Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Fall MRS Meeting: Mentoring and Solar Cell Minerals in Boston

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📥  Seminars & Conferences

This year I attended the 2017 Fall MRS (Materials Research Society) Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. I presented research conducted in collaboration with Duke University on the properties of selected photoactive minerals, evaluating their potential for use as the light absorbing layer in a solar cell device. In my work, the material properties are predicted from computational simulations using a software package called ‘FHI-aims’, which is developed at several institutions including Duke University. So, in my talk, I was essentially showing off my ‘virtual rock collection’. But the goal was to introduce these materials to the broader research field so that their potential application in solar cells may be explored further with experimental measurements. Conveniently, there were plenty of experimentalists to chat to in my session ‘Earth Abundant Metal Oxides, Sulfides and Selenides for Energy Systems and Devices’.

This was by far the biggest conference I have attended with 6,583 attendees this year, talks between two venues and 54 different talk sessions to choose from! Apart from the enormity of this meeting (and trying to find your way around to get to all the talks in different sessions you wanted to attend!), the new experience for me at this meeting was participation in the ‘Broadening Participation in Materials Science Undergraduate Mentoring Program’. The Broadening Participation in Materials is a subcommittee of the MRS with the aim of promoting diversity and inclusion in materials science. The program I took part in during the MRS meeting pairs undergraduate, underrepresented students with graduate student or postdoc mentors and there is a special program of events and training for mentors and mentees to attend. Mentors and mentees are paired up based on various factors such as similar research interests and the skills each party wished to develop during the program. The mentees present a research poster at the MRS meeting, so mentors and mentees are put in contact with each other before the meeting so that mentees have access to guidance on poster preparation from their mentor if they have any queries.

The mentoring program kicked off with a mentoring workshop on the Sunday afternoon before the first day of the meeting. This was a nice opportunity to meet other mentors, who varied from graduate students such as myself with very little experience of mentoring, to academics who already supervise numerous students. During this workshop, we discussed several very thought-provoking case studies for situations that may be encountered as a mentor and strategies to handle such situations. The diversity in the experience of mentors in the program here made for very interesting discussions, with some mentors having encountered similar situations already as mentors and other mentors having either witnessed similar situations as a bystander or having been on the receiving end as a mentee themselves. There were also exercises to illustrate effective (or not-so-effective!) communication between a mentor and mentee, specifically, the effect of using predominantly ‘yes, and…’ or ‘not, but…’ when steering a conversation. This is something I feel that you need to try to appreciate the effects!

On the first day of the meeting we had our mentoring breakfast when you get to meet your mentee(s)! Prior to this, we were all introduced to our mentees via the messaging software ‘slack’, so I had an idea of the research they were presenting a poster on beforehand. During the  breakfast, we were introduced to ‘elevator pitches’ to pitch the key features of your research in a snappy manner and took part in an exercise of summing up your research in one sentence, a surprisingly formidable task. The next main event in the program was the ‘Using Improv for Communications’ workshop. This workshop made for a nice break from attending scientific talks, to get re-energized ready to head back with a renewed focus for the rest of the talks that day! In addition to some short games to shake off the cobwebs, the workshop focused more on elevator pitches. Another exercise involved splitting off into small groups, explaining the key parts of your research to your partner in progressively short amounts of time after receiving feedback from your partner. It was interesting here to find out what stood out to your partner as the key aspects to highlight and the most effective explanations to use, especially when you only have 30 seconds…!

The main event of the program was the poster session that our mentees presented posters in. As someone with very little experience as a mentor, this was a very new experience to me! I wanted to make sure that my mentees felt I was always available if they wanted to ask anything (the use of ‘slack’ messaging software was very good in this regard), but I also was conscious to not interfere if it wasn’t necessary and to allow my mentees to find their own way around and to enjoy their poster session without feeling like they were under the constant watchful eye of a mentor! This is certainly a delicate balance to strike, and not something I had experienced before. Participating in the program providing some very valuable training and new experiences for me so I would definitely recommend this to anyone else attending future MRS meetings. As a mentor, you also get a special gold ‘mentor’ tag to add to your conference badge, which was also pretty snazzy.

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.


Materials Research Society Conference in Boston

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📥  Seminars & Conferences

From 26 November to 1 December I attended the 2017 Boston MRS Fall Meeting. This major conference was a great experience, full of talks and poster sessions covering the hot topics of materials science. In addition, I was lucky enough that this year there was a specific symposium covering the main topic of my PhD, entitled: ‘ESO2: On the Way to Sustainable Solar Fuels-New Concepts, Materials and System Integration’, where I got inspired from experts of the field. I attended interesting talks by Professor Avner Rotschild on Photoelectrochemical Water Splitting for Solar Energy Conversion and Storage, Professor Juan Morante on Solar Refineries for CO2 reduction, Dr Yasuhiro Tachibana on Quantum Dots, Professor Lionel Vayssieres on Design, Performance and Stability of Photocatalyts for water splitting and many others!

