Interview with Paul Brooks (1985, Physics)
Last year, Paul Brooks (1985, Physics) established the Paul Brooks Prize, which is awarded annually to a Physics student to recognise and support aptitude and achievement in practical applications of science and technology. In this conversation with Catz, he explains his motivation for establishing the award, his own experience as a student at the College and advice for current students looking to start their own career in science.
After graduating from Catz, Paul completed a PGCE and entered teaching. Wishing to undertake scientific research before getting too old, Paul joined the Defence Research Agency (later QinetiQ) Space Department in 1991. He delivered the UK’s first space-based surveillance camera (MWIR) before designing and managing “TopSat”, the World’s first high resolution small satellite.
Noting the difficulty in achieving timeliness with satellites, Paul formed the “Zephyr” incubator business to develop a solar powered, unmanned aircraft flying in the stratosphere at 20km altitude to enable persistent presence. When the incubator was taken back into the parent company, Paul returned to satellites as Sales Director at Surrey Satellites (SSTL), helping to win the prestigious European “Galileo” satellite navigation programme and sell the company to Airbus.
In 2011, QinetiQ closed the Zephyr programme so Paul left SSTL to save Zephyr, rebuilding the team within his own company, Prismatic, and transferring the programme into Airbus – where it remains to this day as the World’s leading solar powered, uncrewed aircraft. Paul completed his career by growing Prismatic to develop a new solar aircraft, PHASA-35, selling PHASA and Prismatic to BAES in 2021.
What inspired you to establish a prize focusing on the practical applications of science and technology at St Catz?
I am fortunate to have achieved a position where, looking back on some thirty years of working in science, technology and business across the World, I can now hopefully encourage others to build interesting and valuable careers that will address some of the critical issues facing the world. There are innumerable causes and endeavours that address this goal, but my experience is that there is a severe lack of high-quality graduates that can develop the essential technologies so critical to protecting everyone’s future, as well as too many excellent scientists and engineers immediately taking up careers outside of science and engineering. The Paul Brooks prize is one attempt to address that problem.
The aim is hopefully achieved in three ways. First, that the prize attracts good candidates to Physics. Second, that the undergraduates are then incentivized and rewarded to pursue the application of their studies and lastly, and most importantly, that the prize might encourage students to look at the excellent careers, financial rewards and valuable achievements that can be won by pursuing a career in science. You don’t have to be a banker, lawyer or consultant to make a good living. You can have this and make a useful contribution by directly using these—rare—scientific skills.
So why at Catz specifically? Well this was partly due to my own experience at Catz and partly from the outstanding success I have seen from other Oxford science graduates. On a personal front, I came from a comprehensive school (Calthorpe Park in Fleet) and was the first student from there to get to Oxford and the first person in my family to get to university—so Oxford was not exactly an obvious home from home. Catz always struck me as the most relaxed and friendly of the colleges and even the architecture made an easier transition from my flat roofed comprehensive! Whilst this friendly introduction was helpful, it was the rigour, constructive development and constant challenging from the tutors that was to have the most significant impact on my degree and career. I was fortunate to have three outstanding tutors who were World experts in their field and had a determination to develop their students (Mike Leask, Neville Robinson and Harry Rosenburg). The development went well beyond the factual content and standard approaches of the Physics course with the greatest benefit being from their insistence that we always looked to solve a problem and understand the limitations and applications of what we were doing. I was never going to be a pure Physicist and in my career after Oxford the majority of my technical work called upon maths and physics that were largely from A level, but the approach to problems—the confidence to derive a result or hypothesis and then test it without fear of appearing stupid—were the essential skills that came from Catz and the tutorial system.
Beyond my own career, I can immediately think of seven successful businesses in similar areas to mine that have been founded by friends and of those, five of the founders are Oxford science graduates— none of whom I knew from my time at Oxford. So, I think it is past time that Oxford is known more for developing successful, technical entrepreneurs and businesses and less for turning out politicians from its PPE courses.
What advice would you give to current Physics students deciding what to do after graduation?
In looking to undertake such a path one key lesson would be to not limit yourself to where you think you can work. Even though I used to attend lectures by Professor Martin Sweeting (now chairman of SSTL) whilst at sixth form college and was a keen amateur astronomer, I never considered I would be able to work in space – wrongly thinking that was only for academics and very specialist engineers. The strong technical background and outstanding problem solving skills that Catz students graduate with are applicable across all technical areas. You will still have to learn specific domain knowledge, but that can be picked up on the job.
This also applies to the type of company you should consider. My experience is that it is smaller companies that are more innovative and give the greater freedom to rapidly build the experience and the confidence that will enable you to make a difference that is both valuable to others and rewarding to yourself. This is actually the opposite to what I did—having spent my first twelve years as a civil servant —but the risk with larger organisations is that they force people into just following a process, rather than trusting employees as individuals, and that can be a very difficult mindset to break out of later. Fortunately, my tutors and first bosses encouraged an open and questioning approach that enabled me to start and work on projects that were very different.
So for current undergraduates considering what to do, think broadly, consider small entities and make your expected boss a key consideration in your selection. The good news is that there remains a stark shortage of quality science and engineering graduates and great companies are desperate for you to apply to them.
To the winners of the prize, congratulations and I hope you use the funds interestingly. To those who miss out this time, there are many, larger prizes out there in your future careers, so keep pursuing activities that are interesting to you and valuable to others.
Applications for the 2023-2024 Paul Brooks Award will open in Hilary term. Paul is happy to speak to any Catz student interest in working in science and engineering. For more information, get in touch with the Development Office.
“Topsat – high resolution imaging from a small satellite”, Paul Brooks, Acta Astronautica, volume 52, May 2003
“Topsat: Lessons learned from a small satellite mission”, Elaine Baxter, Bill Levett, Small Satellites for Earth Observation, Springer Press, 2008.
“Britain to purchase High altitude surveillance aircraft”, UK Defence Journal, July 2016.
“Zephyr, down but definitely not out”, Tim Robinson, Royal Aeronautical Society, 26th August 2022
Prismatic / PHASA
“BAE Systems partners with drone specialist for solar-powered UAV”, Defence News, May 3rd 2018.
“BAE joins high-altitude race with maiden PHASA-35 flight”, FlightGlobal, February 2020.