Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Posts By: Caitlin Taylor

Voice of the Future 2017: A day out in Parliament

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📥  Events

On the 15th of March, I headed to Parliament for an event organised by the Royal Society of Biology, called “Voice of the Future”. This event allows for the tables to be turned on MPs and select committees, with young scientists and researchers asking the questions that matter to them.

It was held in Portcullis house, the sci-fi looking building next to Big Ben, which acts as another wing of parliament. The building has an air of chaos surrounding it, with people running around and screens in every room with constant updates from the House of Commons. We required pretty heavy security to enter, and we weren’t allowed to take any photos or go into the café area (I think MPs are all a bit jumpy about unflattering-career-ending photos).

I was representing the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), and successfully applied with this question:

“In the 2015 manifestos, water quality received significantly less attention than other key environmental issues, despite increasing evidence of water's key role in antibiotic resistance, climate change and wildlife damage. Why is water quality so overlooked? And how can this be changed?”

However, when I arrived I found out they had completely changed a lot of our questions, so my question about why water quality isn’t on the agenda was taken off the agenda…  My question was changed to “With less than 15% of MPs with backgrounds in STEM, how should the government ensure that policy-making remains firmly based on evidence?” (A question I was hesitant over, as it implied that only scientists can understand evidence. As scientists and experts, we have a responsibility to effectively communicate our message to the wider audience).

           VOF 1

Stephen Metcalfe MP, Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee replied:

“I don’t think that there has to be a direct link between having a science background and being able to base your decision-making process upon evidence. If you believe in evidence you all have to stand up for it.” He went on to state that there are times when government takes a different path and doesn’t follow the evidence, due to other considerations. However, this should never be because the evidence doesn’t suit a particular agenda and evidence should remain at the heart of everything government does.

Dr Tania Mathias MP added:

“We do have some engineers in Parliament and I’m sure we could always do with some more. The fact is evidence is scrutinised ever day in Parliamentary debates. You will get pulled up if your argument and your evidence isn’t strong.”

Tania went on to explain that the UK parliament is the only one in the world with opposing benches. She stated that this means you will be heavily scrutinised, and will be pulled up if your evidence or argument isn’t strong enough (reminds you of a viva, no?).

The MPs never missed an opportunity to take a dig at the other parties' policy, leaders, handling of EU, handling of Trump but of course, the session was dominated (like the rest of British culture) by the ever looming Brexit (first mention of “Brexit means Brexit” recorded at a mere 22 minutes). Jo Johnson MP (of the same relation and the same blonde floppy hair) seemed to have a particularly high volume of Brexit questions including:

“With the Brexit negotiations up and coming, how will the Government ensure that vital collaboration and communication can continue with our European colleagues?

His response:

“Firstly, we have to remember we are for the moment, still a member of the EU with all the rights and obligation that go with being a member.

We’ve been very clear as a government that we value our European research partnerships, and we value collaborative structures with countries in Europe and broadly around the world and we will want to ensure those collaborative relationships continue to be productive in years to come”

In response to concern surrounding gaps in research funding, he stated:

“In the budget we have allocated £270 million within the industrial strategy challenge fund, for research activity.”

(Disclaimer: This figure has not made it to the side of a bus just yet)

vof 2

Chi Onwurah MP, the shadow minister for industrial; strategy, science and innovation, who said she went into politics for the same reason she went into science, “because they make the world a better place, they are the engines of progress… I think you’ll all agree on that for S&E, maybe not for politics”.

On the topic of the lack of women in STEMM, Chi, an electrical engineer herself, stated that the number of female engineering students at her old university, Imperial, has remained constant at 12% since she attended in 1984. She continued that there have been a number of initiatives that have been unsuccessful in increasing the number of females across STEMM, and the importance of understanding why that is:

“There is a reason more women haven’t been going into science and engineering for decades, we need to do something about that. We need not to blame historical facts, which are a consequence of science and engineering not welcoming women over centuries. The proportion of women who are fellows of the Royal Society is just 7%, so we need to encourage initiatives like Athena Swan, more transparency, and support different universities, institutions, programs which are successful".

