Final day of I'm a Scientist - wow!
Woodmill High School, Dunfermline, Scotland
University of St Andrews, Scotland (Chemistry – MChem then PhD, 1997 – 2004)
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
Lecturer in Chemistry
Keele University, England
Favourite thing to do in my job: Experiments that don’t work out but that show something even better than you expected are the best bits. Unexpected stuff is more interesting than what you expected.
I make new materials that do amazing things.
My research work is about making new materials by combining two different types of molecules. That way we get the best properties of each type of molecule and some new ones.
You can find out a bit more about my work on my websites:
Some of the molecules look like honeycombs . This family of materials are called zeolites and they have lots of uses. They are used in washing powder, as catalysts to speed up reactions and get better products, and sometimes even in cheese shops! The holes in the zeolites (called pores) soak up small molecules such as smelly gases from stinky cheese. Zeolites have also been fed to farm animals to stop their wind smelling so much!
The other family of molecules are called dendrimers, and they look a bit like snowflakes. They are polymers so are related to things like nylon and the stuff plastic drink bottles are made of. They are beautifully symmetric, and can be used in all kinds of ways.
The students who help with my research are working on sticking bits of dendrimers onto the outside of zeolites to make materials. We’re hoping that these will make new ways of delivering drugs to people by hiding the drugs in the pores of the zeolites and using the dendrimer to fool the human body into thinking its really just a big lump of water. That way we can smuggle chemotherapy drugs into the body and try to avoid side effects.
Another use for these is to soak up metals from water. Many elements like mercury or chromium are toxic and fortunately present in extremely tiny quantities in our drinking water. In other countries they are not so lucky and we need to make materials capable of removing the metals before they cause illness.
My Typical Day
I do some teaching, maybe some marking, work on some research ideas and meet with lots of students.
When I’m teaching I might be giving lectures or helping students in problems classes or the laboratory. The problem with all the teaching is the students hand in lots of work that has to be marked. I usually meet with a few students every day to talk about how the course is going and then the rest of the time is spent working on research ideas. I might be working on ways to get money to do more research, writing up the results so that it can be published or (and one of the best bits) planning and running experiments in the lab.
If I have any time at the end of the day, I’ll work on a few blogposts over at Endless Possibilities http://www.possibilitiesendless.com/
What I'd do with the prize money
I would use it to develop the stuff for a chemistry kit that could be taken into schools near Keele.
We have some interesting experiments at Keele and I’d like to get them out of the lab and into classrooms in the local area. To do that, I’m going to need some unbreakable lab kit (plastic beakers), lots of bottles to store the chemicals in (plastic again, but with good lids!), and some kind of wheelie suitcase to put it all in. We might call it ‘chemistry in a case’, but better suggestions for names would be good! The perfect day out for the chemistry case would be to visit a school, do some demonstrations of fun reactions, then set-up a couple of reactions for everyone to try. I’m thinking that energy would be a good theme because a lot of really interesting reactions generate or require energy.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
confused, organised, sleepy
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Wrote a 60 thousand word thesis. It was very long.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
A couple of years back I went on holiday to the Galapagos Islands and went snorkling with sealions. They come right up to you and play. It was amazing.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To have sufficient money to run a small research group, including undergraduate and high school students working on exciting ideas; to visit the Antarctic and see penguins in the wild; to go on a road trip around North and Central America.
Tell us a joke.
I am rubbish at telling jokes so I’ll spare you.