Science & Innovation

Rarely have science and government been as clearly linked as the initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic, when politicians could be heard claiming they were being ‘led by the science’ as often as they could be seen doing that pointing-with-a-thumb-and-fist thing.

This Thursday, the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, will receive the Lister Medal for his leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic, and you can stream it live here, exclusively on SCI’s YouTube channel!

In readiness for Sir Patrick’s lecture, Eoin Redahan looks back at three ways science helped to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

People will never look at vaccine development the same way. For good or ill, we have realised just how quickly they can now be developed. Similarly, we have realised what can be achieved when the brightest brains come together. These are two of the positive legacies from Covid.

But there are others. Some of the innovations conceived to tackle Covid will now tackle other pathogens. Here are just three of the innovations that emerged…


1. Wastewater warning

Engineer with wastewater sample
As Oscar Wilde once said: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the genetic material in stool samples.’

Not many people would find inspiration in wastewater treatment plants when thinking about early warning systems for infectious diseases.

Nevertheless, during the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers at TU Darmstadt in Germany came up with a system that detected Covid infection rates in the general population by analysing their waste – a system so accurate they could detect the presence of Covid among those without recognisable symptoms.

To do this, they examined the genetic material in samples from Frankfurt’s wastewater plants and tested them using the PCR test. They claim that their measurement was so sensitive it could detect fewer than 10 confirmed Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people.

It is inevitable that Covid-19 variants will rise again, but this system could alert us to the need for tighter protective measures as soon as the virus appears in our wastewater.


2. UV air treatment

UV lights
UV light can reportedly reduce indoor airborne microbes by 98%.

Warning systems are important, as are ways to stop the spread of pathogens. To do this, a team from the UK and US shed light on the problem – well, they used ultraviolet light to remove the pathogens.

Using funding from the UK Health Security Agency, Columbia University researchers discovered that far-UVC light from lights installed in the ceiling almost eliminate the indoor transmission of airborne diseases such as Covid-19 and influenza.

The researchers claim it took less than five minutes for their germicidal UV light to reduce indoor airborne microbe levels by more than 98% – and it does the job as long as the light remains switched on.

‘Far-UVC rapidly reduces the amount of active microbes in the indoor air to almost zero, making indoor air essentially as safe as outdoor air,’ said study co-author David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. ‘Using this technology in locations where people gather together indoors could prevent the next potential pandemic.’


3. Biological masks?

Nasal spray
‘Physical mask, meet biological mask.’

Many moons ago, it was strange to see a person wearing a mask, even in cities with dubious air quality. Now, they are ubiquitous, and it would appear that mask innovations are everywhere too.

During Covid, researchers from the University of Granada in Spain were aware that wearing masks for a long time could be bad for our health. They devised a near field communication tag for inside our FFP2 masks to monitor CO2 rebreathing. This batteryless, opto-chemical sensor communicates with the wearer’s phone, telling them when CO2 levels are too high.

In the same spirit, researchers in Helsinki, Finland, developed a ‘biological mask’ to counteract Covid-19. The University of Helsinki researchers developed a nasal spray with molecule (TRiSb92) that deactivates the coronavirus spike protein and provides short-term protection against the virus – a sort of biological mask, albeit without those annoying elastics digging into our ears.

‘In animal models, nasally administered TriSb92 offered protection against infection in an exposure situation where all unprotected mice were infected,’ said Anna Mäkelä, postdoctoral researcher and study co-author.

‘Targeting this inhibitory effect of the TriSb92 molecule to a site of the coronavirus spike protein common to all variants of the virus makes it possible to effectively inhibit the ability of all known variants.’

The idea is for this nasal spray to complement vaccines, though during peak Covid paranoia, it might be tricky persuading everyone on the bus that you’re wearing a biological mask.

Covid disrupted scientific progress for many, but as we know, invention shines through in troublesome times. Plenty of innovations such as the ones above will make us better equipped to tackle air borne diseases – alongside the stewardship of leaders like Sir Patrick Vallance.

Watch Sir Patrick Vallance’s talk – Government, Science and Industry: from Covid to Climate – at 18:25 on 24 November

Careers

How do you forge a career in process chemistry, and how do you overcome the challenges of studying in your second language? Here’s how Piera Trinchera, Associate Principal Scientist at Pharmaron, found her way.

Tell us about your career path to date.

I am an Associate Principal Scientist in the Process Chemistry department of Pharmaron UK. I am based at the Hoddesdon site in Hertfordshire, where I develop synthetic routes for the manufacture of new drugs for clinical studies.

