First blog entry. As I wasn’t really sure how to break the ice I thought I’d focus on a topic that I was clearly a world expert in, i.e. myself! Here, I write about why I ended up choosing science as a career, in particular chemistry. In my next entry I’ll write about my Ph.D. and after.
It was obvious I was always going to do Science for a career. One, I was good at it and two, my Dad taught physics at my school so naturally I’d end up doing science when I left (and probably be a teacher as well…). In fact, I wasn’t hugely interested in the subject outside school and I preferred reading about history, politics or music, or Discworld. I even dropped maths at A-level and took English literature (much to my Mum’s shock at the time) and had visions of doing ancient history or philosophy at University. Why did I change my mind and end up doing chemistry at Nottingham? Well, on a university open day I discovered that chemistry at university is a little bit more impressive than chemistry at school (as good as my school and chemistry teachers were).
So that was that. What was studying chemistry like? Challenging, enjoyable, frustrating, rewarding, boring. All of the above. The biggest annoyance for any science student is seeing their arts friends swan around with four hours of lectures a week. (On the flip side, a history student friend of mine told me how he felt his student fees went to pay for just a library card and the rest to subsidise me!). However, I always felt that chemistry students often took the “work hard, play hard” idea to heart, whereas some arts students struggled to get out of their dressing gowns. But back to why I was at University, my studies. There are two particular concepts that I picked up at Nottingham which have helped shape my approach to science and research.
Firstly, at my UCAS interview I went into Neil Champness’ office expecting to be grilled about moles or electrons or some other standard UCAS fair. Instead, he asked something along the lines of:
“You’re in your Hall bar in the first week at University, and someone asks you what you’re studying. You tell them chemistry and they start to have a go at you, informing you how chemistry has caused so much damage and pollution in the world. How do you respond?”
A little taken aback I think I still managed a reasonable response about how its not chemistry that causes pollution but the people misusing it, and that it was actually chemistry that could find solutions to environmental problems. Ten years on, the question and message behind it are as important now as then. “Chemophobia” is still prevalent and there is plenty of discussion about how science can engage and inform politics and the public. I think what stuck with me is that its not always what science does but what its perceived to be doing that matters.
Taking chemistry at Nottingham gave me the chance to study Green Chemistry under Martyn Poliakoff. At the time Green Chemistry was born, I’m sure widespread industrial acceptance of the 12 Principles, or E-factor may have seemed unrealistic but now its becoming increasingly mainstream. Of all the courses I took, it was learning about Green Chemistry that has been most influential on me. Showing that “worthy” ideals can exist in a discipline so often focused on the practical was important and helped crystallise my own feelings about sustainability and the environment into genuine career aspirations. However, at this point it was not clear that I would pursue research as a career beyond my graduation.