Dr Richard Tse goes for a stroll in Christ's College, Cambridge.

A life in the day: the garden of knowledge 

14 December 2023

Dr Richard Tse is a Todd-Croucher Junior Research Fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Croucher News spoke to him recently to find out what it was like to be conducting research in Cambridge and being part of a college going back 500 years.

If Richard Tse looks out of the window of his room at Christ’s College, he can see a garden. But this is no ordinary garden. It’s the Charles Darwin Sculpture Garden, which was opened in 2009 to honour the life and work of one of the most influential scientists in history - and alumnus of the College - Charles Darwin.

“For a young scientist, it’s quite inspiring to have that garden to look out on in the morning as I have my morning coffee,” Tse told us.

Tse’s mornings otherwise consist of a humble breakfast of scrambled eggs and a short cycle through the leafy streets of Cambridge to the university’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, where his research group is based.

“I tend to spend my days there, mostly in the lab, but I also have office space I can use in the Department.” Fortunately, there are other researchers in the research group to discuss ideas with when he’s not busy conducting experiments. “It’s great to be able to talk to others, even though they are working on different projects. Otherwise, lab work sometimes could get a bit dull. And these conversations sometimes give me ideas for new approaches that I can use in my own work,” he added. “The days pass pretty quickly.”

In the evenings, Tse might attend “High Table”, a formal dinner for Fellows in the elaborate surroundings of the Formal Hall, to which he is able to invite guests. Before dinner, there are drinks in the Senior Combination Room and that’s where everyone heads back to after dinner for the cheeseboard and coffee. “It sounds rather formal, but actually it’s a great chance to meet others and stay in touch with what people are doing in different fields or even outside the college. So one evening I was sat next to a GP, a lawyer, and an accountant. You can meet all kinds of different people that you wouldn’t normally encounter.”

Indeed, Tse told us that being part of the College community was one of the things he most enjoyed about being in Cambridge. “As a Fellow, I get the chance to have a say in the day-to-day life of the college. There are committees to join and votes to be cast on decisions that need to be taken. I enjoy the sense of inclusion this brings,” he added. “In addition, it’s a small college compared to many of the others here. So it’s very easy to bump into people you know.”

Tse had done his first degree at the University of Hong Kong before pursuing his PhD at Oxford. A supramolecular chemist, his primary research interest lies in the exploitation of mechanical bonds in molecular recognition and the development of stimuli-responsive functional materials. Or “self-healing smart polymers,” as he told us, when we asked him to summarise his work in as few words as possible.

He’s clearly highly motivated by his work and there is a sense of almost of artistic creation about his work. “It’s remarkable to be able to create a new molecule or material and be the first person to work with it”, he told us, sounding a little like an alchemist. “This work builds upon the more fundamental research I carried out for my PhD and we hope it will lead to materials with exciting properties that will potentially be usable in anything from cartilage replacement to brain implants.

When not creating smart functional materials, Tse enjoys exploring Cambridge. “It’s particularly pleasant to jog along the River Cam,” he said. “I even enjoy the British weather!”

We asked what he missed about Hong Kong. “My family and friends, of course,” he told us. “And I definitely miss the food! The food here is less varied and the restaurants close much earlier than in Hong Kong.”

However, he’s happy to be in Cambridge and to be part of the academic community at the College. And, of course, there’s always that garden and the scientist it was named after, to keep him motivated and focused on the work in hand.  

To see Richard Tse’s Croucher profile click here.