Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Secret Life of a Biologist: Impressions and Reflections of a Chemical Engineering Laboratory

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📥  Comment, Secret Life Blogs

Our anonymous Biologist shares snippets of their life in the Chemical Engineering labs.


There were, of course, certain elements of this particular chemical engineering lab familiar to me. Indeed, the running and maintenance of the bioreactors (the main reason for me inhabiting this exotic land of Chemical Engineering) was in a professional sense, my ‘bread and butter’. I was also at home with several other items present, including, but not limited to, the incubators, the hot plates and the sink, although, truth be told, the expertise required to operate these hardly warrants their mention.

However, the comfort blanket I had constructed for myself through experience within four different biological laboratories since my undergraduate days was quickly hoisted from me by the unfamiliarity provided by certain aspects of my new working environment. What follows, as promised within the title, are some impressions and reflections from my early days as a biologist working within the department Chemical Engineering.

1. The Rotavap.

A rotavap, apparently. (Picture: Cole-Parmer Lab Equipment)

Having shared an office with many chemists in Bath during my MRes, verbal osmosis had rendered me familiar with the term ‘Rotavap’. In addition, as a fan of blending words to save valuable time for super sustainable research, the rotavap, short for Rotary Evaporator, was already firmly in my good books. However as a molecular/cellular biologist, given that the typical volumes I was used to working with are in the <1 mL region, there was very little, if any, cause for intentional evaporating. Therefore imagine for a second you had never seen a rotavap, let alone used one, and were faced with a situation requiring you to do both. To me, the rotavap looked like the kind of apparatus Robin Williams may have used to cook up a batch of Flubber, rather than something people actually used. Turns out, the reality of the situation is far from Williams’ bouncy anthropomorphised green goo with a penchant for salsa music. I’ve since come to learn that rotavaps facilitate the gentle removal of solvents from a sample through evaporation whilst under vacuum, assisted by rotation of the sample. “Clues in the title, ya daft biologist!”, I hear you shout. Well, yes… but these things are always simpler in writing, and the challenge lay more in the operation of the machine rather than its function.

2. Glassware: Acid and Base Baths.

“What the Darwin is this all about?” I muttered to myself the first time I was talked through the glassware cleaning protocol. “To clean glassware, one must first dunk it in a bath containing base and then a bath containing acid?”

I get it now, but at the time, I did not.

3. The Smell

To address the elephant in the room head on, I understand that it is a bit rich of a biologist to grumble about a smelly lab when his own intentionally grows microorganisms. However, as my lab group have the privilege of working with a yeast that produces one of the most commonly used floral aroma compounds in perfumery, the smell in our lab, I’m pleased to say, is akin to that of Kew Gardens. Besides, it’s the folk who work with bacteria that give us biologists the bad nasal rep. The Chemical Engineering lab does however have its own unique (and I’m sure perfectly health and safety compliant) smell. An aroma which, despite my certainty that hazardous chemicals were always handled within fume hoods, still triggered my unskilled hypochondriac nose. So naturally, I fired up the six bioreactors ASAP, filled them all with a litre of our wonderful yeast (with bouquets of rose and hints of leavened bread) and did everybody there a favour. You’re welcome.

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These ramblings are, of course, to be predicated by stating that being able to work so regularly in two differently equipped labs is a PhD blessing, no matter how many times I’ve had to ask questions like: ‘What does chloroform smell like?’ (Serious question, I smelt something funny) and ‘Which end does the stopcock go?’ (Rotavap jargon guys, calm down). I’m also certain that the chemical engineers would have their own gripes about a biologist swanning in and sticking yeast in pots, no matter how many times he keeps telling people “It’s fine! They smell like flowers!”

Isn’t interdisciplinary research a wonderful thing?

 

The Secret Life of an International Student living in Bath

📥  Secret Life Blogs

This post is written by an anonymous international student. Views are his/her own. 


Moving to a different country is always a pretty daunting challenge, but moving to another country to do a PhD? Not even in your first language? Well, one of those brave students has written a list of what they've learnt in their time living and studying in Bath.

