Photo:

Roy Adkin

Absolutely thrilled to win! I really wasn't expecting it. Thank you to all of you who voted for me and well done to my fellow scientists for a brilliant two weeks :-)

Favourite Thing: Performing a reaction, producing a product, extracting it, purifying it (and have it crystallise, if it’s supposed to, meaning it is really pure – that’s a real thrill!) and analyzing it to show that what I have made is what I expected. I love that! Also, out of the lab…just learning something new or something that is a ‘penny dropping’ moment where suddenly everything becomes clear.

My CV

Education:

Lime Walk Primary (1981-87), Longdean School (1987-89), Arnewood GMT (1989-92), Brockenhurst College (1992-94), The University of Plymouth (1994-97), The Open University (2009-12), The Open University (PhD)(2013)

Qualifications:

13 GCSE’s, 3 ‘A’ Levels, Certificate of Higher Education (Science), Batchelor of Science, First Class with Honours in Molecular Science.

Work History:

Analytical Scientist (Edgars Dairies, 1990-93), Barman & DJing (Plymouth, The Uni years!), Cruise Director (The seven seas, 1999-2004), Entertainment Manager, Magician, Radio Presenter (Tenerife, 2004-08), Senior Science/Chemistry Technician (Barnsley, 2008-13), PhD Student (The Open University, 2013-Present)

Current Job:

PhD Student

Employer:

The Open University, (Funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC))

Me and my work

I’m an organic chemist using fluorescent lanthanide organic ligand complexes to study organic compounds in meteorites. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is! I’m happy to explain all about it, just ask! :-)

Well, I am a chemist by training; my first degree is in Molecular Science. I am a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a very proud Associate Member of The Royal Society of Chemistry (I get to use the letters AMRSC, FRAS after my name…which I think is quite cool!) and I am a registered STEM Ambassador which means I can go to schools, colleges and universities all over the country to enthuse pupils, students and teachers all about science. I have to say…it’s one of the best things in the world to be able to share my knowledge with you all. I am so, so lucky to have that privilege and the ability to do it!

 

Essentially, I am developing a fluorescent compound that will interact or react with organic compounds in meteorites so I can see where and what they are and their concentration.

Life on Earth is made up of molecules that contain carbon; these are known as ‘organic compounds’. The study of the reactions that form them and the reactions they undergo is called ‘organic chemistry’. These compounds are found all over the planet but we have also found them in meteorites; fragments of asteroids that have fallen to Earth. Some of these compounds are not found on Earth and some are; either way, they formed in space…they are of extra-terrestrial origin. These ‘building blocks of life’ include amino acids, carboxylic acids and nucleobases which are, themselves, products of reactions between simple organic compounds.

It is thought that simple organic compounds are formed on the surfaces of tiny dust grains in interstellar space by the reaction of gases and ices. Such grains and the organic compounds they carry could have been incorporated into our solar system when it formed 4.65 billion years ago. This is how it is thought the correct chemistry for the development of life came to exist on our planet. An alternative theory is that simple organic compounds formed within asteroids after the solar system formed and so are therefore found in meteorites. No one knows for sure…in fact both theories could be correct.

Organic compounds in meteorites have been carefully studied for the past 70 years but all the techniques have been destructive; the tests destroy the meteorite so we lose any information about how the organic compounds formed in relation to the grains on which they were produced. The purpose of my research is to try and locate the organic compounds without destroying the meteorite sample.

Some molecules and particles emit light of a different colour (wavelength) than the light they absorbed. This is called fluorescence. The fluorescent particles absorb UV light and emit visible light; this is the same way in which UV paint and pigments work under a UV lamp. That is basically how my fluorescent sensor will work. I will shine UV light onto the sample that has been treated with the sensor and wherever the sensor has reacted or adhered to the organic compounds then that area will ‘glow’.

What’s the point? Well, in a nutshell, it will help us understand how and why organic molecules formed and, ultimately, help piece together the origins of life on Earth and throughout the universe.

My Typical Day

Reading lots of literature…scientific papers, book chapters, research papers and reviews…in order to come up with ideas so I can design experiments to test those hypotheses.

