Coach Class

A family affair, an extended conversation with my dad, Prof Robbie Burch OBE

October 28, 2023 Dom Burch Season 2 Episode 12
A family affair, an extended conversation with my dad, Prof Robbie Burch OBE
Coach Class
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Coach Class
A family affair, an extended conversation with my dad, Prof Robbie Burch OBE
Oct 28, 2023 Season 2 Episode 12
Dom Burch

Where do you start, when you interview your own dad. An inspirational leader and coach in his own right, albeit a university lecturer and football team coach, rather than the type I normally interview.

Lucky to survive his birth, his aunt Agnes nursed him for the first three weeks of his life, then fortunate to survive a heart attack when just 44, he is 80 tomorrow. His own father died when he was six, and as a result he lived a fairly solitary life with few friends, until he went to university in Belfast, where he met my mum (she's my next interview). 

He was awarded an OBE for services to science, and throughout a glittering career was a world-leading, actually still is a world-leading chemistry professor. A friend of the earth, he is an inventor of catalysts that take nasty things out of pesticides and petrol and diesel engines. A pioneer in the research around hydrogen and until Covid closed him down - he was exploring the role of biofuels to power large vehicles.

There's so much more I could say, but instead, why not grab a cuppa and take a listen. 


If you enjoy listening to this podcast why not check out some of the others in season 1 & 2. Or perhaps you fancy taking part yourself? If so why not get in touch. You can find me via LinkedIn or Twitter

Show Notes Transcript

Where do you start, when you interview your own dad. An inspirational leader and coach in his own right, albeit a university lecturer and football team coach, rather than the type I normally interview.

Lucky to survive his birth, his aunt Agnes nursed him for the first three weeks of his life, then fortunate to survive a heart attack when just 44, he is 80 tomorrow. His own father died when he was six, and as a result he lived a fairly solitary life with few friends, until he went to university in Belfast, where he met my mum (she's my next interview). 

He was awarded an OBE for services to science, and throughout a glittering career was a world-leading, actually still is a world-leading chemistry professor. A friend of the earth, he is an inventor of catalysts that take nasty things out of pesticides and petrol and diesel engines. A pioneer in the research around hydrogen and until Covid closed him down - he was exploring the role of biofuels to power large vehicles.

There's so much more I could say, but instead, why not grab a cuppa and take a listen. 


If you enjoy listening to this podcast why not check out some of the others in season 1 & 2. Or perhaps you fancy taking part yourself? If so why not get in touch. You can find me via LinkedIn or Twitter

Dom Burch:

Okay, we're gonna go right back to the very back welcome back to Coach Class with me Dom Burch. This is the podcast where I get to speak to inspirational leaders and coaches from across the world. And this week is a very special family affair because I am speaking to an inspirational leader. He just happens to be my dad, my father, Professor Robert Burch, OBE, or professor Robbie as he was known back it is uni days, dad, welcome to the podcast.

Robert Burch:

Thank you very much only.

Dom Burch:

Now this is slightly odd me talking to my dad on a podcast, but we're gonna go with it. We've had you on the radio before on BCB. So we know we're able to do this. Take me back to the start there. Normally when I'm interviewing people, I say So what brings you to whatever it is you do today, but let's go all the way back to the point zero, tell me your life story.

Robert Burch:

Okay, well, the first part of my life story I only know secondhand because I was only a few weeks old. But apparently, I was extremely ill and the doctors and the medics decided to really there's nothing they could do for me. It was just weird for me to die. But I had an aunt, very favourite aunt, as you can imagine, who decided that since I was her first nephew, there was no way that she was going to sit by and let nothing happen. So apparently, she nursed me, basically night and day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for about two or three weeks, till I recovered. And here I am almost 80 years later, still still going?

Dom Burch:

Hey, you are in here I am. Thank goodness. Thank goodness for Aunt Agnes. So then, you know, obviously, you ended up in chemistry. But what was your route into being inspired by science wanting to go down that route? Was that something you knew from, you know, an early age? Or was it something you stumbled into fell into? What was your route into that sort of side of academic life? I guess?