I’m originally from Italy. I completed my MSci at the University of Salento followed by a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Bari, focusing on new synthetic methodologies. Despite my complete lack of English at the time, I jumped at the opportunity of a six-month visiting PhD position at the University of Toronto.

This was a challenging experience initially as it was my first time living abroad, but ultimately it was very rewarding. After completing my PhD I returned to the University of Toronto to undertake a postdoctoral position focusing on organoboron chemistry. I followed this with a second postdoc at Queen Mary University of London working on aryne chemistry.

After eight years in academia, I wanted to apply the knowledge I had acquired to solving industrial problems that directly impact people’s lives. For this reason, I joined Pharmaron UK where I have been for the last three years and am currently a project lead and people manager.

Piera Trinchera 

What is a typical day like in your job?

I am involved in multiple projects each year and the overall aim is to provide synthetic chemistry solutions for our global clients. Depending on the type of project work, this can include either developing brand new synthetic routes to novel drug candidates or troubleshooting and improving existing chemical processes, making them suitable for large-scale manufacture.

Ultimately, the goal across all projects is the same: to support the production of large quantities of drugs that are needed for clinical studies with a line-of-sight to commercial production.

On a typical working day, I spend the majority of my time in the lab where I conduct my own experiments and lead a team of chemists who work alongside me. I am directly involved in the planning and designing of experiments, execution in the lab, and subsequent manufacture on multi-kg scale in our pilot plant.

Over the course of a project, a large part of the job is communicating to the clients the project strategy, scientific results, and timelines through regular teleconferences, emails, and written reports.

>> Read how side projects made large waves for Dr Claire McMullin

Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?

There are many aspects of this job that I enjoy. I have always enjoyed solving new scientific problems, with the thrill of impatiently waiting for the results of an important experiment or the curiosity in trying to understand an unexpected result.

In addition to the science, seeing your day-to-day lab work translated to the production of kg-quantities of new pharmaceutical compounds that might, after clinical studies, further global health is very rewarding.

Projects are completed on much shorter time frames than in academia (three to six months) and there is no time to stagnate as one so often does in a PhD or Postdoc. I enjoy the large breadth in the chemistry and the different challenges that come with each and every project.

Last but not least, it takes many people from different departments (e.g. in analysis, quality assurance, or manufacturing) working closely together to manufacture a drug compound on a kg-scale.

Working so closely with people from different backgrounds has tremendously enriched me during these years in Pharmaron. It has allowed me to acquire new technical knowledge and given me a deeper understanding of not just chemistry but the overall requirements for synthesising pharmaceutical compounds.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Preparation of a synthetic process for manufacture on a kg-scale involves considerable development in the laboratory to ensure the chemistry translates from small to large scale. Part of this development is to identify potential issues and blindspots of the chemistry and processes and mitigate them by improving the process before implementation on a large scale.

Despite all these efforts, unforeseen complications do occasionally occur on the large scale and finding solutions in real time can be the most challenging aspect of the job. By keeping a clear head, the chemist can leverage both their deep knowledge of the process and the experience of their more senior colleagues to solve these problems.

Piera Trinchera

How do you use the skills you obtained during your PhD and postdocs in your job?

As I’m in a synthetic chemistry job, I have benefitted enormously from the theoretical organic chemistry knowledge and practical laboratory skills that I acquired over the course of my PhD and postdoc years.

Additionally, in academia I became familiar and confident with other skills that I use on a daily basis. These include scientific communication through either written reports or oral presentations, conforming to good laboratory safety practices, and supervising and mentoring other people.

In general, the overall experience of my post-graduate academic education has provided me with the competencies necessary to scientifically manage projects and lead a team in Pharmaron.
>> Get involved in the SCI Young Chemists’ Panel.

Which other skills do you need for your work?

Teamwork is a cornerstone of the job and company’s culture. The synthesis of pharmaceutical compounds according to our quality standards would not be possible without the contribution from, and close collaboration among, multiple people across several departments including analytical chemistry, process chemistry, process safety, quality assurance, formulation and manufacturing.

Is there any advice you would give to others interested in pursuing a similar career path?

Don’t be afraid to venture outside of your comfort zone and be open to opportunities, especially those that don’t come along as often. This will help you build your confidence and you will likely find that you can do more than you anticipated. If you are interested in process chemistry, I would recommend looking into internships and/or finding a mentor who can give you an insight into the job.

As with research, perseverance is an important skill you need to master. You will experience failed reactions and difficult purifications at some point in your career as a process chemist. Be open minded, ask questions and don’t be afraid to seek out support from your colleagues.

>> Read how Ofgem’s Dr Chris Unsworth creates an inclusive working environment and transfers his PhD skills.