A the moment my day consists of;

9 am – Check emails, reply to any or take any action I need to. Once that is done I read, take notes, cross reference and search online for referenced papers. I also search online for any words or terms I don’t know or need reminding of. I also drink an awful lot of tea, listen to music, chat about science and sometimes do silly things like watch cats falling off things on youtube.

12.30 pm – Lunch

1.30pm – Repeat the above

6.00pm – go home

Although this sounds boring…it really isn’t. Being a scientist is a frame of mind and a way of thinking about the world around us as well as a job. I cannot tell you how much I LOVE it!!

The typical day changes depending on the point at which you are in your research. For example, a few months previously I had been trying to make a really big complicated molecule in the lab but it hadn’t worked…I had tried a number of changes to the experimental process to see if I could get it to work but it didn’t. That’s part of the fun…you come up with an idea, test it, make changes to see if it can be made better…if not that’s cool too…it just means you go away and think of another way to do what you want to do!

Later on in the year I will be working a lot in the lab making molecules and mixing them with other chemicals that are found in meteorites, putting them through a fluorimeter and measuring their fluorescence. Hopefully there will be changes in the fluorescence which will tell me there is an interaction and, hey presto, I have an indicator!

The point is…NO DAY IS TYPICAL!!

 

 

What I'd do with the money

Buy chemicals & equipment for OUTREACH and STEM school visits and maybe a book on the history of the universe and solar system.

I want to take a big ‘Flash Band Wallop’ chemistry show to local schools to allow them to see a Royal Institution type lecture with all the smoke and flames of a proper chemistry extravaganza! The money would pay for chemicals and equipment.

If there was any money left over I would purchase the best most up to date textbook on the history of the universe and solar system so I could use it for my research but also for my knowledge of planetary science for OUTREACH and STEM school visits.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

1) Passionate, 2) Geeky and 3) Fun!

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I have lots…but if it helps, right this second I am listening to ‘Kiss You’ by One Direction (and no, I’m not ashamed of it!)

What's your favourite food?

Chicken stuffed with smelly cheese all wrapped in bacon served with steamed broccoli….Mmmmm!

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Laugh uncontrollably

What did you want to be after you left school?

A geologist (Mineralogy)

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Yes – my friend Ross and I did an impression of a pigeon…we said ‘coo’ and got a detention.

What was your favourite subject at school?

History

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Getting other people, especially kids, excited about science and to being able to answer their questions.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

Dr Noel Moran and Dr David Richardson, my school and college chemistry teacher and lecturer, repectively.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

A radio presenter and magician.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

1) To understand everything, 2) To be less distractible and 3) Be the next ‘Doctor’…(blast you Capaldi!)

Tell us a joke.

Two monkeys in the bath. One says to the other, “Oooo aaaggghhhh aagghhhh ahhh oooo”, so the other replys, “Well get out and put some cold in then!”.

Other stuff

Work photos:

This is my desk at the start of my research (4 months ago!). Notice how tidy it is?

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The pad on the right has some of the structures of the molecules drawn in ‘skeletal form’.

 

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This is my desk now…and that’s less than half of the papers I’ve read through. Researching your facts and learning the material is vital; this is a necessary part of being a scientist…without the background knowledge you can’t decide what to do next!

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This is a very simple set up. The reactants (the starting chemicals) are mixed together and boiled continuously for 24 hours; it doesn’t boil dry because of the vertical glass tube, called a Leibig condenser, which cools the solvent and allows it to drop back into the reaction vessel. This process is called a ‘reflux’. The blue tubes supply nitrogen gas inside the apparatus so that air cannot get in and contaminate the reaction.

 

The molecule I was trying to make in the apparatus above looks like this…

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The black dots represent carbon atoms, the red, oxygen, the blue, nitrogen and the white, hydrogen. This is just a model of the molecule to show the basic shape. The actual molecule would be very different to look at!

It’s called 1,4,7,10-tetraazacyclododecane-1,4,7,10-tetratertiarybutylethanoate but that’s a bit of a mouthful so we call it t-butyl DOTA for short! 🙂