Whilst on the topic of Donald Trump, she stated: “My big concern obviously is the Trump Administration science policy doesn’t seem to be a science policy.”

She emphasised with continuing strong ties with American scientists and institutes, which she points out haven’t “all become trump supporters overnight”. She also stated “we need to be clear, we’re not going to change the meaning of science for one man”.

Overall, it was a fantastic opportunity to see the complex but vital relationship between science and government, as well as a snapshot into how government works. I would highly recommend anyone to apply for it next year!

Personal Highlight: Hilary Benn MP running in, to find the Brexit committee had moved. If you have any information regarding the whereabouts of the missing Brexit committee, could you let Westminster know.


Spot the Physicist: The Secret Life of a Physicist in Chemistry

📥  Comment, Secret Life Blogs

Our anonymous Physicist shares snippets of their life in the Chemistry labs.

What do you think of when you hear the word Physicist? What do you think of when you hear the word Chemist? Do you think of two very different people? Do you think of men (…hang on I won’t go there).

In many areas of research there is such an overlap between different areas of science that, often, the boundary between different disciplines becomes blurred. In fact, huge leaps in scientific understanding can be made by taking advantage of cross disciplinary work, but what does this mean for the lowly PhD student? Apart from getting that all important step count up on the iPhone by running between departments, it also means venturing where few physicists have dared venture before, the chemistry labs. On first inspection I found myself surprised by the number of things in one room that could kill me. “Don’t breath that in it’ll suffocate you, don’t spill that it’ll burn off your hand, don’t put that in that it’ll explode,” were just some of the first snippets of advice on entering the lab. So, with my nerves calmed, I promptly started work.

Through my time working I became acutely aware of the ‘learning curve’ I was on (shown Figure 1). The period of time where you learn so much about your new lab that your confidence level takes a little while to catch up.  The same period of time where I would probably be surprised that I’d actually managed to make sodium chloride by reacting together sodium and chloride. The same period where, when I was told I would be working with seven molar acid I thought “seven, that’s a small number”.

Figure 1: A journey into the unknown

Of course there’s the language, physics speaks the language of maths.  Does a page full of equations scare you? Well a page full of words scares a physicist. All of a sudden I was thrown into a world of mechanisms, and schlenks, and rotavaps, not to even start on all the solvent acronyms; people might as well have been speaking Russian (why are there arrows everywhere?!). I never thought I’d find myself longing to solve a good time dependent Schrodinger equation, but sometimes a full page of complex mathematics does wonders for the soul.

Despite the lab’s best efforts, I find myself still alive to tell this tale, not only that, but advocating the importance of more scientists leaving the comfort of their familiar lab for an unfamiliar one, learning new skills and becoming rounded researchers able to tackle almost any problem. If you can’t tackle it, working across departments will almost certainly mean you know someone that can.

For now I have to remember not to put water into acid, or was it acid into water……


The Secret Life of a Computational Scientist in the Chemistry Department


📥  Research updates, Secret Life Blogs

In this first of our series of Secret Life Blogs, you will get an insight into the life of an anonymous Computational Scientist at the CSCT. 

computer-anonymousIn the depths of every chemistry department lies a lab unlike any other. No fume hoods, no questionable stains, a considerable lack of COSHH forms and any glassware contains a drinkable liquid. This lab belongs to the elusive computational chemists. Obviously, computational chemistry is rather different to the “traditional chemistry” we all dreamed of, but why do these strange individuals choose to live out their PhD lives staring at virtual atoms and molecules on their monitors? Here are some questions that you didn’t ask, answered anyway.

What do you actually do?
In a nutshell: Use powerful computers to (approximately) solve complex equations. The solutions to these equations shed light on the microscopic structure and origins of the macroscopic properties of chemical systems and materials. These days, computational chemistry is not so much a subsection of chemistry, but an exciting area where chemistry, quantum mechanics, physics, materials engineering, materials science and other disciplines all meet.

But I hate maths and physics, so I should avoid a computational project at all costs, right?
Well first things first, as scientists, there is no such thing as being bad at maths. Come on guys, let's just admit, we’re pretty decent at maths (clap yourself on the back). For computational modelling, it’s good to have an interest in maths as well as the “physics-y” end of the chemistry spectrum, for sure, but this should by no means is a deal breaker. Fortunately, there are a plethora of handy programs that can do all of the complicated mathematical legwork for you.