Science & Innovation

What does clean smell like? What if the fragrance you want to create is that of a sweet-smelling, yet poisonous, flower? In his Scientific Artistry of Fragrances SCITalk, Dr Ellwood led us by the nose.

When Dr Simon Ellwood spoke about creating a fragrance, it sounded like a musical composition or a painting. The flavourist, sitting before a palette of 1,500 fragrance ingredients. Each occupies a different note on the register: the top notes, the middle ones, and the bottom.

To the outsider, this seems impossibly vast and daunting. The Head of Health & Wellbeing Centre of Excellence – Fragrance and Active Beauty Division at Givaudan mentioned that Persil resolved to come up with ‘the smell of clean’ for its detergents in the late 1950s.

But what should clean smell like? Should it be the green, citrusy aromas of this laundry detergent, the smell of mint, or the antiseptic at the hospital?

To make choosing smells slightly less daunting for flavourists and perfumers, they are at least split into odour families such as citrus, floral, green, fruity, spicy, musky, and woody. Some of these ingredients are natural, some are inspired by nature, and others come from petrochemicals and synthetic materials.

SCIBlog - 3 November 2022 - image of musk deer
The delicious-smelling musk deer.

Deer gland perfume

One of the smells you may have sprayed on your person – one sibling in this odour family – has peculiar origins. The pleasant, powdery smell known as musk was originally extracted from the caudal gland of the male musk deer and from the civet cat.

But as the Colognoisseur website notes, as many as 50 musk deer would have to be killed to obtain one kilogramme of these nodules. Now, killing a load of deer and cats for a few bottles of perfume may not have seemed unethical several centuries ago, but it also wasn’t sustainable or cost-effective. It became clear that a synthetic musk was needed.

When the synthetic musk discovery came in 1888, it was a chance discovery. Albert Bauer had been looking to make explosives when a distinctive smell came instead, along with the scent of opportunity.

>> Read about the science behind your cosmetics
SCIBlog - 3 November 2022 - image of Lily of the Valley
Dior recreated the woodland notes of Lily of the valley.

Do you like the smell of jasmine?

Dr Ellwood’s talk laid bare not only the vastness of everything we smell, but also the ingenuity of those who recreate these odours. In terms of breadth of smell, neroli oil – which is taken from the blossom of a bitter orange – has floral, citrus, fresh, and sweet odours, with notes of mint and caraway. Similarly, and yet dissimilarly, jasmine’s odour families are broken down into sweet, floral, fresh, and fruity, and – jarringly – intensely fecal.

The ingenuity of flavourists is exemplified by lily of the valley. The woodland, bell-shaped flowers are known for their evocative smell, but all parts of the plant are poisonous. Despite this, French company Dior synthetically recreated the lily of the valley smell in its Diorissimo perfume in 1956 using hydroxycitronellal, which is described by the Good Scents Company as having ‘a sweet floral odour with citrus and melon undertones’.

SCIBlog - 3 November 2022 - image of almonds
Cyanide smells like almonds, but you might not want to eat it.

Of course, as Dr Ellwood noted, synthetic flavours can only ever get so close to the real thing – an imperfect facsimile. However, the mere fact that chemists have recreated deer musk, lily of the valley, and the prized ambergris from sperm whales to create the fragrances we love is almost as extraordinary as the smells themselves.

‘Fragrance,’ he said, ‘will always be the confluence of the artistry of the perfumer and the chemist.

Register for our free upcoming SCI Talk on the Chemistry behind Beauty & Personal Care Products.


Careers

In the second part of our chat with Bright SCIdea finalist Team Eolic Wall, we found out how they prepared for their presentation and judges’ questions, and what’s next for their innovative wind turbine technology.

The road from Eureka moment to finished product is paved with peril. Team Eolic Wall’s idea for small, modular wind turbines that use magnetic levitation to harness more power than existing turbines could bring wind power generation into our very homes. But bringing a groundbreaking product to market is not just about mastering the science. It must make business sense too.

As with the other Bright SCIdea hopefuls, Team Eolic Wall received free training from SCI in the form of online tutorials from experienced professionals including modules on structuring a business, financial modelling, branding, and marketing.

Eolic wall

After completing the training, Eolic Wall rose to meet the challenge. The team qualified for the Bright SCIdea final and, with it, the pivotal presentation in front of a live audience and panel of expert judges.

Many of us take it as a given that we speak to people at work in our native tongue. The nuances of communication – the cultural subtleties and oddities of the English language – aren’t a concern. But Team Eolic Wall had to present in their second language.


Pitch perfect?

‘This was not our first international presentation, but it was the first one in a foreign language,’ said Alfredo Calle, Eolic Wall founder, ‘so that's always a little bit intimidating until one gets used to it.’