Robert Burch:

Well, I think from a really very early age, I enjoyed, you know, looking at things working out how things function trying to fix things. Even when I was small. If toys broke, my first reaction would be to see if I could stick the bits back together again, not not literally with glue, but is a bits of string and so on. And I was always interested in anything practical like that. And so even at primary school, I can remember trying to build little buggies with wheels and car really to get up and down the road on when I was probably about 789 years old. And then the other thing is that was always interesting the whole way through my life I was born about a month too late. Because it meant that when I was at primary school, they wanted to hold me back for a year to go to grammar school. And the headmaster decided it was a very small primary school, my guess he wanted to read to me that he would write to the grammar school and ask if they would be willing to make an exception and take me in a year early. So I did that when the grammar school having done the 11 Plus, really, I was sort of 10 plus 11 plus. But the important point was it just by chance, I then went into a class where the teacher Mr. Khurana was a chemistry teacher. In those days, we had separate chemistry, physics, maths teachers, and I was obviously interested in practical things interested in science, generally engineering anything of that type. On the other side, obviously, you knew interest in English language, English literature, arts at all, just purely interested in practical things. I still remember the first week after we'd settled into school, we had a chemistry practical class. And he said, Okay, you're not going to be doing anything yet. Just stand around, and I gonna show you some experiments. And he took a little piece of coal and put it in a test tube. And on the top of the tests up, put a little cord plug with a glass tube coming out of it. And he did, he did a little bit of coal with a Bunsen burner. And it was amazing. Because out of the end of that came a gas, up the side of it, of the test tube came a liquid and at the bottom was a solid and I thought this is magic. This is a magician and he said, Why are you all looking so surprised every one of you have watched this at home every single night all the way through the winter, because you just haven't observed it. And the real message he was giving was if you wanted to be any sort of scientist, the first and most important lesson you had to learn was how to see what you were looking at. Not just take something from a book that I actually see with your own eyes. And of course, while he was showing us what we'd seen at home in a in a in a coal fire

Dom Burch:

and say then You went through school you went through Grammar School? And then did you know that you always wanted to go into chemistry? Was that it then was that kind of like decide because you were interested in other things? Right? You were a good sportsman, you just play football and things as well. Was that just kind of like, fun time? Or did you ever Was there ever a point where you got to a crossroads? Oh, I could go this way or that way? No, I

Robert Burch:

think as a teenager, you always imagine what it'd be like if you could play football for Ireland or something like that. But I mean, my skill level was way, way down from that I got invited to go for trials with a local league team and stuff like that. But again, I was never going to be good enough for that. And so yeah, I mean, academic things I enjoyed I like, as I said, I love school, I really, really did like school, I didn't like the bits a bit like French, and Latin. And English Language and English literature, as I've already said, but the rest of it history and geography I loved because they were really factual things. And obviously, chemistry, physics and maths. And by pure luck, I was actually fairly good at maths. And I find a chemistry interesting, and therefore I didn't find it difficult. And the physics was fairly straightforward, because again, the maths being good at maths meant I could I could handle the physics. So I naturally just moved in the direction of the science subjects and history, geography, then there's the sort of next subjects that I was reasonably good at an English, French, it was a matter of just getting through the exam, as far as I was concerned. And I had this sort of slightly cynical attitude for teenager that if I got 40%, that's all I needed. And so I tended, in those subjects to work to get the past mark, which didn't please the teachers, but it got me through.

Dom Burch:

It sounds familiar, but in mirror image. And do you mind talking about your father, my grandfather, because he died when you were quite young? And did that have a formative impact? Well, it obviously did have some formative impact on you. But what do you think that was?

Robert Burch:

Yeah, I think it had a big impact. I mean, I mean, when I was small, I was very shy, very happy to live my own had very few friends, because I didn't need friends. And I suppose to some extent, I missed a father more than many people would have would have done who had a wide range of friends as they were growing up. He died when I was six. So I was I was pretty young at that stage. I was ready at primary school. And I think I just find find ways of coping, which were very much by internalising, and going into myself and becoming even more shy and withdrawn. And I was like, God really, right. I guess right through until I went to university, all the way through school, I had a very small group of friends, which were close friends, but but not all, and not a large group of friends. I think I was partly my personality, partly the influence and not having a father there who might have thrown me out. Because from what I know, I mean, I remember only a very little about my father. But what my aunts and so on, told me was that he was he was very much a fun loving person, very extrovert. And I guess if he'd been alive, he would have passed a lot of that on to me, and I probably would have been quite different as I was going through the teenage years.

