to deliver such high quality days without the help and support of colleagues throughout the University, and our external partners, and I want to thank everyone involved.

This comes on the back of our PGT numbers being up this year: Home PGT numbers have increased in all Colleges by an average of 18%, RUK PGT numbers are up 26%, and International PGT students have grown overall by 11%. Growing our postgraduate community is crucial to the success of the University, both academically and financially. It is, however, an increasingly competitive market and it is absolutely crucial that across the University we are doing all that we can to raise Aberdeen’s profile and to make our offering as attractive to potential students as it possibly can be.

Time with the family

Among industry events one of the most important for us is undoubtedly the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) Annual Technical Conference & Exhibition which showcases new technologies, products, and best practices, whilst addressing all conventional and unconventional oil and gas resources from around the world. This year’s event in Amsterdam was only the second time in 90 years that this has been held in Europe, and we made the most of the opportunity to strengthen industry links at the event, with discussions ranging from degree enquiries to research collaborations, consultancy and teaching. I had the pleasure of hosting an excellent alumni event on the opening night, attended by around 40 alumni and guests from a range of disciplines and generations. It was particularly pleasing to see how grateful the alumni were to have been invited to an event on their doorstep. This gave me a wonderful opportunity to bring them up-to-date with the global impact the University has made and continues to make, thanks both to our research pedigree and to our alumni family spread far and wide around the globe – and making a difference.

As part of strengthening relationships with our alumni diaspora in key areas of our internationalisation strategy, New York alumni will be joining us at an exclusive event at the University Club in New York on 15 November to hear Professor Michael Keating, our Chair in Scottish Politics and Director of the Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, present on the issues that Scotland faces in the wake of the historic referendum, focusing on the argument for more powers and how this fits into constitutional reform for the UK as a whole. Michael will also discuss the intensity of the public debate and citizen engagement that the referendum evoked. In addition I will talk about the impact of Scotland’s students globally.  This will be a great opportunity to meet alumni and other members of the University’s US family - including the founding members of our New York Alumni Chapter, which will be formally launched during the evening.

Closer to home local alumni and their families gathered for another great Bonfire night on 5 November. The lucky 140 people who managed to get tickets enjoyed spectacular views of the Aberdeen fireworks from the warmth of the top floor of the Sir Duncan Rice Library. Tasty and traditional treats were much enjoyed – including sticky toffee apples and pumpkin soup – plus arts and crafts activities for the smaller (and the bigger) guests.

A memorable October

October proved a month for big questions – and a big celebration. We hosted a vibrant international conference, The Freedom of a Christian Ethicist, organised by colleagues in our School of Divinity, History & Philosophy, which brought together major theologians and intellectuals – many from leading US universities - to consider the significance of the Reformation and its legacy for contemporary ethics and politics. We also welcomed a new colleague to Aberdeen. Professor in Theological Ethics, Stanley Hauerwas, is respected worldwide for his influential and wide-ranging scholarship and acknowledged as a leading public intellectual both within and outwith the churches.

The same weekend we were proud to host senior representatives of the Scottish Churches for a day of commemoration for our Founder, Bishop Elphinstone, culminating in a traditional service of Vespers in our Chapel – with as always a wonderful contribution from our magnificent choir. I have received many warm messages and positive feedback from our alumni, friends and supporters who were able to join us for this memorable day.

The Inaugural Andrew Carnegie Lecture was extremely well attended and US Ambassador Matthew Barzun gave a wonderful lecture and took a wide range of questions.  Ambassador Barzun returned to campus the following day to hear about the achievements of Aberdeen computing scientists in developing commercial applications of Natural Language Generation though our data2text spinout (now part of Arria NLG). Meanwhile the University’s Irish links were re-energised by a visit from Pat Bourne, Irish Consul General to Scotland. We were delighted to welcome Mr Bourne who also met with colleagues at the Research Institute of Irish & Scottish Studies and the Sir Duncan Rice Library.

Students triumph on world stage

The last fortnight has seen some fantastic triumphs for Aberdeen students on the international stage. The details are available in the news stories on our website, and I want to add my own congratulations to all involved.

Our student team who used synthetic biology to develop a new diagnostic test to diagnosis African Sleeping Sickness secured two trophies and a gold medal at the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition in Boston - one of the world's leading science competitions. The six undergraduates won best team in the 'Health and Medicine’ track, and were awarded the 'Best synthetic biology measurement approach’. This is a major coup for Aberdeen - the iGEM competition brings almost all the best universities in the world together to compete, including Yale, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, Heidelberg, ETH Zurich to name but a few. To have brought home two trophies from the competition is an outstanding achievement.

Our team of undergraduate Real Estate students also came home from the US with prizes in a prestigious international competition in New York. The Aberdeen students took on rivals from four continents in the prestigious international Real Estate competition hosted by Ivy League university, Cornell, New York. The competition featured a record field,with student teams from 17 universities competing for a share of over $22,000 in prize money. Our team did brilliantly – finishing in 4th position.

Meanwhile Enitome Buluku, an MSc Oil and Gas Engineering student, beat off tough competition from students from around Scotland to be named as SPE 2014 Energy Apprentice, selected by a panel of expert judges from Halliburton, the Oil & Gas Innovation Centre, Baker Hughes and Thor Holt Limited, an oil and gas presentation training company.