The key to them nailing the pitch was in the spade-work. Calle and his colleagues rehearsed the speech until they knew it by heart. ‘It’s all about training and preparation,’ he said. ‘The more you rehearse, the more confident you feel when the presentation moment comes.’

 

Of course, the presentation is predictable but the judges’ questions are less so. Having undergone the rigours of competition, Calle recommends that this year’s entrants prepare by trying to predict the types of questions they will be asked. A cold rehearsal could help with the potentially stunning situation of someone throwing questions at you from strange angles.

That team Eolic Wall presented its technology online made theirs even trickier still, especially given a technical hitch at the beginning. But they had polished the presentation to a smoothness that offset such difficulties and came away as joint winners of the Audience Award.

The only lingering regret for them was that Covid prevented them from coming to London. ‘We wish we could have made it to the final,’ he said. ‘Facing the judges and audience live would have been a tremendously valuable and enriching experience.’


A wind energy democracy

Since the Bright SCIdea final, the Eolic Wall is being built brick by brick. The team has received three grants in recent months including one from ProCiencia, the largest innovation agency of the Peruvian government.

Eolic wall
Eolic Wall's wall-mounted wind turbine is designed to power homes and offices in situ.

However, perhaps the most exciting development is the technology itself. ‘We have accomplished a peripherally supported wind turbine that works with magnetic levitation,’ Calle said. ‘That's a huge milestone that makes us believe we are building something big.’

Calle hopes for more investment to develop the technology further. At heart, he believes the Eolic Wall will give regular people the chance to generate affordable wind energy from home.

‘We are working out a solution to democratise wind energy for the sake of this blue rock we call home.’

>> Find out how Team Eolic Wall’s innovative technology in part 1 of this blog.


Science & Innovation

Do you know how the Academy Awards came to be named the Oscars? What about the story behind the Nobel prize? Behind every award name there is a story, and the Julia Levy Award is no exception.

On the face of it, the Julia Levy Award is about innovation in biomedical applications, but it is the stories of the winners of this SCI Canada award, and Julia Levy herself, that really give it life.

But for a tweak of history, Julia Levy may not have ended up in Canada at all. Born Julia Coppens in Singapore in 1934, she moved to Indonesia in her early childhood. Her father uprooted the family during the Second World War and she left for Vancouver with her mother and sister – her father only joining them after release from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

SCIBlog - 31 October 2022 - image of Vancouver highlighted on a map
Julia and her family moved to Vancouver during the Second World War.

After studying bacteriology and immunology at the University of British Columbia (UBC), the young Julia received a PhD in experimental pathology from the University of London. She went on to become a professor at UBC and helped found biopharmaceutical company Quadra Logic Technologies in 1984.

More important than confining her achievements in cold prose, Julia Levy’s work made a profound difference to people’s lives. She developed a groundbreaking photodynamic therapy (PDT) that treated age-related macular degeneration – one of the leading causes of blindness in the elderly. She also created a bladder cancer drug called Photofrin in 1993 and, according to Neil and Susan Bressler, the Visudyne PDT treatment created by Julia and her colleagues was the only proven treatment for certain lesions.

Levy thrived in the business space too, serving as Chief Executive Officer and President of QLT from 1995 to 2001. She has since won a boatload of awards for her achievements, but sometimes the best testimonies come from those who have been inspired by her achievements.


Trailblazing drug discovery systems

For Helen Burt, winner of the 2022 Julia Levy Award and retired Angiotech Professor of Drug Delivery at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Julia has been an inspiration. Here was this UBC professor who jointly founded this big, exciting company – creating medication that improved people’s lives and showing her what was possible.

Helen, an English native, moved to Vancouver in 1976 for her PhD and loved it so much that she stayed. As a professor at UBC, Helen would become a trailblazer in drug delivery systems – a field pioneered earlier by Julia Levy.

‘I was a new assistant professor when she was building Quadra Logic and I would go to talks that she gave,’ Helen said. ‘Essentially, the early technology for QLT was a form of very sophisticated drug delivery [...] It was getting the drug they developed into the eye and irradiating it with light of a specific wavelength.

‘It was very, very targeted. And so, you didn’t get the drug going elsewhere in the body and causing unwanted side effects. So her technology was a form of very advanced drug delivery technology.’

Helen Burt
‘For me to win an award that honours Julia Levy and her achievements – I think that's what makes it so special to me.’ – Professor Helen Burt, a former student of Julia Levy, is the Award's most recent recipient.
>> Learn more about SCI Canada.