1.       You will never walk alone.

“I am going to avoid [insert your first language] speakers so I will practise and improve my English” said everyone, did no one. As soon as you listen to a conversation in your language in the corridor or in a conference (the probability of this tends to be 1 if you are Spanish or Italian) you will be attracted to them. It is fine, do not cry, you can always learn English watching Netflix.

2.       British obsessions I: The World Cup.

Apparently, half a century ago, England won the Football World Cup against a country. You should know this, they will tell you this, they will remind you of this. Just smile and nod.

3.       British obsessions II: Brexit.

This one is odd because talking about Brexit generates confusion and anxiety to the Brits, however they cannot stop talking about it. In this situation just tell them that everything will be OK while you stroke your EU passport.

4.       Food is not so bad.

UK is worldwide known for its music, museums and other cultural stuff…but not for their food. In my opinion British food is excellent, here are some of my favourite traditional British dishes: Coronation Chicken, Tikka Masala and Singapore Noodles (all of which are available on Bath campus)

5.       It does rain. A lot. Stop complaining and buy an umbrella.

 

Three months of working at Departamento de Fisica-Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil

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📥  Internships & visits, Research updates

First year PhD student Serife Ustuner went on a three-month internship at University of São Paulo (USP) in Brazil. We asked her how she got on.


Tell us a bit about yourself

I am a first year PhD student in the CSCT and I am based in Electrical & Electronic Engineering Department of University of Bath.  My research looks into development of Electrochemical Detection techniques for diagnosis of disease such as cancer.

First of all, what made you go all the way to Brazil for your internship?

Some good networking by the end of my MRes project! I met Marina Batistuti, who had been an exchange PhD student from University of São Paulo (USP) within my supervisor’s lab. I had no idea that there was such a huge electrochemistry community in Brazil. We never lost contact after she left, so I decided to go for a PhD project on electrochemical detection for disease diagnosis after finishing my MRes project. My supervisor, Dr Pedro Estrela has an ongoing partnership with University of Sao Paulo and he recommended me to consider this great opportunity. So one email, a couple of skype meetings and the plan was set to meet Marina and her supervisor in USP, Prof Marcelo Mulato. A couple of months after, I found myself on placement at USP in a beautiful forest land, within heart of Brazil!

Crossing a river with a buggy placed on a boat – Natal, Brazil

What made you pick an academic setting over an industrial one?

To be honest, it’s an offer that comes once in a lifetime, I just couldn’t miss out. The challenge was real! I had six-weeks of time frame and so many tasks to overcome;

  • Moving to a completely different country, where English still remains a massive barrier over communication with locals.
  • Adapting to a completely different research environment.
  • Finding ways of getting my project essentials delivered all the way to Brazil.
  • Being introduced to completely new instruments.
  • Having no time for exploring more about the instruments, but making them work for my own research.
  • I could feel the clock ticking in my head constantly, we had loads in mind that we wanted to try and experiment while I was there but the time limit was quite challenging.

It has been an educational experience, which I believe is completely different from doing solely an academic or industry based internship, especially talking in terms of adaptation and time management skills.

Tijuca Forest National Park – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Tell us more about your work during this internship in Brazil?

I worked as a researcher within Sensors Lab, that was located in Physics Department of University of Sao Paulo. I was introduced to a mass sensitive detection platform, QCM-d (Quartz Crystal Microbalance with Dissipation). The device comes with additional and useful features compare to the traditional one we have here at University of Bath. The aim was working on a design that adopts the device for the detection of a pathogenic bacteria. Electrochemistry is an expanding research area in Brazil and I had the opportunity to attend one of the biggest electrochemistry conferences while I was there, 'XXI SIBEE – Simposio Brasileiro de Eletroquimica e Eletroanalitica'. I was amazed by the variety of research presented during this five day-long conference.

SIBEE Conference 2017- Natal, Brazil

Any interesting facts you would like to share about Brazil?

