Kate Nicholson

Evicted - :'(

Favourite Thing: Using light to discover more about the world around me, be that looking at tiny crystals I’ve made or the pigments in a 1400 year old book – it’s all exciting stuff!



St Bede’s RC 1992-1997 Durham Johnston 1997-1999 Durham University 1999-2006 and 2011-2012


10 GCSE’s, A-level Chemistry, Math and Physics, MChem, PhD and a PGCE

Work History:

Fine Organics, Job Centre, The Open University, Durham University

Current Job:

Post Doctoral Researcher and Associate Lecturer


Durham University and The Open University

Me and my work

Looking at molecules and how they’re packed using the light we can see and the light beyond that part of the spectrum.

I started work in the laser lab when I was in the 4th year of my degree, my project was to build a new kind of spectrometer, to measure the fluorescence of molecules when I had stuck them to a surface.  This gave me the addiction for research – I love to have a problem to solve, and I really can’t stop!

My PhD took me in a different direction, I make tiny tiny nano-crystals, but I still had to use spectroscopy to study them, and I learned new techniques along the way.  I continued in this area of research until 2011, when after having done a lot of lecturing and running the teaching labs I thought it was about time I became a qualified teacher so left to to study my PGCE.

Sadly, although I loved teaching, I missed the research life, so decided to return, only this time I was involved with several projects and several groups, not just in Chemistry.  When the Gospels project came along, I was asked to help because I had so much experience in spectroscopy, and everyone asks me to run the really tricky samples.

I am now loving this so much I want to do it full time- there are so many books that have never been looked at in this way before, each has some known history, but by knowing the pigments used we can build on that knowledge and link it with the rest of our historical knowledge.  My favourite example is a book we have that is written in Durham, just after the Norman Conquest.  This scribe trained in Normandy, and brought his paint box with him, because we see a mixture of pigments that were in use in Northumbria up to this date, with the addition of pigments that were not seen in this region before, but were in use in Normandy before this date.  Until my laser hit that page, nobody knew that.  Now, about 100,000 people have read this on a poster as they saw that book in the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition.  It makes me happy that I can share what I do so that in future people may have a better understanding of our past.

My Typical Day

Locked in a dark cupboard with my lasers, sometimes escaping for food, coffee and a bit of chat with people I work with.

Recently I’ve been working on a slightly different project to most people in my department, locked in a dungeon on the world heritage site of Durham’s Palace Green.  Not ideal for moving my lab into a 14th century prison (complete with wobbly floorboards and grooves in the floor where the cages used to be) but very exciting.  The project is a collaboration between the Cathedral and Palace Green libraries, experts from our History department, and a group of very willing volunteers from Chemistry.  You can read more about my adventures on my blog site

A typical day starts with me checking my emails before I leave the house – the more ancient buildings around Durham were not built for WiFi, so I have to check before I get there.  Next beat the traffic and get a parking spot – quite a challenge before I even get to work, followed by the beautiful walk into the city and up to Palace Green – most of the time I work in the Chemistry building which is not quite so pretty, but if I get funding the move to the city centre will be permanent.  Next on the to-do list is wake up all the machines and run samples that we know, this is to check everything is working before turning the laser onto a priceless book!  We record everything in a lab book, and the conservation team provide photographs of the pages we look at so there is an accurate record. Once the book has been delivered from the safe and setup on it’s cushion we are ready to start work.  Our aim is to be completely non-invasive, we do not want to leave any damage and we do not take samples like the shows you’ve seen on TV.  All we work with is the light that is reflected from the coloured pigments, and use this like a fingerprint to identify them.  The pages are selected for us by our Historical expert, and we take lots of measurements so we know what is typical of that page before moving on to see if this matches with the rest of the book.

I say we a lot because this is rarely a one person job, and working as a small team helps us motivate each other (friendly competition as to who can find something new first). Once the days work is done we make a copy of all the measurement data and head back to the office in Chemistry building, to chat about the days findings, analyse the data so it can be put in a report or paper or make a poster to put in the exhibition, or write a talk so we can give a lecture and spread news of our work.  As you can see I managed to keep the blog going over the first few weeks of the project, but this is only one project and I work on another 4 so I am kept every busy switching my time between them!

I usually get back home by 7pm then settle down for a nice meal, read a book or if I really can’t switch off my brain, keep looking through the online databases and library to compare my work to what others have done before – there’s lots of clever ideas out there.

What I'd do with the money

Make an add-on kit for the ‘Spectroscopy in a Suitcase’ loan kits so schools can have a go at their own ‘Fake or Fortune’ tests.

I’m already very involved with the outreach team, and visit schools to demonstrate the Spectroscoy in a Suitcase kit, a loan project sponsored by the RSC and run from Durham.  This is where we give you and your teachers the chance to put yourself in our shoes – build your own spectrometer and use it to look at the coloured things around you, along with a UV torch so you can find out what glows (just look at the bank notes like they do in the shops to check for forgeries – some of the ink fluoresces brightly under a UV light).

I would like to expand this to link with the work I have been doing, and make manuscript samples with historical pigments which can then be identified using the spectrometer and a modified camera  so you can decide what fits in with which period of history.

Disclaimer: I’m not promising a Raman spectrometer for £500 – if I could I could quit the day job!

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Crazy gothy curious

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Lacuna Coil, Delain, Within Temptation, Nightwish, Rammstein and Queen

What's your favourite food?

Udon noodles or Pizza

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Aerobatic flying lesson (even when my lunch came back up)

What did you want to be after you left school?

Cosmonaut or a Lecturer.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Yes, usually for not knowing when to shut up.

What was your favourite subject at school?


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

More than doubled the research on ancient English manuscripts in a month. Held a chunk of Mars in the palm of my hand.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

Helen Sharman

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

PA or event manager or teacher or running a cafe….

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

World peace? Funding to continue doing work that I love until I retire. To be healthy and happy.

Tell us a joke.

Oh they’re far too rude to tell!

Other stuff

Work photos:

Palace Green in Durham – the dungeon I’ve been working in is shown by a little star on the pic myimage1

The Raman spectrometer that moved from Chemistry because the books are far too precious to be checking out of the Library! myimage2

The first book we studied  – Symeon’s Libellus de exordio 1000 year old book describing the history of Durham from when the city was founded.  I couldn’t believe they let me touch it!myimage3 image copyright Durham University and a photo that we keep a record of all the points we have looked at myimage4 image copyright Durham University

Another of the beautiful books – this one a Book of Hours myimage5 image copyright Durham University.  Can you spot the cheeky cat?

This shows how the monks ruled the lines in the animal skin (vellum) with a sharp point, you can barely see them unless you shine a light across the page myimage6

This is why you should never doodle in your textbooks – 500 year old graffiti thanks to Mr Thomas Horsley! myimage7 image copyright Durham University