These talks chimed with the young Helen. If a microbiologist could develop this kind of technology, what was stopping her from developing her own?

She, too, became a pioneer in her field, developing nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems (including those to treat cancer) and a novel drug-eluting coronary stent. According to Professor Laurel Schafer, who put Helen forward for the Julia Levy Award: ‘[Helen] was a trailblazer in new approaches for drug delivery and in research leadership on our campus.’


Importance to Canadian chemistry

Professor Schafer is a hugely accomplished chemist in her own right; and the University of British Columbia chemistry professor’s achievements in catalysis discovery were recognised with the LeSueur Memorial Award at the 2020 Canada Awards.

Julia Levy provided an inspiration to Laurel too, in her case as an exemplar for what Canadian chemists could achieve. ‘The achievements of Julia Levy show that it really can be done right here in Canada, and even right here in British Columbia,’ she said. ‘I grew up in a Canada where I believed that better was elsewhere and our job was to attract better here – a very colonial attitude.

SCIBlog - 31 October 2022 - image of building at University of British Columbia with blue sky and daffodils
Julia studied at and later became a Professor at the University of British Columbia – the campus is pictured above.

‘I now believe and know that better is right here. Professor Levy’s work showed that world-leading contributions come from UBC and from the laboratories led by women.’

She noted that the Julia Levy Award acknowledges Canadian innovation in health science, whereas Canadian chemistry has historically focused on process chemistry in areas such as mining and petrochemicals.

But Julia Levy’s influence permeates beyond science. ‘Julia is one of those people who has been willing throughout her whole career – even now, well into her eighties – to give back to the community,’ Professor Burt says. ‘She mentors, she coaches, she sits on the boards of startup companies, and she advises.’

‘She’s just got this incredible amount of knowledge… She was the Chief Executive Officer [at QLT], so she learnt all of the aspects: the complex and sophisticated regulations, knowing how to find the right people to conduct clinical trials, and how to do the scale-up. She really is a legend in terms of giving back to the community. And this is not just in British Columbia – it’s Pan-Canadian.’

SCIBlog - 31 October 2022 - headshot image of Julia Levy in circular graphic with purple background
Pictured above: Julia Levy

For young chemists, the Julia Levy in the Julia Levy Award may just be a name for now, but for those in the Canadian chemical industry and patients all over the world, her influence and her work resonate.

As Professor Helen Burt said: ‘For me to win an award that honours Julia Levy and her achievements – I think that's what makes it so special to me.’

>> For more information on the Canada Awards, go to: https://bit.ly/3VMwNKa

Careers

Imagine owning a small wind turbine that generates all of your home’s energy needs. As the clock counts down on entries for for the 2023 Bright SCIdea Challenge, we caught up with Team Eolic Wall, the Audience Winner for the 2022 competition.

Eolic Wall was always a nice fit for Bright SCIdea. The team spotted a problem in our renewable energy mix and came up with a scientific business idea to solve it. They saw that wind energy is generated for the public, but it isn’t generated by the public. This stands in bright contrast to solar power generation.

‘Today, 40% of all installed capacity in solar energy is based on solar panels installed on the rooftops of home and corporate buildings,’ said Alfredo Calle, founder of Eolic Wall. ‘The remaining 60% correspond to solar farms.’

Eolic wall
Eolic Wall's wall-mounted wind turbine is designed to power homes and offices in situ.

The wind industry is different. ‘Only 1% of the installed capacity comes from households and businesses,’ he added. ‘That is, 99% of all installed capacity in the world comes from wind farms. That sort of concentration is a problem that hampers the energy transition.’

Calle believes this disparity hampers the move from fossil fuel dependency to clean, renewable energy. For many, micro-generation is key. We need to put power – renewable power – in the hands of the people. His idea is to make wind energy available in the home, just as solar exists on roofs everywhere.

The scale of this task is daunting. It turns out there’s a reason why we don’t all have wind turbines bolted onto our homes. The problem, Calle argues, is that a windmill must be large to be efficient.

 

He believes the Eolic Wall could change that – that this wall-mounted wind turbine is efficient enough to power our homes and offices.

‘We have created a technology that not only doubles wind speed to harvest more power from the same wind resources, but also has a wind turbine that works with magnetic levitation to almost eliminate any friction.’


From applicant to finalist

So, how did a team based out of the National University of Engineering in Peru and Universidade Estadual Paulista in Brazil end up competing for the £5,000 first prize in the Bright SCIdea final?

Chance. Fortune. Happenstance. Calle and his colleagues came upon Bright SCIdea through a social media post that immediately captured their attention.

