Professor Anne Neville | Obituary
The following tribute has been contributed by Anne’s husband, Mark, daughter Rachel, and colleagues Dr Ceri Williams and Dr Rachael Spraggs.
Professor Anne Neville OBE FRS FREng FRSE FIM3 FIMechE, FICorr, who has died at the age of 52, was an internationally leading research engineer who made pioneering contributions to the field of tribology and had a research portfolio that spanned surface engineering and interfaces including corrosion and tribocorrosion, lubrication and wear, mineral scaling and surgical technologies.
Anne held the inaugural Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies, was a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Holder and was the founder and Director of the Institute of Functional Surfaces at Leeds University where she was Professor of Tribology and Surface Engineering. Over a career spanning 27 years she educated, inspired and enabled the development of many next generation researchers. Anne’s professional achievements are matched by her humanity and kindness. Anne was a strong female role model who led with compassion, humility and humour and proved that being a successful engineer is compatible with a vibrant family life. She also had a selfless ability to instil confidence in others and inspire them to achieve their very best.
Tribology is the study of how surfaces interact in relative motion and includes the study of friction, lubrication and wear. It is a massive topic for engineers as it covers every engineering and natural system with moving parts, from engines and motors to joints in the human body. Leonardo Da Vinci made significant strides towards understanding friction but Anne always pointed out that, although it accounts for billions of pounds of energy losses per year we still cannot predict it as it is not properly understood. In 2017 Anne was concerned that tribology was viewed as something which wastes energy so she set out to develop a programme on the positive aspects of tribology. This work included the pioneering 3D printing methodology based on tribology at a nanoscale and used the triboelectric effect to generate energy for medical devices.
Anne’s contributions were manifold, across lubrication and wear, mineral scaling and tribo-corrosion, with applications in diverse fields such as the oil and gas sector, wind energy and tribo-corrosion and surgical technologies. In particular, Anne’s group were the first to measure corrosion rates in hip joint simulators which made important contributions to the work associated with the controversies associated with metal-on-metal hip implants. In 2009 and 2013 Anne’s work was used to guide the medical health authorities in the UK on what to do with a hip prostheses that had shown unacceptably high failure rates in patients.
Anne’s outstanding contribution to engineering was recognised in 2010 by her election to the Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Anne was also the first woman to be awarded the Institution of Mechanical Engineers James Clayton Prize in 2016. This is awarded to a member of the Institution who has contributed the most to modern engineering science and the first recipient was Sir Frank Whittle who invented the jet engine. Anne was awarded the prize "for her work in the fields of corrosion and tribology problems in mechanical engineering in the oil industry and biomedical applications". Anne was also awarded a Leverhulme Medal from the Royal Society in 2016 for "revealing diverse physical and chemical processes at interacting interfaces, emphasising significant synergy between tribology and corrosion".
Anne grew up in Dumfries in a loving family home with her older sister Linda. Their mother Doris worked as a pharmacy technician and their father Bill was a process worker at ICI Dumfries. Anne’s Uncle Robert was Professor of Scots Law at Edinburgh University until he retired. Anne attended Maxwellton High School where her interest in maths and physics grew. Anne was also a good badminton player and played the trumpet. Anne was unsure what she should do at university and at one point considered becoming a social worker. Anne went into engineering by accident. The Glasgow University prospectus fell open at the page with a Rolls-Royce gas turbine picture and she thought it looked interesting. Anne’s maths teacher was a mechanical engineer and he inspired her to investigate further. After visiting the university open days, Anne was completely sold on this and rejected her earlier choices of either studying Maths or Physics.
Anne started her engineering degree in Glasgow in 1988 meeting her future husband Mark over a gas welding rig during their basic engineering pre-course training. They were in the same halls or residence together and became a couple in 1990.
Anne’s interest in corrosion began with a final-year project in her degree in mechanical engineering. After graduating with First Class Honours Anne continued her work in corrosion with a PhD at the University of Glasgow which was titled “An Investigation of the Corrosion Behaviour of a Range of Materials in Marine Environments” supervised by Dr Trevor Hodgkiess. This sometimes involved several trips to the Marine Station on the island of Little Cumbria where Anne’s family joked that she was dangling pieces of stainless steel off the pier. Anne worked closely with colleagues at Weir Pumps and also spent six months at the IFREMER research laboratories near Brest, teaching herself French in the process. Immediately after completing her PhD in 1995, Anne was appointed to a lectureship at Heriot-Watt University where she began to apply for small research grants and build up a research group. This team grew to 25 researchers in the following years and in 1999 she was promoted to Reader in addition to winning a prestigious Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Advanced Fellowship. Anne was promoted to Professor in 2002.
Whilst at Heriot Watt, Anne’s interests broadened and she joined a collaboration working on oilfield scale. Working alongside Professors Ken Sorbie and Eric Mackay, Anne brought such a range of theoretical ideas and novel physical measurements to bear on this problem, that she made brilliant advances where previous progress had been rather slow. This was a collaboration that brought Anne much satisfaction and she continued to co-lead after her move to Leeds. The science was always mixed with a sense of fun such as when Ken Sorbie introduced her as “Annie Lennox” at a sponsors meeting following a new bleached-blond haircut much to Anne’s amusement.
Family and friends were a significant part of Anne’s life and she was constantly planning the next get-together whether that was an evening at her home, a day trip away or a joint holiday. Many attended Mark and Anne’s wedding in 1999. Anne travelled the world with her work but she was never happier than when she was on holiday with her family and friends usually on a beautiful Scottish beach, toasting marshmallows over a campfire as the sun went down. Anne and Mark welcomed Anne’s students and colleagues into their home, with many former students recalling various social events such as parties and trips. Her Banoffee pie was legendary and apparently it is an acceptable offering for lunch, dinner and breakfast. Anne always made new acquaintances feel instantly at ease, whether that be new colleagues, collaborators or students. She went above and beyond, often picking up students from the airport, supporting them to apply for funding and motivating them to be their very best. On the few occasions where there was an admin hiccup with grant funding, Anne would support the students with her own money until the grant came through. On one occasion Anne purchased the Christmas presents for the children of a student whose grant had not come through.
