Professor Simon J McQueen-Mason


Being close to Simon, these are difficult messages to write, but I will attempt to make my contribution here to do my best to support Simon’s family, to pay tribute to Simon, and to help others close to Simon process this and write messages. It also helps me too. First, I want Simon’s family to know I am always with you, and to reach out to me if you ever feel the need for my support, if you ever wish to meet in whatever way, to share memories of Simon and to help you deal with this tragic loss. I also feel for anyone involved in this tragic accident and to reach out to me if you need my support, Simon would not wish this to have a negative impact on any life. I know how tremendously difficult this must be, so know I am with you too. Simon was someone who always touched lives in a positive way. Know I will do my best to support others hurt by this, and to fulfill what Simon would have wished for. I cannot be at peace when others are not at peace.

Simon dedicated his life to making the world a better place. Words weakly express, and it is impossible for me to write here in few words. I’m sure Simon was used to my long emails when I casually reported on research progress in the lab or suggested experiments, I know how much he enjoyed following the progress of the research. He was always so passionate and enthusiastic, and conveyed his excitement at even small steps of research progress. Only now, in reflection, do I truly realise how wonderful Simon was and how lucky I was to have known and worked with him for so long. I first met Simon when I was 21 after a leave of absence from my undergraduate degree. I became passionate about biotechnology during my absence, desiring to make the world a better place and rise to its needs for scientific solutions. I was so fortunate to secure an undergraduate project in Simon’s lab working on enzymes from marine wood borers to make biofuels from waste streams. I remember contacting Simon asking if I could spend some weeks in his lab beforehand as a summer student to help ease me back into university life. Despite being busy, he was so responsive, and ensured I would be paid too even though I offered to come voluntarily. Simon was so welcoming and supportive, as was the whole group that he nurtured. It was like being welcomed as part of a family, such a friendly atmosphere. I had such a wonderful time in my summer placement and in my undergraduate project, such happy memories. Simon knew how to praise well and was so encouraging. I loved the place so much that I applied for a PhD in Simon’s lab. Despite struggles, under Simon’s leadership and guidance and his fantastic research group, I succeeded. This was followed by becoming a postdoc in Simon’s lab, and this day I still am, a decade on from when I first came. This is testament to Simon’s excellent leadership, someone who looked after us and gently guided the way forward. When someone’s contract was coming to an end Simon would do his best to find funding to extend contracts and secure new research grants to keep people on. He had a simplistic manner and was very good at building collaborations with both academic and industrial partners. He valued others and made sure they felt valued. He was always assuring, saying things like “there is time for everything” and “there is nothing in our work that cannot wait”. He put the well-being of others first and work second, despite what deadlines and work pressures there may be.

I still vividly remember the last Zoom call I had with Simon while he was on the Isle of Wight. He was always a pleasure to chat with, always at ease and supportive, never showy and always humble. A shining example. He seemed happy and content, I’m glad he was able to spend the last couple of years on the Isle of Wight with his partner, a place he loved, while remote working through the pandemic. I remember Simon discussing the supply of vine-ripened tomatoes on the Isle of Wight that he loved, and which he used to make a pasta dish for lunches. I also joked with him that he could return to the lab as we were struggling to find someone to help with a piece of lab work. He joked that if he returned to the lab the lab would be closed down as he was too unsafe with lab work. He then gave stories of his times in the lab, including times when he was mouth pipetting sulphuric acid before lab safety got stricter, and the time he broke the centrifuge because of forgetting to put the rotor lid on. He knew how to raise a laugh. I still remember when he used to come into the lab early mornings to wash his coffee mug in the lab sink, and once when he took sucrose from the prep room for his coffee. I think I told him he shouldn’t then he said it was safe because it was analytical grade. Simon had his naughty side, it helped keep him happy as well as entertaining others. It is these acts that leave us with such fond memories, they stay with us and are a fuel for happiness and laughter. I remember the early morning chats me and Simon used to have in the lab, we were both early birds. He would just pop in to wash his mug in the lab sink and have a chat. He never really felt like a boss, he felt like a friend, a brilliant supervisor. He found the perfect balance in supervision, being supportive when needed, and allowing the supervisee to develop independence. I remember him saying his style was to let people get on with it, at the same time he was always open and responsive and was there for you if you needed him. We had much in common, I remember our casual emails and conversations when we shared our passion for the natural world. He loved water, the gentle flow of the rippling river that patiently makes its way to the soothing sea. He agreed to go with the flow, in his words to be like a raft flowing with the river. Just a humble raft that goes at Nature’s wise balanced pace, not a showy speed boat. Maybe it was Simon’s love for water that attracted him to York, where a lake with gentle rippling surface is the centrepiece of campus. Being on the Isle of Wight for the last couple of years, Simon was never far from the soothing sea. I feel better in knowing Simon was in a happy place during these years, and passed away on a Sunday the day of rest, while enjoying a cycling ride on the Isle of Wight, a hobby that Simon loved. Oddly it was also my birthday, my kind colleagues delayed the tragic news reaching me until the following morning. It was such kindness and thoughtfulness that Simon set an example of and nurtured in his group. I imagine Simon was feeling happy on this day, enjoying his day of leisure and break from work, and from what I know the tragic end came suddenly and Simon was not left suffering in pain and shock.