Dom Burch:

And so there you are at Queen's University. And, you know, at that point, you must have come out yourself quite a lot, because you ended up meeting my mother at a party somewhere at some point in Belfast, from a very different part of town. Tell me a bit about what it was like in Belfast and being at uni. And what was your you know, what was student Robbie? Like, compared to the one that I guess I know, is that

Robert Burch:

okay, well, I think surely a typical student I mean, I've been away from home property for the first time, my life and my home life had been fairly restricted. My mother was very religious, no television on a Sunday. No, really, on a Sunday, absolutely. No alcohols, anything like that at all. So, while while at home until I went, went to university, one was being very careful because, again, because he was on our own and my father died, I felt a certain responsibility not to end up giving her hassle and making her stressed out and so on. So we tended to sort of accept what was expected all this and behave. When we are at home and go to university, it goes completely different. It's only mixing with people who think there's nothing wrong with actually watching television on a Sunday or having a glass of beer. And probably the first year was was very much like it was common for everybody. In those days. I shouldn't say that. In the Queen system, they had a Three Year Honours Degree and a four year honours degree. And again, Because I'd gone through this starting school, very young, going to the grammar school very young, I was actually held back a year before the lab into the university, which in itself was very fortunate, as I say in a moment. But it meant that when I, when I got to university, I was, you know, still pretty immature. And I think the first year because I went into the four year course, I mean, the first year was repeated on a level and it was too easy, and therefore very easy to get distracted, and go out and play football and go partying, and all sorts of things. And in your view, you could pass the exam without really any sweat at all. And that was really the first year. And then the second year, things settled down a bit, obviously, because knows, the academic work was much more more demanding. And the results mattered because from then on, the marks were carried forward towards the total final marks. And that was the year really, when I think I realised that university was more than just going to have fun.

Dom Burch:

And so take me then through to a party somewhere in Belfast,

Robert Burch:

I guess the beginning of my third year university, I was sharing a house by two miles of university with four other friends, all doing chemistry, the 11th of December. And the day that your mother keeps reminding me not to forget and say, anyway, in the class at Oakland, we got to have a Christmas party where it's inevitable, we want to do some before we'll break up because the next day was the last last day of term. And, as usual, being difficult five guys in high school, there were no women, and one of them had a girlfriend, and he did it stay with us. But he was we said he could come to the party, but he had to bring some girls with them. So luckily enough, his girlfriend stayed a in another flat in Belfast with another girl who worked with your mother. And I think about five, or maybe six of them all came along to see what this student party would be like, bear in mind, these were people who had not been to university or when they left school, gone straight A into employment. And and back in the in 1960s. If you didn't go to university, you generally didn't have much contact with university people. So I think it was a sort of novelty for for your mother and her girlfriends to come along and see what a proper typical university student party was like. And so they came along. And it was, initially it was exactly as you would imagine, it would be all the guys starting around drinking beer talking about football and rugby, and things like that. And the girls who'd arrived on top stand around top and do themselves. And I think everybody wondering what happens now. And then one of my friends who was staying with us guy called Jimmy said, Look this, this is ridiculous. We got to get some music on, we got to get this party going. So he put on some dance music guy and might well it'd be Glenn Miller. And then he said to me and your mother, look, you're both about the same height so you can get up and dance and get this party started. And that was it. We started the dance. And then luckily enough, I could Jive enough to keep up with your mother who's a very good dancer. And lucky enough, she didn't ask me to do any ballroom dancing, but which I have got to their feet. So we just arrived. And then we sat down to have a chat. And three hours later, we were still talking. And I had a car and I had said to her and halfway through this, we are you know, you don't have to go for the bus. I'll give you a lift home. And I saw to the car keys and she still says to this day, she thought they were keys for wardrobe or something because she couldn't believe this student would have have a car and I said they're obviously gone t I promise. And anyway, that was it. So I came back to the car home and I said look, I don't know what you're doing. But our end of term departmental chemistry party is tomorrow night in the university if you're not doing and you want to come along. And that was out there. I took her home and said cheerio of UN and I went home and that was far as I was concerned. But just the way it was you know, she was just someone good to talk to very good dancer good fun. But I wanted to go to America. And I was absolutely determined that I was not going into any commitments that would stop me going to America when I graduated a couple of years later.

Dom Burch:

So then what happened? How come America didn't happen?

Robert Burch:

Well, it's okay as long as the next thing was that are you interested in going into formal? I think you can anticipate the answer was a very, very definite yes. You know, when and what do I do? So we went to that formal and and gradually after that we would go maybe every couple of weeks, just so so really socially, because not only that I want to go to America. And I've said that a long time, but she also wanted to go to work in London. And so we kind of had a little chat and said, Look, you know, if we like each other's company and going out with a friend, and that, as long as there's no long term commitment, are you happy with that? And we say, well, that's exactly what we both want it, you know, someone to be a social partner. But in both cases, definitely not wanting any long term commitment. And that was probably the, the way we went along for the move, I don't know, at least a year.

Dom Burch:

And then there's some point, right, you get past that year. And you end up moving to Oxford. So here's the pair of you move into Oxford. And I guess at that point, I'm married. And there's another bit of information that we haven't shared, which is from different communities in Northern Ireland, which at the time, I guess, was quite a big deal. Maybe not for you, but big deal for others looking in.