In 2003, Anne and her group moved to Leeds where she had the pleasure of working alongside the then Emeritus Professor Duncan Dowson, considered to be the father of Tribology in the UK. Anne continued his legacy of innovation in Tribology and provide leadership for ongoing collaborations such as the Leeds–Lyon Symposium on Tribology. Anne’s transformed a dusty old laboratory at Leeds University into a world-leading corrosion facility, growing the size of her research group and established herself as one of the global giants in corrosion research. She was one of the most respected and admired professionals in engineering as evidenced by comments from former students now working in industry that “a paper coming out of the Neville Group is a guarantee of a piece of high end research”. Anne established the Institute of Functional Surfaces (iFS) which grew to 70 researchers at the time of her retirement with a funding portfolio spanning many agencies and industrial sectors including medical, oil and gas & automotive. Her success was recognised by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2005 when she was elected as a Fellow.
Mark and Anne’s daughter Rachel was born in 2005 and Anne quickly adjusted to life as a working mother. Another example of her status as a role model was how Anne demonstrated to other women that it was possible to combine being a successful scientist, engineer, wife and mother. Anne included Rachel in her working life, often taking her on institute away days, and when she was very young, supervision meetings with students. The annual away days are remembered particularly fondly by former students from both Heriot Watt and Leeds. The venues changed from places such as Fort William to the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District, but the support and feeling of belonging that such social events instilled did not.
In 2008 Anne was diagnosed with early stage cancer which was devastating news, but she faced this new challenge with great courage and dignity. During the course of her treatment the surgeons were interested in her background as a world class engineer and one took the time to suggest some new research collaborations during a consultation. Anne’s interest in surgical technologies was born - she joked that she was the only person she knew who left hospital with a new research project. Anne’s cancer required further operations in 2011, 2015 and 2019 but throughout she was determined to live her life to the full, pass on her values and personality to Rachel and continue to achieve at the highest level professionally. In 2020 when the cancer returned again, Anne had to take the difficult decision to take early retirement.
Anne’s publications were numerous and widely relied upon, and she published nearly 700 peer-reviewed articles during her career, with more than 11,000 citations. Anne’s eminence in engineering attracted recognition through many prizes and medals such as: Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (2005); Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (2007); Fellow of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (2009); Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (2010); the Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit award (2013); Order of the British Empire (OBE), 2017; Honorary Engineering Doctorate from Heriot-Watt University (2017) and the University of Glasgow (2019) and the Royal Society Clifford Patterson Medal (2021). In 2017 she achieved a lifetime ambition when elected as a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society (FRS).
Anne was strong advocate of cross-disciplinary collaboration, believing that it is only by doing this that scientists and engineers will solve the major problems facing humanity. As her funding portfolio expanded, Anne had greater freedom to pursue innovative and fundamental scientific research. The application of science was extremely important to Anne and the awarding of a 10 year Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair in Emerging Technologies in 2009 provided long-term support to focus on developing emerging fields of engineering and their applications. At the time of her retirement, she had applied for and was shortlisted for a Royal Society Chair to open up nano-tribotechnologies (TENGs) as solutions for challenges in manufacturing, energy and global emissions. This exciting new work would have used Anne’s expertise to merge the work of fellow Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell FRS and the friction work of Bowden and Tabor in the 1950s to provide a clear understanding of how TENGs generate electricity and in doing so, refine them to provide solutions to many of the energy issues the world will face.
Anne’s collaborative approach to research was a good fit to the research funding offered by the EU and she was the only academic in Leeds to ever hold two Advanced European Research Council awards and almost certainly the only UK academic to co-ordinate two Horizon 2020 grants. Her career funding exceeds £68M of which she led £43M. Over £21M of that funding was received by Leeds. It is not just the size of her portfolio which impresses, but the diversity. Over £12M has been funded by EPRSC, with more than £17M from other national and international research funding providers (including RAEng, EU, Technology Strategy Board, NIHR, InnovateUK) and over £14M from national and international industrial sponsors.
Anne’s PhD students were such an important part of her life and career and at the time of her retirement she had supervised and graduated 129 individuals. The queue that often formed outside her office was legendary, as was the 7am meeting slot. The praise afforded to Anne by students past and present is testament to her humanity and leadership. They fondly remember a kind hearted, motivational, funny, generous, insightful and direct role model – these are their words written when they knew Anne was having to take early retirement in 2020.
The sheer scale of Anne’s work is astonishing – an academic who achieved this over the span of a normal working life of 45 years would be held in high esteem. To have achieved this after only 28 years is a testament to the dedication, drive and commitment which Anne showed to her work throughout her life. It is also an indication of what the engineering and scientific world has lost with her early death.
Prior to her retirement through ill health, Anne was a volunteer at a Trussell Trust food bank near Leeds University. In addition to this Anne worked during the lockdown with a diverse team of engineers assembled by the Royal Academy of Engineering to develop 3D printed face masks for use in developing countries at the start of the global Covid 19 pandemic.
Many globally renowned academics are quite rightly respected for their achievements. Anne Neville always wore her status and accolades lightly, preferring to treat others with humility, compassion and kindness. These qualities, combined with a great sense of humour ensured that not only was Anne highly respected by those she worked with, but she was genuinely loved. In the world of modern engineering and science this is rare indeed and is one of Anne’s greatest legacies.
Anne is survived by her husband Mark and their daughter Rachel.