(Not so) Crystal Clear Chemistry

Posted in: Internships & visits

Hannah Sullivan is a final year student at the CSCT. Hannah's PhD work focusses on creating transparent, thin-film materials that could make LEDs and other low-powered transparent devices more efficient. Last summer, Hannah was offered the possibility to spend three months in California (USA) working with Professor Power and the Power Lab.

This tale begins in April 2018, when my supervisor suggested the prospect of a placement out in California. Swaying palm trees, sandy beaches, beautiful weather… Who would say no?! I, of course, accepted. Cue many months of visa applications (top tip: ensure you have paid for all fees before getting to the embassy – there are far more of them than you think), accommodation searching, and science planning before I was finally ready to board my flight on 4 July 2019.

Almost 48 hours after I had got on my plane in the UK, I arrived at my first Friday group meeting to meet with my new group and find out who was who and where on earth I had landed myself for the following three months.

Apparently roaming wild turkeys are a common sight in Davis


I had travelled to the University of California, Davis, to work with Professor Philip Power FRS developing low-valent molecular precursors for transparent conducting materials. In essence, these molecules are made to break down and form thin conductive films. Professor Power is world-renown for making these low-valent molecules, so where better for me to be!

Straight away, the Power group were incredibly welcoming. They set me up with my own fume hood (a glass-fronted cupboard with extraction), my own Schlenk line (a piece of glassware that allows you to run reactions in a controlled atmosphere) and loads of glassware – a luxury in any chemistry lab! I hit the ground running with my first set of reactions, excited to get going, and pretty quickly found out that this was not going to be an easy placement.

Normally, when I run a reaction, I am looking for a beautiful crystal clear solution like this:

A crystal clear solution

These crystal clear solutions produce beautiful crystals that we fire x-rays at to find out what their molecular structure looks like.

Pretty crystals

However, all I was getting for the first eight weeks (!) of my placement was more like this:


Not something that anyone could refer to as “crystal clear”.

After a while, “trying again” just doesn’t cut it. So, I modified my project.

I had a chat with my group, did some reading around in the literature and took a gamble – I used the same style of starting materials but I skipped a step in the process, hoping to get something slightly different. Lo and behold, I was back in business!


Four weeks later, I’d managed to make a decent dent into this research and I’m now in the process of writing the data up for a paper. It’s in a slightly different field to my usual work, so I’ve been able to explore a more fundamental style of Chemistry. This work also sparked a few ideas in my research group back in Bath, which is really exciting as it means that my desperate gamble to get some results in California will hopefully produce a lot more than I originally expected.

By the end of my internship, I had been on a rollercoaster of chemistry ups and downs, found out it is possible to miss the rain, and discovered that my greatest love is an old-fashioned glazed donut.

So, what do you do when things don’t work? Well, in my experience, you just need to take a step back, get a second opinion, eat a donut (old fashioned, of course) and try something different*.

*And, if you can, you also spend a few weeks exploring the amazing National Parks in the USA to really clear your head and destress!


I would like to extend my thanks to Professor P Power FRS and his research group for supporting me through my internship. I would also like to thanks the University of Bath’s Doctoral College and the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies for funding my internship.

Posted in: Internships & visits


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