Does consuming vast quantities of cheese late at night count as science?
High Storrs School Sheffield 2000-2007, Oxford University, Somerville College 2007-2011, University of Birmingham, 2011-2014
12 GCSEs, 8 A levels, MChem degree… and hopefully soon a PhD
Personal tutor (self-employed), Intern consultant (renewable energy and low carbon design)
Climbing instructor, and Doctoral researcher in chemistry
University of Birmingham
Favourite thing to do in my job: Making fused beads! This is where I mix a sample with some lithium borate powder and melt it at 1050 degrees C in a platinum crucible. I then leave it to cool and it turns into a coloured glass bead; the colour depends upon what metals are in the sample. I use these beads to accurately measure how much of each element makes up the sample. However, making the beads is very dangerous and needs two people (for image, see “More about me and my work”).
I use gamma rays to test recycling materials that are sensitive to heat and air, changing their colour and chemistry.
I make molecular sieves containing metals, usually iron. This iron is air-sensitive and wants to turn into rust – but I need it not to. This means that much of my work involves fighting with iron to try to keep it as green Fe(2+) rather than let it become brown, rusty Fe(3+). I can test how much Fe(2+) I have by probing the sieves with gamma rays in a technique called Mossbauer spectroscopy (although sometimes all I need to do is look at the colour of them… which I map using Dulux colour charts!).
It’s really important to get Fe(2+) into the sieves because these materials can then be used for cleaning up chromium carcinogens in industial waste water. Orange Cr(6+) reacts with green Fe(2+) to make much safer green Cr(3+), and this gets sucked up into the sieved and saved until later, when it can be taken out to recycle. – That’s the plan, anyway!
My Typical Day
Flexible – depending on how I feel
My day is very flexible and I can work at home or alter my hours as I like. I usually get into work at 7.45am, and book out all the analytical equipment nobody is using that early. I’ll probably start an experiment or take one off – taking about half an hour, then sit at my desk drinking tea and nibbling food doing admin. Later on, I will collect the data I have gathered and have a look at it, probably attend a meeting, then do some writing and some science communication. On a longer lab day, I will make fused beads or visit another laboratory.
What I'd do with the prize money
Put on a science play!
I recently wrote a science play called “Trusting Atoms – The Last Trials of Ludwig Boltzmann” that I would like to produce. The play is about a scientist who discovered the statistical nature of the universe and had to fight against other scientists and philosophers at a time when it was unpopular to believe that atoms existed (around 1900)!
He is believed to have been an undiagnosed manic depressant, which is a kind of mental illness where the sufferer experiences extreme highs and lows in emotions. This and the difficulties he experienced in his career eventually led him to suicide.
I want to produce this play about Boltzmann because it shows how science and scientists are really very human, and continue to evolve over time governed by fashions and passions – it should also be good entertainment!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
enthusiastic, adventurous, determined
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
When I got engaged, I put my ring inside a single crystal diffractometer and got a unique diffraction pattern of my own diamond (see work photos below, and storycollider.org/podcast/2014-01-20).
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
When I was little I used to read the backs of shampoo bottles and be annoyed that I didn’t understand the ingredients. I remember saying to myself, “One day, I am going to know what these mean!”
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not really, but I used to see how cheeky I could be. Once, my friend and I ceremonially awarded a teacher a bucket of custard. He had no words…
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Hopefully a writer!
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Uh. Um. I… This… isn’t a question about science, is it? :|
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Climbing – especially taking massive lead falls. I just can’t get enough climbing.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
#1 I wish I had a job planned for next year; #2 I wish for better health, #3 I wish I could do another degree (or three)
Tell us a joke.
What do you get if you put a detective in water? …A solution!