A Success Story: Interview with Professor Colin Hughes


Professor Colin Hughes works within the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences; a professor of Applied Geosciences and a Tai Chi teacher.

Could you tell us a little about your work?

I am Professor of Applied Geosciences and Director of Social Responsibility in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Previously, I have held senior positions as Associate Vice President for Environmental Sustainability, Associate Dean for External Affairs in Engineering and Physical Sciences and Director of the Centre for Doctoral Training at the Sustainable Consumption Institute. I currently lead the Knowledge and Innovation Hub for Environmental Sustainability, in its 6th year of Higher Education Innovation Fund support. I joined the Victoria University in 1989 as an experimental officer in electron optics, and then became research fellow, senior research fellow, and subsequently a senior lecturer and then professor in 2006.

Could you tell us a little about your hobbies?

I’ve instructed “exercise for health” classes as a hobby in university and community settings since the early 1980s, beginning soon after I started working in the University sector – that was following several years in the oil industry. I used to be a competitive fell runner and martial artist, and throughout the nineties and noughties I instructed “circuit training” exercise classes and tai chi, although now my focus is tai chi and other mindbody related meditative activities.

Can you give us some insight into how you manage the commitments of being a professor and being a tai chi teacher?

I’m an early starter and have usually taken an exercise break at lunchtime, most days, throughout my career, either to instruct classes or to exercise on my own. Taking an “exercise break” at lunchtime is like having a mini-weekend in the middle of the day, enabling one to return to work refreshed and relaxed enabling many people to “fire on all cylinders” throughout the whole working day. Working without a break almost invariably leads to mental fatigue, stress and poor health; whilst an exercise break before lunch facilitates clear thinking, a sense of vitality and vibrant good health. Also, exercise classes are a great leveller, porters to professors working out with students at all levels, everyone exercising equally together for health and well-being.

Do you have any advice on how best to manage your time?

The key is simply to consciously manage your time, and not to muddle along from one deadline to the next. That is, managing one’s time is pivotal to optimising performance within the context of work schedules and designated degrees of flexibility. I would argue that everyone needs breaks of varying length during the day. There is lots of evidence demonstrating the benefits of exercise ranging from improved performance and better health and longevity, to reduced absenteeism and improved comradery in the workplace. Currently, I have a heavy teaching load, and will sometimes return to my office between classes for a few minutes restorative tai chi practice – much healthier than the false energy fix from a dose of caffeine. There’s a lot to be said for “working smart” rather than “flogging yourself to death.” For example, if you’re trying to write something and the words just won’t flow, often if you take a short activity break to allow your circuits to recharge (e.g., just walk up and down a couple of flights of stairs), brain chemicals re-equilibrate and the thoughts begin to flow once more. Beating yourself up for stalling will definitely not improve your creativity! Performing well for a slightly shorter period of time because you take a break and feel good, has to be more efficient and effective than performing less well over a longer period of time without breaks and getting ever more miserable.

How do you manage the pressures of a research career?

When I was an active researcher, group leader and laboratory boss (I’ve stepped back in recent years due to senior management roles), I managed the pressure by always seeking to balance periods of intense effort with periods of slower paced working with reflective thinking time built in. Most important is the wider concept of “work-life balance” including during the working day. We are all familiar with students who leave assignments until the last minute before deadlines and then exhaust themselves accelerating up to the deadline – unfortunately, it’s not unusual for some post-docs to carry this habit into their early careers! Work-life balance is vital, along with varying one’s pace of work to include breaks of varying length, including exercise breaks. Early on, a research career is particularly challenging in very many ways, e.g., lack of security; deadlines; unexpected delays costs and/or downtime, etc., etc. During this time it is important to develop modes of working which are sustainable towards optimised performance that can be maintained, rather than frazzle into burnout and poor health.

Why did you decide to share your passion with people at the University (in terms of putting on classes)? How did it come about and why do you think it is a worthwhile activity for people to do during their day?

As I said, I’ve always shared my passion for exercise, because early on I found that my enthusiasm rubbed off on people and made a very real contribution to their health and well-being. One participant in my lunchtime classes is a very senior emeritus professor and former dean, he’s been participating in my classes for over 25 years, and now schedules his “days in the office” to align with my tai chi classes. It’s a great privilege to be able to contribute to people’s well-being over so many years. These days, my focus is on tai chi as a meditative approach to whole body exercise combining the proven benefits of gentle exercise with a relaxed meditative mental focus. I think it is a particularly worthwhile activity during the day because it demonstrably lowers damaging chronic levels of stress hormones and leads to a positive attitude, mental clarity and a sense of holistic vitality.

Do you have any advice for young researchers just starting out?

In particular managing to maintain a healthy work-life balance. It’s important to accept that being an early career researcher is a challenging life choice, and very much a “multi-marathon endurance event” rather than a short sprint, albeit with great opportunities for making beneficial contributions in so many ways. As I’ve already mentioned a healthy work-life balance is essential to both survival and optimal performance, and that includes balancing both pace and varying activities during the workday.

Would you like to promote any of your up and coming classes for the year?

I would recommend that all early career researchers have a look through the opportunities on offer ranging from the diverse programme offered by the Sports Directorate:

Or the “Great Escape” early morning yoga and tai chi at the Whitworth Gallery:

As part of the Active Manchester programme, I run the the following classes: Tai Chi (Mondays, noon – 1:00 pm), Indian Club Swinging (Wednesdays, noon – 1:00 pm) and Tai Chi Ball (Fridays, noon – 1:00 pm) in the Simon Building Wellness Centre. There’s lots on offer at the University – and then, of course, there’s usually lots of stuff going on in the communities where people live! No excuses!