Eolic Wall 

‘We thought that the Eolic Wall was ideal for Bright SCIdea because of the huge positive impact that this technology could have,’ he said, ‘and also because it perfectly fit into Bright SCIdea’s thesis of supporting ideas in the intersection of business, innovation and science.’

Applying was simple, although the business plan submission was intimidating at first. However, like all BrightSCIdea applicants they received coaching, and their brainchild found form.

‘The key driver to overcome that challenge was not to miss any training sessions and tutorials,’ Calle said. ‘The good news is that after going through the whole process you feel that everything was worthwhile. No pain, no gain.’

Check out fellow 2022 finalist Klara Hatinova from Team Happy BioPatch in conversation with the Periodic Fable podcast.

Sustainability & Environment

From government grants to analysing your own carbon footprint, energy-efficient measures could reduce the environmental impact of your SME and save you money. Retail Merchant Services explained some of the changes you could make.


Which measures could Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs), especially energy-intensive businesses, take right now to reduce their carbon footprints?

  1. Look at the sustainability of the products you are creating. Can you use renewable materials? Or, if you get materials from another supplier, can you check their eco-credentials, and swap if they’re not doing what they can to go greener? Can you streamline the process so that you reduce waste wherever possible?
  2. Create a recycling policy. If you can’t reduce the amount of waste that you’re generating, you should aim to make sure that it can be disposed of sustainably. You could look at your shipping supply chain. If your business sends out physical items, make sure to check the packaging you’re using – can it be recycled? Are you using too much?
  3. Can you switch to a renewable energy supplier, or generate your own renewable energy? While it’s not right for everyone, it can also be worth considering if there are any employees in your business who can work from home on some days. This removes the carbon footprint of their journey to work.
Which government energy efficiency schemes could they avail of in the coming months?

The Smart Export Guarantee Scheme pays some SMEs for producing their own renewable heat and power. Not only will this allow you to generate your own electricity, which can be useful in the current climate of fluctuating costs, but you can earn money from this too.

The Clean Heat Grant is a government-backed grant that rewards companies who use green heating technologies like heat pumps, and the Green Gas Support Scheme is intended to increase the amount of green gas in the National Grid.

The amount that SMEs can benefit from these schemes may depend on the amount of money that they have available to buy renewable technology, or the space to put items like heat pumps. If this is likely to be a barrier, then they may find smaller local schemes more useful.

Do you have any tips for companies calculating their carbon footprints? What are the potential benefits of this?

Take your time – understanding your carbon footprint isn’t an overnight process. You may find it beneficial to use an online carbon footprint calculator, or contact a sustainability expert to help.

You’ll need to consider three types of emissions:

  1. Direct emissions – the emissions that your company is directly responsible for, such as fuel for company cars.
  2. Energy indirect emissions – emissions from utilities that you don’t directly control, such as electricity and gas
  3. Other indirect emissions – everything else that is connected to your business activities, such as employee travel, shipping, and the whole supply chain.

Understanding your carbon footprint is important to help you know where you can improve and cut down on your emissions. Not only does this help the planet, but it’s also a tangible demonstration that you care about the environment, which can be attractive to sustainably-minded customers.

SCIBlog - 13 October 2022 - image of heat pump ground source system
The initial outlay for heat pumps and other technologies are steep, but this investment may pay off in the longer term.

What are the benefits of aggressively pursuing net zero and what are the drawbacks?

Of course, the primary benefit of pursuing net zero is that it helps the planet. Business waste has a huge impact on the environment and, as a result, any changes that can be made in this sector will have a big impact too. However, going net zero can also potentially make your business more profitable too.

Your profits may go up for several reasons. First, it’s more appealing to customers. As part of going net zero, you’re likely to adjust your products to be more eco-friendly. And with reports showing that 63% of millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable products, this could make your business more appealing.

Second, it could save you money. You may find that examining your processes and policies to make them greener will allow you to benefit from specific tax cuts, or simply improve the efficiency of your company. In time, this could save you from wasting money as well as energy.

Third, it could boost your competitiveness. Small companies often find they just can’t match big businesses for price, so it’s important to find a selling point that allows you to remain competitive. As mentioned before, customers are increasingly looking for more ethical products, so being able to say that you’re net zero could help you beat the competition.

Finally, it could prepare you for new policies. Governments around the world are under pressure to go greener, and so they’ll likely transfer this pressure to businesses. Going green now means you’ll be ahead of the curve and able to make these changes at your own pace, rather than having to rush and pay to make them all at once.

While these are all amazing benefits, one of the biggest challenges that SMEs face is the cost of going net zero. It’s not cheap in the current economic climate, especially if you’ve got big changes to make. According to research, 40% of SMEs said that high cost and lack of budget were the biggest net zero blockers.