Couple I have in mind;

  • Their winter is pretty much like summer, even warmer than a British summer.
  • I have never been a big fan of fruits, but the variety and the freshness they had in Brazil made me fall in love with them. I still do miss that.
  • Locals loved calling me ‘Americana’. Although I tried explaining couple times that I am Cypriot and never actually been to America.
  • They are the warmest and the friendliest people ever.
  • Brazilian Barbecue – it’s a strong challenge.
  • PhD Vivas last for at least 6 hours in Brazil, where families/friends can enter and watch with snacks/popcorns. I have attended two, it's a very different/fun experience.

If you ever get such an opportunity to do a research internship in Brazil, I do recommend, with my all heart, not to miss it!

Sensors Lab Group - USP, Ribeirao Preto, Brazil

 

Speaking at RSC's 13th International Conference on Materials Chemistry

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📥  Comment, Research updates, Seminars & Conferences

From 10 - 13 July, the Arena and Convention Centre (ACC) Liverpool hosted the Royal Society of Chemistry’s 13th International Conference on Materials Chemistry (MC13). This conference happens every two years and always attracts hundreds of delegates from all over the world with diverse interests relating to materials chemistry.

After the long (and frankly dull) train journey from Bath to Liverpool, I made my way past the famous Albert Dock to the ACC and was immediately struck by its enormity. It was at this point that I began to appreciate the scale of this conference. My nervousness level went up a notch - I had given a talk to an international audience once before at the iPolymorphs conference in San Sebastian, but that was a much smaller meeting. The ACC was massive.

Fortunately, my anxiety was relieved for two reasons. Firstly, this year there were five parallel sessions to choose from and I would only be speaking in one of them, the Materials Design session, so would only be speaking to around a fifth of the 600+ delegates. Given that my PhD project involves developing new ways to computationally screen for new energy materials such as solar absorbers, this was the session of most interest to me and I spent most of my time there as well as in the Energy and Environment session. Secondly, as soon as the conference kicked off I was distracted by the excellent talks that were on offer.

Highlights included work by David Scanlon from UCL on searching for new solar absorbers using lessons learnt from the promising but currently highly unstable material methylammonium lead iodide (MAPI), and a plenary talk by Jeff Long from UC Berkeley on gas separation using metal organic frameworks, and that was just day one. Presentations at large conferences like this are a great way to quickly get up to date on the very latest advances in a research area, but also to get a broad overview of an unfamiliar topic, particularly in plenary talks that are given to the entire delegation.

I was speaking on day two and by the time my slot came around in the afternoon, I was more relaxed than I had expected. I think this was largely because the conference had quite a friendly feel to it. That is not to say that I had experiences of unfriendly conferences, but so far the questions and comments after each talk had been cordial and constructive, sparking excited discussion as opposed to awkward silence or heated debate. I expect I am not alone in my feeling that it is this final portion of a presentation that can be the most nerve-racking; you can be as prepared as you like but you can only guess as to what might be asked.

I was on straight after a keynote talk by David Mitzi from Duke University, who gave a superb overview of his work on searching for Earth-abundant solar absorbers. Top tip: If you are worried about starting a talk, have an ice-breaker ready to ease you and the audience in. My talk was entitled Low-cost High-throughput Screening of All Inorganic Materials; a bold and frankly ridiculous claim which was an ice-breaker in itself. It had the desired effect as the session chair commented that we probably wouldn’t have time for All inorganic materials in 15 minutes.

Top tip number two: There is a lot of information to be gleaned from the questions you are asked after a presentation, and they fall into three main camps:

  1. You get questions that you are not expecting because you thought you’d covered it in your talk or that it was obvious. This gives you an insight into what to explain more carefully or in more detail next time.
  2. You get questions that show an understanding of what you said as well as intrigue or curiosity, maybe asking you to expand on something that you’d mentioned (these questions are often prefaced with “Hi, nice talk…” or words to that effect). This is good - you kept (at least some of) your audience interested.
  3. You get no questions at all. You might have lost the audience somewhere early on or pitched the talk at the wrong level. Note: this logic does not apply if your session is immediately before lunch or a poster session involving refreshments.