Robert Burch:

Yeah, I think maybe take half a step back on it. Because right out of the blue, she suddenly we met up one day, and she said, Look, I gotta tell you some, they've transferred me to Liverpool, she worked in the tax office, and it was the Imperial Tax Office. So she had to go with the centre. And that was that was the critical point in our relationship. Because up to that point, I guess, we kept telling each other I would America, I'm going to London. And this was an opportunity for her to isolate, if you like, break away from home and start the journey on our own. But I guess without really admitting it, we got too close together. At that point, she actually resigned from the tax office. And I think that was a point of no return for both of us. And then I got the opportunity to go to Oxford. And she, by this day, she had re reapplied and gone into the tax office at a lower level, just to get back into the tax office in Belfast. and enrich her mother said by some miracle, and I went to Oxford, your mother got transferred to the Oxford tax office and her mother just couldn't believe for the grid. Fortunate moves spotless. Bear in mind, this was 1968 Your mother lived in accommodation in Oxford, and I lived separately from her and other accommodation about a mile away. And that that wasn't in our day, it was new, coming together, living together anything like that. And I put my name down for a university apartment. And they told me you have no chance of getting this until at least a year from it because they all fill up and that people come for at least a year. And then towards the end of, of 1968. I got a phone call to the department I was in from the accommodation, people saying that a family from Brazil had decided they were homesick and they were going home and their apartment had come up. And I think this is like a Thursday and I had until Monday to let them know where I wanted or not. So I saw your mother the next day and I said, Look, this apartments come up. There's no chance of anything else coming up in the next year. What do you think? Are we going to take it because if we take it, we're going to have to get married. So we talked about that and agreed basically, okay, why not? There's no way they could come back to know now and get married, as you said, one being a Catholic one being processed in 1968 69, the 30 year war had just started with absolutely no possibility of us going back to live there. So we agreed that we would get married and Oxford. And we would take this apartment which I then moved into a new mother then moved into after we got married on the into February.

Dom Burch:

Love that. So the wedding day itself snow, I can see the black and white photos. I can imagine them. But not not so many guests, but a few guests and a few who flew in which at the time was, you know, not typical, I guess flying anywhere at that time.

Robert Burch:

No one did. I mean, I think that it was a great commitment from them. My mother, my sister and my sister's husband came and your mom's mother and three sisters came and then I had a friend in the department and his wife came and then he woke him up I have the I and my friend Clifford that you know very, very well by pure chance was on a course in Birmingham, the weekend our wedding, and he agreed to be my best man. So he can turn dogs and gives the wedding and then they all flew back on immediately after the wedding. And your mother and I had gone off then to France, very exciting to go to Paris for our honeymoon. But it turns out is a typical cheapo thing, we flew from Gatwick to Le touquet, which is basically just across the channel. And then at about three hours on a train finally got to Paris just about 11 o'clock at night or something. Anyway, we got there.

Dom Burch:

So let's fast forward a bit, right? Because so that's set the scene and then you ended up graduating from with a PhD from Oxford, you ended up getting a teaching role at reading. I mean, Greg come along in quick succession and all that good stuff. As you look back then at that, sort of, because you were reading then for 25 years, or a big chunk of your career, and you you know, became a professor and you know, all the different stages in between, as you look back to those formative years, because when I interviewed Steve Smith, I remember him saying to me that what he's noticed as he looks back at his career is that you only really ever grow up at one part of your career in one organisation. And then when you move on, it's really hard to stay connected to everything that goes on at the lower levels, because you didn't grow up there. What are your reflections? As you look back at those years, you know, in reading, or were there teachers and professors in university that really sort of set you in good stead? Or taught you how to lead or, or what work life was gonna be like?

Robert Burch:

Yeah, I think I had two particular head to school, if you like, what my bosses, line managers. And the first one was a really nice person, a great Tomi at wine expert, who had absolutely no idea how to manage. And I learned a tremendous amount from him about how not to do anything involving supervising students. And the main reason was because he was totally inconsistent, you know, he would have some favourites. And they would get preferential treatment, and others would upset him somehow get nothing. And I remember going through I mean, it sounds ridiculous. Now, when you think about I went to see him if we had loads of money. In those days, it this was the same loads of money, I was given, what would in today's money be the equivalent of 5060 70,000 pounds for new equipment on my first week. I mean, nobody would get a 10th of that nowadays. So we had plenty of money in the 1970s. And I went to see him, because a lot of the work I was doing involve quite difficult calculation to see if I got an electronic calculator. And I worked out the price of that the other day that this is a hand calculator, right? Standard little simple mathematical calculator, it would no cost about 1500 times. Now you would buy one for like, five or 10 points, but that's what it would have cost in those days. Anyway, it wasn't really much in terms of the budget we had. So I went to see him and I said, Look, I really, really need this, I'm doing everything with a slide rule are long tables. And it's just taking hours to follow up the results of the experiments. And I could do this all in minutes with a calculator. And he said, No, we haven't got any money. And he kept me waiting for about three, four or five weeks. And I kept coming back and saying, look, there's any chance that we find some money or maybe we could get a smaller version or something like that, knowing full well that other people in the department had these things on their desk, and I was it boring one from guy in the office next to me, Dave, because he was one of the favourites and they had a department anyway, I eventually got one but it taught me how bad management it is when you have that sort of attitude that you know, you can say yes to somebody but not to someone else. And if if and when you do, what do you think is a favour for someone? The first thing you should be thinking about is how many others are gonna be at my door next week saying you've given somebody X? What about me? So that was a great lesson. The second head had a skill I had was the exact opposite. Absolutely fantastic. Totally straight. Totally discipline, totally fair to everybody. No favouritism at all. And very honest and very hard. Very, very tough guy. And I remember going to him to complain about the fact that there was you know, The budget was not this out. And the attorney said, Look, I gotta show you the account once. And I will never show them to you again. And you can do what you like with that information. And he took me through the accounts and demonstrated why we had to make some cutbacks before the end of the financial year, I had total 100% respect for the guy because he was prepared to do what he didn't really have to do. But he just sense that that was something that would make a difference. And it made a big difference to me, made me realise again, that that you have to make these judgement calls as a manager. Sometimes you have to be a little bit open with people. And sometimes you have to say no, and just just take it and go.

Dom Burch:

Now, I remember telling you, I remember sorry, when I was writing on word processing at the time, right? So I was about 13, or 14, and you were think you were compiling research for a book. And the title of the book was about 50 words, and they're all chemical words, and I couldn't even pronounce are for them. And this is when you are going to become a reader, I think and which is a step below becoming a professor, I think but anyway. And I remember we were just talking about work. And you must have been asking me what did I want to do, and I didn't know what I wanted to do. And you said to me, if you find a job you love, you'll never have to work another day in your life. And I remember holding on to that insight for years, like so many years after that. It was right up until you retired, officially retired when you're about 6667 or whatever. So I'd have been, you know, in my 30s Until I found out that that wasn't your quote, it was actually a Confucius quote, which shows out on you know, on read I was in the years between because I fair enough and 14 but surely by the time I got to my 30s I should have known there was somebody called Confucius. But that was true. It was just one of those truisms, what was it about that? Because when I look back, and I remember, you know, you worked really hard. And when we used to go to conferences that you were you had an office downstairs your study, and you'd be quite often working in the study, and in work hours, not nine to five hours in the other hours that weekend hours or evening hours or whatever. So work for you wasn't like work for lots of people. Was it a bit like school for you, you just really, really enjoyed doing, doing the thing?

Robert Burch:

Yes, indeed. I mean, I think that quotation really summed up how lucky I was over the whole of my career, you know, since I was 26, when I went to reading until I was 66, and the GC sort of retired, and then it had another nine years after that before I have really COVID as what retired me otherwise, I would still have been doing things because I thought I said people many, many times I didn't have a job, I had a hobby, am I good paid very well for working on my holiday all the time, because I loved I loved teaching, I liked interacting with students, I think I was reasonably good at lecturing. Except in the very first lecture I gave, was almost enough to make me resign. Because as I was walking out, two or three of the guys in front of me, definitely in a voice that I was meant to hear said, that's a worst lecture I've ever been to I didn't understand a word of that. And I weren't lucky enough. They have a very good friend of mine, the next office I mentioned earlier on, I said, Look, I'm not cut out for this. And he said lever with the lever with now I'll go. And he knew all the students because he was a real extrovert. And even after he come back a few hours later, and he says, problem solve Robbie, he says problem solved. I says what Amelie hit at my likeness, and no, they couldn't understand your accent.

Dom Burch:

It was lost in translation that was.