I wish to add some words with address to Simon. Dear Simon, may you rest in much deserved peace now. I’m so sorry your life ended in this way. I would have wished you a long and happy retirement on the Isle of Wight. I could never imagine you retiring as you were always so involved with research, always passionate to deliver the world the sustainable solutions it needs and leave it a better place for future generations, and always wanting to ensure the well-being of those you led and worked with. You lived a tremendous 64 years, you achieved so much and touched countless lives in a positive way. You set a shining example of how to lead and how to be. I wish you to know Simon you have achieved more than enough and left behind a legacy. It feels like you continue to live on in us, you will always be fresh in my mind and feel like a part of me. This clearly indicates a truly successful life. Your work goes on, those you nurtured and led keep on with the memory of you ever present. Such a tragic event makes us even more determined to fulfill your wishes and what you would have wished for. Dear Simon, it is time for you to rest now in peace and in knowing your life’s achievements including both your work and all those you positively influenced. This may be difficult given that you were in the midst of work and so involved. Know that all this continues on in us, and the time has come for you to let go and be happily retired from this life. I beg to God that you realise this and are given the praise and rest deserved. May you grant this, dear God. I will not be in peace until assured that Simon is in peace and in realisation of a life successfully lived and in awareness of the legacy left behind. Dear Simon, know I am forever with you. I bow down to you. Worry not for us, be in faith that God guides us forward and supports us through this difficult time.

May peace be upon all affected by this tragic accident.

Together we are in strength, singly we become weak. The bonds we make never truly break. In the atomic world, collisions lead to the formation of new bonds. May it be that this tragic collision leads to existing bonds being reinforced and new bonds being made, all in all building togetherness, supporting humanity’s tough path to unity. Without such unity, both planet and people are in jeopardy. It’s the tough experiences that bring out the best in us, may it be so. Our full potential needs to be unlocked and unleashed so that we can navigate our way forward through these immensely challenging times. In honour of Simon, let’s make it happen.

Be in stillness (as space is),
Be in ease (as air is),
Be in love (as water is),
Be in strength (as earth is),
Be in willingness (as fire is),
The five elements in order,
Above all, be in Balance (as peace is), Balance the master key.

With deepest sympathies to all affected,
By Daniel (AKA DrDJUpton).

To finish, in honour of Simon, a few recommended Youtube videos featuring Simon. May we watch and bathe in these and feel Simon’s wondrous being, a star in the face of the sky.

1) I wasn’t always a scientist – Simon’s story
2) From gribble to stubble – Professor Simon McQueen-Mason
3) Bioenergy and the Future: public dialogue project
4) UK-India collaboration successfully tackles industrial waste from sugarcane processing in India

Daniel J Upton

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