SCIBlog - 13 October 2022 - image of rows of electric vehicles plugged in
Electric vehicles require less maintenance – and you don’t have to pay road tax.

What are the benefits of moving your vehicles to electric right now, and what are the drawbacks?

There’s no denying that electric vehicles are significantly better for the environment than conventional cars. For companies looking for a relatively straightforward way to go greener, electric cars can be a great choice.

As well as swerving rising fuel prices, EV owners don’t currently pay vehicle tax in the UK. Additionally, they have fewer moving parts, and so require less maintenance. All of these factors mean that while EVs can be an expensive initial investment, they generally cost less to run in the long term.

With the UK government banning new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030, investing in electric vehicles now means that SMEs can get ahead of the rush that is likely to come as we get close to the deadline. There is already a year’s wait time for some vehicles, so ordering your fleet now could mean that you avoid an even longer queue further down the line.

Of course, many SMEs feel unable to commit to electric vehicles right now due to the cost of living – they’re an expensive purchase. If this is the case, you could consider changing one vehicle at a time, and looking to see if you’re eligible for any local grants that can support you with the cost of this.

>> Want to turn your science into a business? This event will help.

How much have inflated energy costs undermined the push for net zero?

Unfortunately, rising energy costs have meant that small businesses are feeling the pinch, and might struggle to make new eco-friendly changes, as they are often costly. For many, their focus is simply remaining profitable.

However, what is also clear is that for those that can afford it, examining your business for changes that will allow you to move towards net zero can also be a way of saving money in the long run.

If you’re able to produce your own renewable energy (for example, getting solar panels on the offices), you may be able to mitigate some of the effects of rising energy costs, as you won’t be reliant on the National Grid.

Finally, apart from energy efficiency schemes, how could the government help reduce the carbon footprint of SMEs?

As well as energy schemes, the government can help by providing information and resources on sustainable practices. By sharing best practices widely with businesses, and offering them a place to go to get support, the government can help them develop more environmentally friendly operations.

Additionally, they can help by creating incentives for businesses to go green. By offering tax breaks or other financial incentives, the government can encourage businesses to adopt sustainable practices.


Written by Retail Merchant Services. The SME Environmental Impact Guide can be read in full.

Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can read more of his work here.


Careers

Side projects and small impacts can make large waves. Dr Claire McMullin, Computational Teaching Fellow and Director of Year 1 Studies at the University of Bath, shared insights from her career journey.

What is your job?

I’m a computational chemist, with a focus on inorganic reaction systems and explaining observed experimental trends. I work at the University of Bath, but my job role is a little trickier to answer.

Four days a week, I’m employed as a Teaching Lecturer and the Year 1 Director of Studies. On the fifth day I’m a postdoctoral research assistant (PDRA), overseeing the computational aspects of an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research grant.

Tell us about your career path.

I completed my undergraduate and PhD studies at the University of Bristol – under the supervision of Guy Orpen and Natalie Fey – using crystallography and computational chemistry to investigate organometallic complexes.

I wanted to do a post-doc in the US, so I wrote to a few American computational chemists to see if they had funding or a role available. Luckily one did, and I moved to Denton (University of North Texas) to work with Tom Cundari.

I missed the UK, and so returned a year later to Edinburgh for a three-year post-doc with Stuart Macgregor at Heriot-Watt University in collaboration with Dai Davies at the University of Leicester.

Then I joined Bath, initially as a full-time Teaching Fellow for Computational Chemistry. I was lucky there were computing facilities that had a ‘free queue’ to submit calculations, and I was approached by a new colleague, who asked me if I’d be interested in modelling their reaction systems. I had gained a new side-project and hobby for my evenings.

Eventually, more people asked for me to look at their systems, mostly as the department didn’t have anyone with my specific inorganic and organometallic mechanism skills.

Now, over six years later, I’ve almost finished a three-year grant, published 36 papers, developed connections and external collaborators, and secured more funding to run calculations on our ‘premium’ queue. The only downside is that my research is rarely recognised by the university, as it’s not officially part of the role description of my employment.

SCIBlog - 07 October 2022 - image of Claire McMullin
Pictured above: Dr Claire McMullin

What is a typical day like in your job?

I tend to get to my office after 8am, and deal with any overnight emails first, before checking our High Throughput Cluster for how my calculations are doing. Teaching begins from 9:15am, and my day tends to be full of meetings (online nowadays), lectures and labs.

Something will always come up that I wasn’t expecting, be it teaching or research related. I always have a page-long to-do list. Normally, I manage to achieve two to three things a day, but almost always end up adding more things to it!