Robert Burch:

So I had to develop a sort of a telephone type voice for talking much more slowly and more clearly. So they could understand me. And after that, I'd say I generally got pretty good readings from the student. So I was happy to do that, because I enjoyed it. And obviously, there was no stress or pressure in the teaching part of it. And again, I was very lucky in the 1970s 80s, there was very little admin, you know, we didn't have all these external assessments to worry about and grading and all that sort of nonsense. And so the admin load was very light. And again, we had plenty in those days, plenty of secretaries and secretarial support. And so many, many of the routine things that a young lecturer nowadays would have to do for themselves was all done for us. And so I could focus on research. I mean, in those days, I could spend two whole days a week in the interest of time in the laboratory, do my own experiments. Given you know, a comparison, right and I lecture is that same stage of their career We'd be lucky to find time in the summer holidays to do their own research. So I had a very, you know, a very easy time really right through. And as I moved up through the system, obviously, the admin got a bit more, but you learn to deal with it. And still, you had to research in the background, which was just so stimulating. I mean, there's nothing, there's nothing can match that feeling that you might actually know something for a short period of time that nobody else in the world knows. I mean, it sounds very pompous. But it's just gonna get across to that sort of it. It's like scoring the winning goal. And a cup final is an analogy, you know, that just nothing that can ever compare with it had happened very rarely, in in a research career, most of the time, you just, you know, turning the knobs twiddling, learning a little bit, learning a little bit. But every so often you just say, Hang on, this is it? And what everybody else has been saying before, is not right. And that's a special Yes, person.

Dom Burch:

Yeah, that's amazing. I mean, I've scribbled down some notes, right, because there's things as you're talking, and of course, this is, you know, your history is my history. And so there's like, just little moments that just funny like when you were talking about showing mum the car keys for the first time and not quite believing you. And it reminded me of being at university, and I was the first kid to have a mobile phone because Matt French worked in a mobile phone shop and gave me a second. And I remember taking a phone call and the student union and having to run and hide by the toilets, because people were looking at me as if to say, why is that kid got a mobile phone? You know, just, I don't know, there's your teaching, being good at teaching and knowing it, I always wanted to be some sort of guide or teacher, I could never quite figure out why. And it was only when I stumbled into coaching really, that I realised that that was going to be my version of, of guiding others of giving people inspiring them. And interesting when he just said that about being the first person in that moment to be the first person to know something, the equivalent in my world is like coming up with that idea. And my ideas have a sort of nucular shelf life these days that, you know, I have a lot of ideas. And by the end of the day, they've halved in value, but, but actually knowing that you've come up with something, and it might be the first time anyone's thought of that, or what those two things together. I mean, it's a magical, magical experience, I don't think it's pompous or whatever at all. So that opportunity in the 70s 80s to spend so much time on research. And actually then that really paid off because the kind of research you were doing. I remember joking with you, because you know, in the 90s, when Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, and and so on, we're all campaigning. But actually, you were a friend of the earth in many ways, the things that you were designing the catalysts that you were creating, that you were inventing, were there to take nasty things out of, you know, soil from fertilisers or to change the, you know, the way that combustion engine works. So that catalytic converter actually takes out the nasty things and doesn't poison people. Talk a little bit about some of the work that you did that actually, you know, was trying to change the world for a better place, and was ahead of its time.

Robert Burch:

Well, earlier, I was very fortunate in one when I did my PhD, I was sponsored by a company called Johnson Massey, who are one of the world's leading capitalist manufacturers. Along those days, actually, the work that I was doing was looking at storing hydrogen and of course, hydrogen and the hydrogen economy has now come full circle and people are interested in using hydrogen as a fuel, especially for large vehicles, buses and fireplace near me and Ballymena. Right buses are making hydrogen powered buses they're selling all across Europe. So that's come full circle. But the benefit the point of that was that just as I started in reading, Johnson mathy moved its research laboratories out to Simon Coleman on the outskirts of reading, and not being slow to see an opportunity I call this guy called Alan Dowling had been my I could, well industrial supervisor and said, Look, you've moved out here, I'm only just starting any chance you could sponsor a student. And he said, Well, we don't really do things like that. We've only just moved here and everything's still in the cardboard boxes itself, except I look into anyway, lucky enough to come back about a week later and said, yeah, there is a scheme that we were thinking of getting involved in and we we've sponsored a student for you. And they did and that gave me a link. Again, this was still on ways to store hydrogen. Okay. But it gave me a link into Johnson Massey, and then as they gradually began to build up the research at Simon Coleman, it was clear that the direction they were Going that was likely to be more interesting and more relevant in terms of the environment was pollution control, eliminating pollutants you mentioned about soil but also from water, you know, cleaning up pesticides and water, for example. And specifically, and particularly, in my case, all the emissions from vehicles, petrol engines in the first place, and, and latterly diesel engines. And in fact, the last work I did before COVID, which was going really, really well and COVID killed, it was looking at using biogas as a fuel for being diesel trucks.

