Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Topic: Comment

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

  , ,

📥  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?


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

  , ,

📥  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.


Developing the Next Generation of Solar Cells at Oxford PV

  , ,

📥  Case Studies, Comment, Internships & visits

Since January I’ve been working with scientists and engineers at Oxford Photovoltaics, a start-up company spun out from Oxford University research that aims to scale up and commercialise perovskite solar cells (so named for the crystal structure of the absorber material).


Perovskite cells have obtained similar efficiencies to established solar cell technologies like silicon, but are thinner, cheaper and easier to make. They can also be engineered to absorb a different part of the visible solar spectrum than silicon and so be integrated straight on top of silicon cells to make a tandem device that is more efficient than either component on its own.

Instability has been a major problem to solve for perovskite cells, but the research community has made rapid progress on designing more stable devices since they were first reported just a few years ago.

How did I identify this placement?

Basically by speaking to people! I met engineers from Oxford PV at a conference in Swansea and asked if they’d consider hosting a placement student. An interview and a few logistical matters later it was somehow already time to begin.

What were the key differences to working in an academic setting?

The pressures definitely feel different to academia. At University you want to explore research questions in depth and preferably be the first person to publish and tell the world about your science, while in industry everything is kept under wraps. You have to focus on quickly delivering the commercial aspects of the research, even if it means leaving interesting tangential questions unanswered, since the commercial competition is fierce.

What would I recommend for students thinking about an internship?

Absolutely go for one! Be careful that both you and the host organisation know what to expect, bring energy and enthusiasm to the role and it’s a real chance to learn a lot in a different environment, potentially outside your comfort zone. Three months is not a lot of time to execute a project in a new setting, so I had to quickly get up to speed with procedures and equipment. The result is that I’ve had a fantastic time, learnt a huge amount both scientifically and about how things are done in a start-up company and met many people working on making a promising new renewable energy technology into a commercial reality.

Oli is studying towards his PhD on 'Optimizing energy harvesting processes in metal halide photovoltaics' with Professor Mark Weller and Professor Chris Bowen.