Marco Piccini is a 2nd year PhD student at the CSCT, working with the Buchard group on obtaining sustainable plastics from sugars – particularly those coming from waste streams like agricultural waste, to avoid the competition with food and land.

In December 2019, Marco attended “Frontiers in Green Materials”, a symposium held in London by the Institution of Civil Engineers. There he presented his work on polymers from xylose and fatty acids, which was also recently published in Polymer Chemistry.

When I saw the advert for the ‘Frontiers in Green Materialssymposium, I thought it could make a good way to embark on the world of conferences. A rather small, one-day event held in the UK, also very relevant to my research on sustainable polymers, seemed ideal to start the second year of my PhD, so I submitted a poster.

I was very surprised when I was offered an oral presentation. Initially, I was about to decline and get just the poster, as I was too scared to take a step that seemed too big. But then, I realised that it was probably better for me to start with a talk at a small conference, with fewer attendees, rather than an audience of hundreds of people. Also persuaded by my supervisor – who described it as a familiar, informal gathering – I accepted.

A couple of months later, the tentative programme featured Professor James Clark as plenary speaker. His extremely high scientific profile in the field of Green Chemistry was the first indication that I had underestimated the importance of the event. The feeling got definitely worse when I read the final programme, published a couple of weeks before the Symposium – I was scheduled to speak immediately after Professor Clark. No pressure...

Fast forward to the day of the event. GWR service to London, travelling with two of my fellow PhD students from the Buchard group. The train, which should have allowed us plenty of time to arrive early at the conference, was obviously delayed. No way of getting there on time. And, of course, the tube seemed to go dead slow and stopped several times in the darkness.

Some time later, we got to the venue. Placed in the very heart of Westminster, the Institution of Civil Engineers is a monumental building with highly decorated interiors, made even more beautiful with all the Christmas lights. The meeting had already started and, to get to the conference room through the back door without disturbing everyone, they took us… through the kitchen. Quite a singular start for a conference in a fancy venue!

The Institution of Civil Engineers – a beautiful building, even more fascinating with Christmas decorations.

The morning session turned out to be really interesting, with excellent speakers from France, Qatar, US and UK covering many research areas, from sustainable polymers to applied materials and waste management. The high profile of all these academics, each of whom was acknowledging dozens of collaborators and partners, made me increasingly worried about my talk – why on Earth had they invited me to speak?!

Luckily, the poster session worked quite well as an ice breaker, giving me the opportunity to talk about my research to a few of these scary academics, who of course turned out to be lovely people. I also had the pleasure to meet Professor Etienne Grau, whose research was a source of inspiration for my project. After lunch (surely below expectations, given the surrounding fanciness), my slot was fast approaching with subsequent mixed feelings (should I just run away? pretend to be dying?).

After Professor Clark's great plenary talk, however, I felt that nobody would compare my presentation to his, so I managed to deliver it rather smoothly. Once it was all over, my heart still beating superfast, I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon session as much as I did the morning. Sadly, there was no wine reception at the end, but a good pub was just around the corner.

Professor James Clark giving his plenary talk...
...and a terrified Marco speaking after him.

Moral of the story: seize the opportunities life offers but know what to expect from them, so you can enjoy them without being overwhelmed!

Posted in: Seminars & Conferences


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