Dom Burch:

It's funny, isn't it, when you look back then, so let's go back 20 years, 30 years ago, some of the science that you're working on with the benefit of having the funding the capacity, a different system or less bureaucracy, that allowed you as an expert to spend two days a week honing your craft and your skill, taking those opportunities when they came along, like as you said, you know, never being slow to spot an opportunity, and taking advantage of what's around you. And connecting those dots. And all of those things, you know, all those ingredients as people are listening will be, you know, in their world going. And I guess where I'm leading to that is what advice would you give to somebody or yourself, you know, 2030 years ago, I mean, it sounds like you took most of the right steps. If you've had a career that feels like you've been paid, well paid to just do your hobby. There'll be people listening who are in those crossroads or at uni are not quite sure which direction to take, you know, two grandchildren sat in this house thinking, what do I want to be when I grow up? And fat? A son of 48? No, 49? Going, what do I want to be when I grow up? I'm still not too sure. What what, you know, what advice would you give those people? What are the what are the things that, you know, set you in good stead? And as you look back, you just think, yeah, that was, you know, that's what I would impart on others.

Robert Burch:

For me, the most important thing is to find something to do that you really want to do. I mean, I was very lucky, I had a relatively well paid position doing what I wanted to do. But I would have sacrifice the salary. If I had to sort I could still do what I wanted to do. And in fact, many points throughout my career in reading, I had, you know, the usual thing someone, some industry called up and says, we need your help and trying to find someone, we're looking for a new director of research for our laboratories. How do you know any of your former children a guide that you can recommend? And I was so naive, I didn't realise that this was sort of, you know, hands on. So I would visually say, well, I'll think about it and see if I can come up with some names for you. And then realising afterwards, people say, Well, why did you apply for the job? You know? And I think in any I wouldn't have applied because, again, yeah, so you know, double the salary, but not have the freedom to do what I wanted to do. So I think the message I would give to anyone is, what what will really matter to you, when you look back is the enjoyment you got out of the work, not not the money in the bank, as long as you have enough to get by, and not have to worry overly about paying the basic bills. Getting pleasure out of the work is really what what you will look back on and saying, Yeah, I made the right choices.

Dom Burch:

There's one other moment in your life that I want to just get back to, and it's 1988. And it's not the same old cup, but it did happen that year. And it was for somebody that had had the job they loved and worked very hard, and you know, workaholic, but in a positive sense of the word, you know, you had a heart attack. And that forced you then to Well, you were house bound for a bit right, and you weren't able to do all the things you're able to do and you had to start. I remember you were doing watercolour painting. And you know, the story is funny the fact that mom drove you in the middle of the night to the robots, and then made you walk up these big flyer stairs just to get into bed to have the heart attack that you had, but but is there anything in that period of life where that changed you or allowed you just to appraise the world in a different way? Because my version of that was taking a career break. Your version was forced on you? Yeah.

Robert Burch:

Well, it made it made a massive difference, actually, because I think after up to the point, I mean, to show you how stupid I wasn't by work. Two o'clock in the morning, your mother's got me up, getting ready to take me to the hospital. We were downstairs for that stage. And I remembered that there was a search application that I've been putting together that needed to be submitted in the next week. And I climbed back up almost all the stairs that find the draft of this, bring it back down to give to her to give the day of film entered a couple of times to make sure he could put it through his assessment and get it submitted. And I was I was, yeah, I was overly working, I was working stupid hours, and obsessed by it. And I'm not saying I've brought on the heart attack. I mean, as you know, my father died of a heart attack when he was only 37. My mother's had, you know, lots of heart problems and died very young. So it has run in the family, although I've managed to sort of beat the odds as it were. But I think I was just stupid about the way I approach work, it was just crazy. A heart attack was just a some stop in the room and say, Hang on a minute, you can keep this out for a little while longer. And then the next heart attack is going to be perhaps the end of you. Or you can change your whole lifestyle. And that's why I said it had a massive impact on me, because up to that point, I know nothing. And nobody would have stopped me working if I wanted to work. But after that, I think I find a much better balance in terms of work. And certainly I managed to sort of find a way to work that removed a lot of the stresses that were there. In other words, just chasing after funding to do research became something that was part of the job, and not the be all and end all and not the has to be done and not rushing up the stairs to get to get a draft application on my way to hospital for treatment for a major heart attack. So yeah, it didn't make a big, big difference. You didn't

