Wyn Griffiths might be one of the creative forces behind an inspiring, ground-breaking public research project which aims to get kids interested in science, but he doesn’t consider himself to be a typical researcher.
Not a typical researcher?
“I’m this weird … hybrid … who works in academia but isn’t a traditional academic and so my approach to academic research isn’t what you might describe as conventional,” he says. “I’m an engineer at heart and so I come at research from that perspective.”
When pushed to elaborate on what that perspective might be, he offers a simple answer: “I like to break things, see how they work and then put them back together. And in all sorts of ways, that’s how I see engaged research: taking something that’s broken and finding out how to make it work again.”
His own love of learning as a child has helped to shape his approach to inspiring the students who end up on his academic radar, particularly when it comes to instilling in them a hunger for discovery. And nowhere is that in greater evidence than in the SMASHfestUK project which won Wyn and his research team an Engage Award last year.
SMASHfestUK is a unique festival of science organised as a partnership between the University of Middlesex, where Wyn works, and the University of Greenwich and takes place in London each year. The event is themed around a theoretical natural catastrophe – a massive solar storm, a meteor strike and, this year, the eruption of a subterranean volcano in Lewisham. Even the themes, it transpires, celebrate destruction in some form.
But whilst the research at the heart of the festival is about the aftermath of an Earth-changing natural event, Wyn and his fellow researchers would say it’s also about rebuilding something else that seems to have been eroded in modern education: people’s interest in science.
His journey to academia began in a South Wales mining village nestled against the Brecon Beacons where he grew up in a family whose livelihoods depended on the mines and the wider coal industry. His immediate environment proved to be a hothouse for the social conscience which has run through his work since.
“I lived against the backdrop of slag heaps, coal heaps and rubbish dumps, of half-built and partially-built homes. The whole of my environment was human-formed and yet just beyond that world was this incredible natural beauty and it inspired in me this need to take the world apart and make it better.”
He describes part of his upbringing as ‘all a bit Lord of the flies’. “Most of the kids were boys and it was a hazardous environment. We were all a bit feral, to tell the truth!”
He believes he was lucky with his education in the sense that he enjoyed learning – something instilled from an early age due to the strong working-class streak in the mining community that knew the value of education and lived by the tenet ‘I go down the mines so you don’t have to’.
Design, technology and rugby
His basic secondary education was sound, if not stellar and after leaving school Wyn found jobs on building sites before a talent for art saw him stumble into 3D design and a place at Newport Swansea University. Yet even then, he had no great career plan.
“I wasn’t big on plans,” he admits. “I was interested in art, computing and physics. Fine art didn’t make any sense to me because I couldn’t see how it was relevant, but I had a flair for design and technology and so I went to talk to a teacher at the college and did a one year O Level and a one year A Level. I ended up studying 3D design because it made the most sense conceptually.”
This led him into the area of perceptive problem-solving before he ducked out of education for a respected rugby career - and two years working in a pub. Eventually he signed up to teach technology in Swansea and in doing so rediscovered and reconnected with design and the practical skills of making stuff himself.
He set up a design consultancy with a friend – and again the theme of taking something broken and making it right came to the fore as the pair specialised in developing 3D modelling software to map facial and jaw disfiguration and reconstruction.
Problem-solving through research
It wasn’t long after that Wyn spotted an advert for an academic researcher at Bournemouth University. He applied on a whim, never thinking for a moment that he would get the job – “It was by the sea and I thought it would be an interesting process to go through.” – and, when he was offered it he suddenly found himself in academia.
“Suddenly that’s what I was,” he says. “An academic researcher. It’s what people see and it’s how they define me and how other researchers define themselves. On paper, I’m an academic. But in fact, I’m just someone who looks at problems and tries to solve them.”
His most high-profile achievement, prior to SMASHfestUK, was the construction of a full sized African elephant constructed out of teabags. But it is the engaged research which puts kids back in touch with science that he considers one of the most rewarding parts of his career to date.
“Making science relevant – that’s what’s been brilliant about SMASHfest,” he says. “And the way we’ve done it, by getting people involved at a really grass roots level so they help to shape the event and what it achieves, makes it more special.”