Fabrics for the future

I want to mention the achievements of a number of colleagues this month: Brian Paterson of our Department of Chemistry and Business Improvement Team has been named ‘Technician of the Year’ by the Royal Society of Chemistry. This is a terrific acknowledgement of the quality and importance of our technical colleagues and I am delighted for Brian.

Also in Chemistry, Professor Fred Glasser has been selected to receive the inaugural ‘Instituto de Ciencias de la Construccion Eduardo Torroja for “your superb record of internationally recognised achievements as a scientist, teacher and a driving force for innovation in the field of construction”.

In connection with Professor Glasser’s research I want to mention our involvement in the 1st Arab Forum on Sustainable Communities and Green Building (AFSCGB ’14), which will be held early December in Cairo, and that Fred’s colleague Dr Mohammed Imbabi will be speaking about the truly world-leading work being done by our multidisciplinary team here at Aberdeen in developing sustainable building methods and materials for the future.

In a related vein, geosciences has a long and strong history in the University and we are always delighted when this is recognised at national level. The Geological Society of London marked the start of  Earth Science Week by naming its top 100 geological sites in the UK and Ireland – a list compiled with the help of our colleague Rob Butler who chairs the society's Geoconservation Committee. Two local landmarks made it onto the top 100 – the Buchan type metamorphism near Portsoy, and Clashach cove on the Moray coast. Both of these areas are studied by our geoscientists and their students. Such remarkable geology on our doorstep is yet another reason to study and research geology at Aberdeen.

Aberdeen Institute of Energy

I am keen to keep colleagues updated with the development of the Aberdeen Institute of Energy. The Institute has successfully applied for EU funding under a European Aid call “to support Capacity Building in Higher Education Institutions in Tanzania in Development of the Oil & Gas Sector”. Working with colleagues from across the University, including Education, Economics, Law, Engineering and Geology, the three-year programme will support Tanzania to develop the skilled workforce it needs to support new discoveries, including HR capacity building through long and short term training and staff exchange, and research and knowledge exchange. There is also support to develop facilities, and to establish and maintain links, collaborations and business partnerships with the oil and gas industry in Tanzania. The project will include a course in Sustainable International Development and a situational analysis to enable recommendations for curricula and pedagogical reform to promote engagement with STEM subjects. The value of the application is €1.89m and we expect formal confirmation of the grant and contractual matters to be put in train at the end of November.

The University welcomed the Mexican Ambassador, Diego Gomez Pickering, at the end of October. The Ambassador was interested to learn about our suite of postgraduate energy degrees and review our current research collaborations with the Mexican state, its universities and private companies. In turn he was keen to share information on developments in reforming Mexico’s energy legislative infrastructure, thereby opening the country for greater collaboration and enabling private companies to participate in oil and gas exploration and production.  We have agreed to work together to host a seminar in the New Year to publicise the reforms to industry prior to the first open licensing round, which will help Mexico to maximise the benefits from the reforms.

Getting a feel for university

Articulation from further to higher education is a growing route for many ambitious students. Later this month I will sign an updated Articulation Agreement with the Principal of the newly-formed North East Scotland College. Students at the College who are interested in going on to university are invited to visit campus for a day, meet with academics and students in their area of interest, have campus tours and register as Associate students. Last week 30 students who are currently studying for an HND in Applied Science enjoyed a programme of activities in the IMS building. Other days are being planned through November and into December for Computing, Social Science, Engineering and Music students.

Development Trust: recent successes

Colleagues will be aware that the University of Aberdeen Development Trust raises funds from individuals, companies and trusts and foundations for the benefit of all Colleges and our growing student body.  Extremely generous donations are received from around the world and thanks to this support, the Trust has recently been able to provide a wide range of scholarships for each College.  They have also funded the University’s Alzheimer’s research, the School of Divinity, History & Philosophy’s ‘Buildings of Scotland’ project and our involvement, through the Library, with the Capturing the Energy Programme.  Student who excel in a variety of sports have also benefitted with £12,500 being given towards the Sports Bursary Scheme which enables talented students to reach their full potential nationally and internationally.

Events also play an important role in the Development Trust’s donor engagement activities.  In addition to those mentioned earlier, a Private Client CPD evening in partnership with the School of Law was held at the Sir Duncan Rice Library. Chief Executive of the Law Society, Lorna Jack, gave an engaging talk at an event well attended by local law professionals and staff and was aimed at encouraging gifts in wills to the University.  Over the centuries, gifts in wills have greatly helped the University to become the hugely successful, internationally-recognised institution that it is today and we have a dedicated programme in place to ensure that this continues for the benefit of generations to come.

Events in November

Last week saw the University participating in a Scottish Parliament policy event around the theme of Wellbeing in Scotland. Coordinated by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute, the Aberdeen-led ‘Pathways to Wellbeing’ project was led by Professor Claire Wallace and our Public Engagement with Research Unit, alongside Public Affairs, Researcher Development and a multi-disciplinary team of academic colleagues. I am delighted to be personally taking Aberdeen’s input further by chairing a meeting at the University next February examining the development of Scotland’s National Performance Framework.

I am also delighted that the University is now a regional UK hub for the annual Festival of Social Science supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, and with a wide range of events running early November. We are also hosting a diverse programme for the inaugural Being Human Festival supported in part by the British Academy and Arts and Humanities Research Council and running from 15-23 November. These festivals highlight the important work led by our colleagues based in arts, humanities and social science disciplines and I encourage everyone to take a look at the events taking place, and others in our wide-ranging event programme over the coming weeks.

Ian Diamond

Principal and Vice-Chancellor


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