Dom Burch:

end up becoming a painter. Well, a decorator but not a painting of watercolours. But so I mean, we're running out of time a little bit, and I don't want to rush it. But we haven't had time to mention, you were a manager of the scouts football team that I played in. And I remember those days quite interestingly, because when I was on the pitch as a mouthy teenager, I had the confidence to tell you to shut up from the middle of the pitch. But when we're on the journeys home from West London, we'd lost. I don't I think I just looked out the window on the floor. And then when I went to university, you ended up managing some of my mates from Woodley wanderers, Greg Dale and Martin Watts and those guys for fruitbat FC, and doing quite well. What was it? Because you used to manage sometimes you do the five side teams at the big tournaments and you'd manage us. And that's applying your leadership skills, but in a very different way with I mean, let's be fair mixed ability, not the best footballers in the world, but sometimes being some of the best individuals on the other team. What was it about that that? You remember fondly? That actually because that was managing coaching and inspiring people?

Robert Burch:

Well, yeah, we won the league, I definitely want to get that ID we actually won the League for the first time that that team had done anything. And there were two key factors. One was that I just taken a first year practical class in chemistry and the university. At the beginning of the season, I just want to run and I set on the Guyana, you guys play for the university. And there were three or four of them. So yeah, we play for the Serbs. And I said, Okay, I'll do a deal with you. I'll guarantee you get very, very good marks in your practical if you play for me on a Sunday morning. They said, but we play all day, you know, we play a full game on a Saturday. And I said, Okay, why don't you just come along and play the second half. And not all of you, but maybe two or three out of the five, I think it was five in total would come along any one Sunday, and they would play the second half. And that'll be a powerful difference. You know, I mean, these guys were just just below the level of the university second first team. And they would come on and the second half of the transform thing. But another key thing really, really important was that we were playing against the other team in the league that probably was at least as equally good as us and they had one very, very good player, very good player, and we have played them before and this guy had scored like three goals on his own. And I just said, Okay, this is I want one of you people to sacrifice yourself for the next 90 minutes. I just want you to be inside that guy's shirt for the next 90 minutes. Wherever he goes, You go if he turns you turn, if he runs you run. And this guy, it just didn't get a kick at the bottom. We won the game and a manager come up afterwards to share count me said You know, I knew after five minutes what your tactic was, he says but it worked and it worked. I'm very proud of that, actually, that and the other one that you probably remember only because it was when the scouts played the fibre side competition and you remember, Mr. Gegner had picked the five best what he thought was the five best players for the fibre side team and I was left for the five Next players, and we want to play on the competition. And what I forgotten the name of the big big fella was on our side, as well as Matthew Bates. Duncan. Anyway, well, I don't know if you remember what we did is when, when we were up against a weaker team. We put Duncan up front, and he just ran around and terrorised all these little guys. And you and the others could score the goals and then we're up against a stronger team we put him at the back with was B It was so big vectorize the other team coming forward, and we ended up playing against Mr. Gardner's five in the final, if you remember, we beat them, we actually won the competition.

Dom Burch:

I'm punching the air from from Salta in defiance, absolutely brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Well, listen, we've come to that point where we've run out of time. And, and the reason we're doing this is partly because I wanted to do and I hadn't got around to doing it. Also, it's your 80th birthday coming this weekend. So this is a we celebration of coming to your 80th year and this is probably going to be podcast number one with you. Because we're going to have to do a follow up. But also I'm conscious, I'm going to have to do the mother as well. And then and then we're probably gonna have to publish them together and then you probably both gonna want the right of reply. So yeah. Yeah. was like Yeah, so the only way we'll maintain peace. But for the time being Dad, thank you so much for coming onto the podcast, it's been I've learned loads about you and about us and about our lives, which I didn't know, which is fascinating to me. But also you're the bit that's fascinating. And it's just having thought that you and I have very different career choices and lives having gone sort of like almost like die, you'd like you were saying you hated English, you know all those things. And those were things I loved because they were easy, and I love the easy stuff. I found all the maths and the science bit really hard and I was very proud to be able to get a I think a be at GCSE chemistry and not have to like, you know, be the boy of shame walking through the lounge and reading but but anyway, just want to say thank you. Thank you for coming on the podcast.

Robert Burch:

Thank you very much for the invitation. I've enjoyed reminiscing

Dom Burch:

and have a great birthday this weekend. Thank you

Robert Burch:

very much. I also do do my best to enjoy it as best I can. I set the mother the other day. This is my penultimate week. This is my last last week of being 79 So I have to enjoy every day and so I actually managed to get to the final bulls yesterday. So that was a good start to the week.

Dom Burch:

Excellent. Well enjoy this weekend. Thanks, Don

Robert Burch:

again. All right. Take care.

Dom Burch:

See you Bye bye. Yeah, bye