Happily, most of the questions I received fell into the second category.

My talk was immediately followed by CSCT alumnus Adam Jackson who now has a post-doctoral position at UCL and gave a great talk on the computational design of a new transparent conducting oxide – another conference highlight for me. The chair closed the session by commenting how it was particularly nice to see some great talks from early-career researchers. It must be the rigorous CSCT training.

The conference concluded with a dinner at Anfield Stadium. Anyone who knows me will attest that I am not a huge fan of football (is it the one where millionaires shepherd a ball into an outside cupboard with their feet?) but it was a great venue nonetheless. A fantastic end to a fantastic conference. I’m looking forward to MC14 already.


Dan is currently working on his PhD project: 'High-throughput Computation of Materials and Interfaces’' with Professor Aron Walsh, Dr Duncan Allsopp and Dr Ben Morgan.

 

Home is Where Clean Water Flows

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📥  Seminars & Conferences

IWA Young Water Professional Benelux Conference, 5-7 July

Going back to the source

On the 5th of July I returned to the Bioscience Engineering department of the University of Ghent where I gained my Master’s degree in Bioscience Engineering nearly a year ago. The department was hosting the 5th IWA Young Water Professionals BeNeLux (Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg) conference. A total of 140 participants had the opportunity to listen to 73 presentations spread over 3 parallel sessions, take part in 2 of the 7 offered workshops and network over posters, coffee, and rooftop-grown, sustainable food from Ghent. Additionally, 4 social activities were offered which resulted in a total of 232 special Belgian beers consumed, responsible for 17 m3 of water usage according to the organising committee.

Queuing for sustainable rooftop-grown food

The first day started in the late afternoon with a welcome reception allowing participants to eat some traditional Belgian fries from a real “frietkot” and loosen up the conversation after a Belgian beer. For me, it was a wonderful opportunity to see my old research group. I was brought up-to-date with the ongoing research, for instance how the results from my dissertation, for which I operated 2 bioreactors on a 5 litre scale, contributed to the start-up of a pilot scale 60 litre bioreactor (my undergrad research was actually useful!).

Getting back in touch

A typical Belgian mobile frietkot

“What do you mean I got accepted to give a presentation?!”

The second and third day were in full conference mode including inspiring presentations, workshops and a guided evening walk through Ghent followed by a classic YWParty. The presentation sessions allowed me to listen to talks about emerging micropollutants, which fits great with my MRes 2 topic. Other talks were about anaerobic microbial processes for the production of VFA and anaerobic digestion, a topic right up my alley!

Although I must admit I was a little nervous about those presentation sessions as I was one of the speakers. Giving a 15-minute presentation followed by 5 minutes of questions as a (not even) first year PhD student next to PhD candidates in their final year could have been overwhelming if it wasn’t for the supportive audience and relaxed atmosphere. I got some great feedback, tips/tricks and new research/presentation ideas (also a huge confidence boost). This is why I highly recommend others to participate in a YWP conference and take a chance at presenting!

Presenting my MRes1 project

Two other presentation sessions I attended (physicochemical water treatment and electrochemical treatment methods) were not linked to my own research yet I recognized topics studied by other CSCT students allowing me to gain a better insight in other water research fields.

Would you drink it?

Keynote and plenary speakers talked about the circular economy of water, how a change of perceptions requires speaking to peoples’ emotions, the typical issues encountered when scientists and lawyers meet and the synergy about fundamental and applied research. In terms of circular economy of water, let me introduce you the UGent’s “Sewer to Brewer” beer (brewed using recovered wastewater!).

From tidying data to saving Haiti

The two workshops I attended were very different but equally both inspiring. The first taught me all about tidy data, how publishing data is as valuable as publishing papers, the usefulness of Github and how scripting data can really make your life as a researcher easier as long as you do it wisely (For more info I recommend looking up “Good enough practices for Scientific Computing” by Greg Wilson, and checking out www.5stardata.info).

