Favourite Thing: My favourite thing to do is applied research. This is where I make something and then use it to solve a real world problem – like splitting up water into hydrogen and oxygen so that we can have hydrogen as a fuel source [to power a car].
Hayesfield School, Bath (1998-2005), University of York (2005-2009), University of Muenster, Germany (2008-2009), University of Basel (2009-2012)
11 GCSEs, 4 A-Levels, Masters in Chemistry, PhD in Chemistry
I was paid to do my PhD at the University of Basel, then I carried on doing research in academia in a position called a “post-doc” at Basel. I’ve also worked as a student scientist for Vectura PLC who were making dry powder inhalers, and as a research assistant at the University of York.
I’m currently a post-doc at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (USA) carrying out research on artificial photosynthesis.
Prof. Dr. Thomas J. Meyer, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (USA)
Me and my work
We are mimicking photosynthesis using coloured molecules with metals, sunlight hits our molecules in a water solution and then we see bubbles of hydrogen and oxygen.
In nature plants convert water into oxygen and protons and then uses the protons to make carbohydrates, which it uses as food for itself. Plants are very clever doing this as it’s not an easy reaction, but then they have had billions of years to get it right!
Recently scientists have been trying to recreate what plants do, but also simplify the process so that we can do it in a couple of steps, rather than the 10+ steps that plants use. This is the project that I’m working up. We’re trying to make a catalyst – that splits the water, and a chromophore – that captures light, and put them together into a device that we can then put in a big bucket of water and get hydrogen and oxygen out of.
The idea is that the light hits the chromophore, it gives an electron away to the electrode that it’s attached to, and then steals an electron from the catalyst, which in turn steals an electron from water. When this happens four times we have split water into oxygen and protons. Then the protons get converted into hydrogen at another electrode. The two electrodes are joined together and so there is current flowing between them and so we could even use that current to boil the kettle for a cup of tea!
My job is making the catalyst to split the water. This means combing different metals and organic components (Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen) to make a catalyst that works really well – it’s not an easy job as we still don’t understand what makes a good catalyst but I’m making some progress 🙂
My Typical Day
I never know what my day will look like!
I try to get to my lab around 9 am. If I ran an experiment overnight then I will switch that off and let it cool down (most of my reactions get heated). I turn on my computer and check my emails – sometimes my boss will ask me to read a document (a research paper) and give him my opinion on it, or I may have to send an email to my research group about a meeting, or maybe there’s a visiting lecturer so I add that to my calendar. By then my reaction has cooled down so I will filter it, or dry it and then check to see whether I have any product and if so weigh it. I will then run analysis on it to find out whether I’ve made what I wanted to make – if it hasn’t worked then I read other people’s research to find out what I did wrong and if it has worked then I am happy! I also then write down the procedure in my lab book so that I can repeat the reaction another day if I want to.
I work in collaboration with quite a few of my colleagues so I spend time talking to them about progress that they are making with their research and whether I can help them. Usually I have to do data analysis as well, so somebody does an experiment and the output is lines of text, which we then convert into some graphs to see whether the experiment works.
Most recently I’ve been working with a gas chromatography (GC) instrument. We run a catalytic reaction converting benzyl alcohol into benzaldehyde and then we put this solution into the GC and it separates out the product from the reactant and tells us how successful our catalysis has been. Based on these results we can change the conditions of the reaction and try to improve it.
Because I work with different people and my reactions are unpredictable every day is different!
What I'd do with the money
School Visits and Chemistry Demonstrations
My husband and I are going to be moving to Swansea (UK) in May and as the University of Swansea does not have a chemistry department I think that primary and secondary school children in the area will have had limited opportunities to meet researchers in this field. I would like to use the prize money to purchase components for safe demonstration experiments and then take these into school assemblies or classrooms in both the secondary and primary schools around Swansea and enthuse the students, particularly the girls, about science and what it means to have a career in research. I recently participated in a careers day at a primary school here in North Carolina, doing some chemistry demonstrations and the kids really enjoyed themselves and the teachers invited me back, so I already have a good working model and some demo experiments up my sleeve.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
Pizza, topped with ham and pineapple!
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Parasailing near Sydney, Australia with my husband.
What did you want to be after you left school?
A science teacher
Were you ever in trouble at school?
A few detentions for forgetting my calculator in maths classes!
What was your favourite subject at school?
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
I developed a method of running calculations on a computer to predict the properties of a new type of solar cell we were making in Basel.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
My chemistry teachers and my music teacher!
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
A professional clarinet player
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To get funding to do research without having to write grant proposals, to be able to change countries by clicking my fingers, to have a weekend hanging out with all my friends in one place!
Tell us a joke.
What do you get if you pour hot tea down a rabbit hole? Hot cross bunnies!
This is me cleaning my fume hood in Basel. We do lots of reactions in here that we wouldn’t want to breathe in. I emptied the fume hood before I cleaned it and wore lots of protective equipment – gloves, lab coat, closed shoes and a face mask – to keep me safe.