Boston Landscape

On Monday evening I presented my poster in the ESO2 symposium, a two-hour long poster session from 8pm to 10pm! The number of people attending the session was massive so I had the opportunity to discuss my work with many researchers and establish research collaborations with other groups. In addition, on Wednesday evening I also attended the second poster session of the same symposium where I met other researchers working in a variety of fields.

Miriam during the poster session and views from the conference building

Even though I spent most of the week attending the ESO2 symposium (about solar fuels) I also attended a few sessions of the ESO3 symposium: ‘Earth abundant Metal Oxides, Sulfides and Selenides for Energy systems and devices’. This symposium was more focused on the synthesis and features of the materials. This is extremely important for energy applications, especially water splitting, since different morphologies and compositions can change a lot the final performance and efficiency of the photocatalyst.

During the conference I also attended other sessions, such as the ‘International Summit of MRS University Chapters on Sustainability and Nanotechnology’. These sessions covered key sustainability topics in a broad manner. For instance, one session covered the background of water splitting and the key topics that need to be tackled to bring this technology into the real market.  Two great speakers of this session were Professor Hicham Idriss from Saudi Arabia and Professor Lionel Vayssieres from China. Professor Idriss gave an overview of advantages and disadvantages that a large scale photoelectrochemical reactor has. On the other hand, Professor Vayssieres highlighted his main research topics and key publications dealing with metal oxides and water splitting.

Furthermore, being in Boston for a week also gave me the opportunity to visit the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus and the MIT museum. The MIT museum was really interesting! It had several exhibitions: Robots and Beyond, Big Bang Data and Holography: Dimensions of light. The Holography exhibition was of particular interest since you could get an insight of how the eyes, brain and light play a key role to create a 3D image.

Robots exhibition in MIT museum

Miriam is a second year PhD student working with Dr Salvador Eslava on the development of metal oxides for solar water splitting.


The story about GSK, robots and PhD students

📥  Comment, Internships & visits, Research updates

On 22 January, six students from the CSCT had the great pleasure of visiting GlaxoSmithKline’s Research & Development sites in Stevenage. For many of us it was our first visit to an industrial R&D facility. All of us had slightly different reasons to go on this trip, some of us wanted to see how research in industry differs from academia, some of us have research projects related to the pharmaceutical industry, but I can say for sure that all of us were excited to see how the working environment in industry compares to academia.



We started in the Catalysis Screening Facilities, the first thing we noticed – so much equipment! The density of equipment in this lab was comparable to density of pubs in Bath. It is fair to say that our favourite was an automated weighing machine! How many times have you tried to weigh 20 vials with the same amount of solid? Well, this machine can do it for you.

The next stop was in the Synthetic Biochemistry Facilities. After a quick introduction to enzymatic reactions we got to see the lab, all associated equipment and… more robots! We also learnt how many people are needed to screen up to 2000 enzymatic reactions at once – the answer is one! One person and a few robots - the work that some people do in a month can be done in days!

The next labs which we saw were Flow and Photochemistry labs. We enjoyed seeing the wide range of available solutions including batch and flow reactors. Students who work with photochemistry could benefit from practical tips about proper set up.


We finished the tour with the Scale-up Facilities, where final checks are carried out to ensure the feasibility of the process in a pilot plant. The most impressive part was probably the scale on which experiments were carried out. For us, large scale is about 10g where for industry it is kilograms. We also learnt that the devil is in the detail and it is really impressive how well designed the rigs are and how much analytical equipment, like cameras or IR probes you can squeeze into one rig.

This trip was a chance to talk to current scientists working at GSK to discuss their varied careers, as well as seek help and advice in furthering our own. We also had the opportunity to talk about green chemistry in the pharmaceutical industry and challenges associated with it. It is quite funny, it does not matter if you are from academia or from industry, but introducing new greener solutions is often challenging due to people who are afraid of change. We were also impressed by GSK’s sustainability goals, the most memorable goal for me was being carbon neutral by 2050. That is a great example of industry aiming high in their sustainability goals.

We finished our visit with short presentations from the CSCT students where we showcased the wide range of research undertaken in CSCT.


Overall, we spent an amazing time in GSK and we are grateful to Dr Helen Sneddon and Dr Catherine Alder for the warm welcome and organising this tour for us. We would also like to thank Marc and Simon for arranging the trip and driving us there.


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.


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?