Tidying data in the workshop

The second workshop was given by Doctors Without Borders. I had no idea about the valuable work they do in the field of water, hygiene, and sanitation. They are always looking for engineers and scientists for projects regarding water supply, water treatment, vector control, waste management and much more. In a case study, we had to work in a team to supply drinking water in a Haitian city that was hit by 3 consecutive hurricanes under time pressure. This challenge only showed a glimpse of how ingenious and stress-resilient you would have to be to work during such tragic events on the field.

A very tiring yet fruitful set of days

In conclusion, I can say the conference was a great learning experience, providing me with loads of new ideas and useful tips. It was great strengthening old connections and meeting YWP working in the industry, doing a PhD or working as post-doc, which reminds me to go and invite/accept invitations on LinkdIn!

Group photo

European Materials Research Society Spring Meeting - Two years on!

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📥  Seminars & Conferences

The following blog is written by Suzy Wallace.


 

I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the European Materials Research Society (E-MRS) Spring Meeting twice now during my PhD. The first time I presented at this meeting was during my first year (after completing our first MRes project) and the second time was between May 22 and 26 this year, which is the third year of my PhD. So, what’s changed between now and then besides the orientation of the sign?

Well it turns out that quite a lot has happened in my field of solar cell research, in terms of the understanding of solar cell materials I was already familiar with (and their current shortcomings preventing them from being on top of all our roofs already!) and new materials altogether that are emerging as contenders for new, efficient solar cell technologies. There was even a talk on using atomicly thin solar cells in outer space, beaming the electricity back to Earth via microwaves, which overcomes the issue of storing energy generated from sunlight when it’s dark on Earth. I assume the devices would be thin enough to be semi-transparent since I personally would feel a bit grumpy being in the shade for weeks or months if I lived directly below! The big plenary session in the middle of the conference highlighted various hot topics in the broader field of materials research including developing sensors for ‘electronic noses’ and thin layers of materials that are so sensitive to changes in humidity that they could potentially be used for ‘touchless’ as opposed to ‘touchscreen’ phones due to the humidity in our fingers. Some of the research into electronic noses is inspired by this guy below and his massive antennae:

 

So clearly the science has changed in two years, which isn’t altogether surprising given how rapidly changing a field science is in general; but what else has changed? The venue was different this year, with the conference being held in Strasbourg from now on (as opposed to Lille). Strasbourg was a lovely city, I’d go so far as to say unnecessarily pretty, it was showing off really. It’s also a nice city for a conference since it was pretty small so you could easily see most of it in a short space of time. The conference social was quite like the one in Lille, although this time the dancing also involved a giant horn, presumably this is something associated with Strasbourg but not Lille, unless it’s just another recent trend, like electronic noses?

 

Then I suppose the last thing to comment on that has changed between EMRS 2015 and 2017 is myself! I’m not shorter (despite appearances in the two photos with the EMRS signs), but I found the experience of the conference different this time around. Firstly, I felt less nervous presenting this time, as 2015 was the first time I’d presented at a conference. EMRS 2015 had been my favourite conference so far in terms of the scientific content and 2017 did not disappoint. However, I think what I gained from attending the various talks was different this time around. I found that a lot more of the concepts were more familiar, but the main difference I noticed (as someone whose research is based on a computer with simulations as opposed to in a lab), was that I felt a lot more familiar with presentations on various experimental studies this time around. I largely attribute this to the ‘wild card’ second MRes project you get to do during your first year (which I hadn’t done before I attended the EMRS in 2015), where I got to get some hands-on experimental experience and very much benefited from working with fellow CDT solar cell researchers Oli Weber, Mako Ng as well as Professors Mark Weller and Chris Bowen at the University of Bath. So, overall, I’d have to say attending the EMRS Spring Meeting again has left me feeling very grateful for the diverse experience I got during the first year of my PhD. At the time, I must admit I felt like a bit of a fish out of water in the labs, but I’m very glad for that experience now!


Suzy is working towards her PhD on 'Overcoming the efficiency bottleneck of metal sulfide solar cells' with Professor Aron Walsh, Professor Chris Bowen and Professor Mark Weller.