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Martin McCoustra

ScotCHEM Chair in Chemical Physics, Heriot-Watt University

Research Interests:
My principle research interests are in the mechanism, dynamics and kinetics of chemical processes involving surfaces. This encompasses a range of activities from fundamental studies of the nuclear and electronic dynamics in collision- and photon-promoted processes through investigations of surface physics and chemistry relevant to understanding the role of gas-grain interactions in the interstellar medium to developing a novel mass spectrometry technique for the study of surfaces, plasma-assisted desorption/ionisation mass spectrometry (PADI-MS).

I am particularly interested in the application of surface science methods to the study of physics and chemistry related to the chemical evolution of the universe; the formation of molecules, their astrochemical transformations and the evolution of the chemical potential for life. In this respect, I work closely with astronomers, molecular astrophysicists and others engaged in the study of our chemica cosmos.

Research Grants Received:
Over the course of my career, my research has been funded principally through UK Research Council awards and a large EU Framework award to support a pan-European training network to a total value in excess of £11M (LASSIE - Laboratory Astrochemical Surface Science in Europe - FP7/2007-2013 under grant agreement number 238258) which I coordinated from 2010 to 2014.

Publications, Presentations and Conference Organisation:
To summarise, my publications list comprises 74 contributions to refereed academic journals in print, 120 contributions to conferences of which 18 are invited contributions to international meetings, 13 contributions to Central Facility annual reports, DRA reports or CEC reports, 10 books and contributions to edited books, 3 papers in popular journals and 3 reviews of academic books. My h-index is currently 21.

In addition, I have given numerous seminars at other institutions; including the prestigious van Marum Colloquium at the University of Leiden, which of the over 60 delivered only 6 have been given by UK scientists. I have also made presentations at numerous events run by the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics. I have also been involved in organising at least 20 national and international meetings; Chaired the successful Faraday Discussion Number 141 on water at interfaces and will chair Faraday Discussion Number 168 on solid state and surface astrochemistry, chaired the combined the European Conference on Surface Science and European Physical Society Condensed Matter Meeting in Edinburgh in 2012 and co-chaired a number of parallel meetings at that time and the IVC in Paris in 2013.

Public Engagement and Schools Outreach:
I have been active in PE and outreach since my first appointment. At UEA, I coordinated the Shell-Royal Institution Masterclasses in Spectroscopy for 6th Form Students and was involved in developing a short residential programme for teachers of chemistry. In Nottingham, I proposed and helped to develop the Stars ‘r’ Us! Exhibit in astrochemistry for the 2004 Royal Society Summer Exhibition, at which it was viewed as amongst the most popular of the exhibits. The materials prepared by the team were made available on CD, and remain so today, and many teachers across the UK have taken the opportunity to acquire this material from the SRU team. The team’s experience in assembling and operating the exhibit that July was later reported in the Royal Astronomical Society journal Astronomy & Geophysics [see Viti et al., Astron. Geophys., 2004, 45, 6.22-6.24] and via the SRU website at In addition, the Royal Society of Chemistry invited the team to prepare a short paper on the science themes of SRU for their journal Education in Chemistry [see McCoustra et al., Educ. Chem., 2005, 42, 153-155]. This paper, along with other papers from that journal on similar themes was later assembled into a special teachers pack by the SRU team, with the full support of the journal concerned, as part of their presence at the Royal Society Scottish Summer Exhibition in September 2006.

Following on from the Royal Society Summer Exhibition in 2004, there was a veritable whirlwind of activity as SRU took on a life of its own. Invitations flowed in to participate in large scale public outreach events;

• London – National Science Week, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, March 2005 and 2006.
• Athens – Einstein Year, June 2005, (at the invitation of the British Council, Athens).
• Chelmsford – International Scout Jamboree, July 2005, (invited by Scout Association following a visit to the Royal Society Summer exhibition 2004 by the organiser of the Scout Jamboree).
• Paris – Village des Science, October 2005, (at the invitation of the British Council, Paris).
• Shopping Malls in Newcastle, Manchester, Brighton, Nottingham – UK Chemistry Week Shopping Centre Tour, November 2005 (on behalf of the RSC).
• Edinburgh – International Science Festival at the Dynamic Earth Centre, April 2008, 2009 and 2011.
• Brussels – Astrochemistry: The Cradle of Life, Natural History Museum, July 2011
• Cheltenham – Science Festival, July 2013

Those events have meant that the exhibit has been seen by in excess of 75,000 members of the public across Europe and the public have seen the enthusiasm with which the team and their research staff operate SRU.

With my move to Heriot-Watt, my SRU activities continued and in addition I took on the role of Outreach Coordinator for Chemistry and Chair of the Outreach Group in Engineering and Physical Sciences. I deliver typically over a dozen lectures in schools each year and manage in-house activities including the Royal Society of Edinburgh Masterclasses in Science and Technology (for junior high school pupils), the Salters’ Festivals of Chemistry at Heriot-Watt, and our week long residential course for chemistry teachers. I also act as an interface for RSC (Top of the Bench and the Young Analyst’s Competition) and Royal Academy of Engineering (Headstart and Dragofly) events.


  • 2006–present
    ScotCHEM Chair in Chemical Physics, Heriot-Watt University
  • 2005–2006
    Chair in Chemical Physics, University of Nottingham
  • 2003–2005
    Reader in Chemical Physics, University of Nottingham
  • 1999–2003
    Senior Lecturer in Physical Chemistry, University of Nottingham
  • 1994–1999
    Lecturer in Physical Chemistry, University of Nottingham
  • 1988–1994
    Lecturer in Physical Chemistry, University of East Anglia


  • 2003 
    Heriot-Watt University, DSc
  • 1987 
    Heriot-Watt University, PhD
  • 1983 
    Heriot-Watt University, BSc (Hons)