Aston University's 50th Anniversary: Professor John Penny Q&A

50 Aston Greats: Professor John Penny

Professor John Penny

Professor John Penny joined the Mechanical Engineering department (now part of the School of Engineering and Applied Science) in 1963 as a Research Fellow. At the time, Aston had yet to be granted university status and was a College of Advanced Technology. Over the course of his career at the University, John has been a Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Head of Mechanical Engineering and Director of Research in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Now Emeritus Professor of Engineering, he reflects on fifty years of change, success and innovation.

When and how did you join Aston University?

I came to Aston in January 1963 as a Research Fellow in Mechanical Engineering after working in the Heavy Electrical Engineering Division at the English Electric Company. Aston was trying to encourage people to take a risk and get into academia, so I was appointed as a Research Fellow without having a PhD. I was allowed to study for one while teaching and researching, which I must say was immensely helpful.

What kind of changes have you witnessed?

When I arrived, Aston wasn’t a University but a College of Advanced Technology, although there was an expectation it would soon become one – and indeed it did in 1966. The campus wasn’t a coherent whole and there was a lot of construction work going on. The Main Building wasn’t fully complete and the different wings had yet to be built. I was given a brand new office which had just been finished. In fact, it was so new it had still builder’s dust on every surface. The University was much more widely spread years ago, with offices and lecture rooms dotted about the city centre. Where the campus and halls of residence are now were rows and rows of back-to-back houses and narrow, twisting streets. It is remarkable how much things have changed, really.

What is your current connection to the University and what plans do you have for the future?

I am an Emeritus Professor of Engineering and up until the last academic year I was still teaching a computing language course. I decided to stop for a variety of reasons but I have been asked to prepare a module for a group of students situated in Angola. It’s a web-based course, something a bit like the Open University offers and quite innovative. I’m preparing what’s to be taught on the course and a series of lecture notes. It’s quite an exciting change for me, something a bit different to anything I’ve done previously in my 50-year career.

What is your fondest memory?

I really cannot pick out a single event from the milieu. What I can say is that I’ve met some super people and I have enjoyed working here very much indeed. You feel lucky to be doing something you enjoy every day.

What would you say your greatest achievement at Aston University has been?

I don’t like saying I’ve done this, that and the other. What’s given me great satisfaction is the fact that people working under me have gone on to do great things in research and business. An MSc course in Mechanical Engineering I taught for a few years early in my career produced at least four professors – they were that good. There’s a litany of people I’ve had the pleasure to teach and work with who have gone on to do a number of very interesting things, from being senior pro-vice-chancellor at Sheffield University to a senior executive at Rolls Royce.

What advice would you have for today’s graduates?

Firstly, you have got to do what interests you. That really is essential. Graduates should continue to have a willingness to learn after they leave university, to apply themselves and grasp any opportunities that arise.