Computational chemistry 1

So you just put a couple of numbers in and press go!? Sounds like the dream!
Woah now, let’s nip this one in the bud. If there’s one thing we know about computers it’s that if you put rubbish in, you get rubbish out (or in other words, Computer says no). This is as true for simple addition on a pocket calculator as it is for a density functional theory code run on a national High Performance Computer. With so many variables that can influence the outcome of some of these simulations, getting sensible and meaningful numbers out of your calculations often requires a lot of experimenting. It is not as simple as ticking some boxes, pressing go, watching alternate videos about dancing cats and how to make hummus until the calculation has run and then pressing “publish paper”.

Computational chemistry 2

Hang on, so do you have to know how all the programs work or not?
You don’t need to read and understand all the code that makes up all the programs that you use. That would just be… mental. You can think of the programs, which contain all the whizzy physics and maths, as a car that you are using to traverse the terrain that is the structure landscape of your model system or material: You don’t have to know exactly how every part of the engine works or how the whole thing is bolted together to have a fruitful drive. Having said that, you do need to know how to drive it, where the fuel goes, how to check the oil and any post-docs in your office would probably really appreciate it if you knew how to change a wheel on your own.

Be honest… were you just a liability in the lab?
I was absolutely marvellous in the lab, thanks for asking. But in my experience, sometimes working in a lab was not all is cracked up to be (gasps echo through the corridors of chemistry). Granted, there’s definitely something really cool and highly satisfying about lab work: You start with one set of things, and by coaxing the atoms to do what you want, you finish with something different. However labs can also be maddeningly frustrating places in which your precious compound spills, the solvents run out and the glassware breaks. Believe it or not, that same sense of satisfaction that tickles the geek bone can be achieved within the realms of computational chemistry (no lab coat and goggles necessary!). Being able to shed light on mysterious or unexplained experimental data or tackle questions that you simply could not approach experimentally is a good enough justification for me to undertake a computational project.

None of your chemicals are real though. You know that, right?
Yes, thanks for that. Hopefully no amount of project-induced stress will cause me to start believing otherwise. But enjoy carrying out risk assessments for all of yours.

What’s the point then?
Have you ever checked the weather forecast? I bet you have. Simulations can be really, really useful! Over the past decade or so, computers have become incredibly powerful, which means even more accurate simulations are possible- they even get the weather right most of the time now. It’s the same with computational chemistry: many real-life, experimentally measurable material and chemical properties can be predicted by various methods incredibly accurately. This has immense applications for designing new materials as it gives a good indication as to what to try synthesising and fabricating first. The key, as with any methodology, is to know the limitations of each and which should be applied to what.

What do you like most about computational chemistry?
There is something really cool about moving individual atoms and molecules about in a material and getting results out that show how that has affected tangible, macroscopic properties. It’s also a big bonus to gain extremely transferrable skills along the way, like learning a programming language or two. You’ll soon find yourself writing loads of little programs to make all sorts of tasks so much easier or less repetitive. Also, no washing up.

What are the snags?
In this line of work, often what you’re waiting for is the program to predict the lowest energy configuration of the system, which represents its most stable state or ground state. Sometimes this takes ages and quite often the systems just don’t converge at all and you need to rethink your approach and start all over again. You also don’t get to wear a lab coat..…well, not legitimately.

Would you recommend it to a friend?
My advice would be to absolutely give it a whirl or to seriously consider doing so. Dismiss any notions that you’re “not good at maths” or you’re “not good with computers” as the baseless lies that they are if that’s what’s stopping you and either way push the boundaries of your comfort zone. Yes, it probably will be quite a steep learning curve no matter what your background given the intrinsic interdisciplinary nature of the field, but since when was a steep learning curve a bad thing?

With that our anonymous computational chemist scurried back to their lab. So next time you bump into a computational chemist, don’t be afraid to stop and have a chat. They won’t speak in just 011101 and could have some great ideas how to add some computational chemistry to your work, and if not they’ll have a great hummus recipe for sure.