>> Get involved in the SCI Young Chemists’ Panel.

Which aspects of your job do you enjoy most?

I really enjoy the collaborative nature of my work – be it lecturing or teaching a lab to students, seeing a student having that ‘a-ha’ moment, or talking to my colleagues in the department about plans or issues we are trying to resolve.

Similarly, with the research I do, I am often trying to explain someone’s experimental data. I like trying to provide answers or reasons for the chemistry that has occurred. It’s almost like trying to understand a puzzle, and seeing a calculation finished always sparks joy in me!

What is the most challenging part of your job?

The emails, and the tasks and requests they bring, can sometimes derail my entire day (or week).

How do you use the skills you obtained during your degree in your job?

I feel incredibly lucky that, on any given day, I can submit a calculation and use the computational skills I developed during my degree. But I use much more than computational knowledge – doing a degree teaches you to be organised and methodical, as well as how to juggle several tasks at once.

The demonstrations I did as a PhD student are now used daily in labs. The research talks I gave have given me the confidence to stand up in front of a room full of students and lecture them on a range of topics. And the papers and thesis I wrote have given me a keen eye for detail and editing other people’s documents.

>> Read how Ofgem’s Dr Chris Unsworth creates an inclusive working environment and transfers his PhD skills.

Is there any advice you would give to others interested in pursuing a similar career path?

There are so many points where the ‘leaky pipeline’ could have meant I left chemistry and academia. In all honesty, I’m not quite sure how or why I’m still here! [A lot of it is about] luck, being in the right place at the right time, or a job vacancy coming up when you need a new position.

Timing really is key. It’s half-worked out for me. I’m now permanent in my teaching role and still get to run my calculations, which I love; but that often comes at a cost to my own time and is done more as a hobby than something I’m paid to do. It doesn’t work out for everyone, and that is no reflection on their skills or abilities.

I’ve always had back-up plans or ideas if I decided to exit the academic highway. So, if you do want to pursue a career similar to mine, make sure you have something else to fall back on. And just keep working hard, slowly building on the work you want to do. Small impacts can end up making large waves.


Science & Innovation

Little machines that blend makeup tailored for your skin alone… Technology that details the tiny creatures walking on your face… The cosmetic revolution is coming, and Dr Barbara Brockway told us all about it.

Max Huber burnt his face. The lab experiment left him scarred, and he couldn’t find a way to heal it. So, he turned to the sea. Inspired by the regenerative powers of seaweed, he conducted experiment after experiment – 6,000 in all – until he created his miracle broth in 1965. You might know this moisturiser as Crème de la Mer.

A rocket scientist in the world of cosmetics seems strange, but when you interrogate it, it isn’t strange at all. As Dr Barbara Brockway, a scientific advisor in cosmetics and personal care, explained in our latest SCItalk, cosmetics hang from the many branches of science.

Engineering, computer science, maths, biology, chemistry, statistics, artificial intelligence, and bioinformatics are among the disciplines that create the creams you knead into your face, the sprays that stun your hair in place. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes an army of scientists to formulate all the creams, gels, lotions, body milks, and sprays in your cupboard.

Some say sea kelp can be used to treat everything from diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer, to repairing your nails and skin.
Some say sea kelp can be used to treat everything from diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer, to repairing your nails and skin.

There is a reason why the chemistry behind these products is so advanced. If you sell bread, it is made to last a week. If you make a moisturising cream, it is formulated to last three years. To make sure it does that, chemists test it at elevated temperatures to speed up the time frame. They conduct vibration tests and freeze-thaw tests to measure its stability.

Dr Brockway likened the process of bringing a product to market to a game of snakes and ladders. If you climb enough ladders, you could take your own miracle brew to market within 10 months.

But expectations are high, and the product must delight the user. Think of the teenager who empties a half a can of Lynx Africa into his armpit, or the perfume that is a dream inhaled. Each smell she likened to a musical composition.

But these formulators are not struggling artists. Perfumers and cosmetic chemists – these bottlers of love and longing and loss – can earn a fortune. Dr Brockway’s quick calculation provided a glimpse of the lucre.

Take 15kg of the bulk cream you mixed on your kitchen table. That same cream could be turned into 1,000 15ml bottles, each sold for £78. So, just 15kg of product could fetch £78,000. So, it’s easy to see why the global beauty market is worth $483 billion (£427 billion), with the UK market alone worth £7.8 billion – more than the furniture industry.


Smart mirror, mirror, on the wall… 

It’s unsurprising that an industry of such value and scientific breadth embraces the latest technologies, from those found in our phones to advances in genetics and the omics revolution.

Already, the digital world has left the makeup tester behind. Smart mirrors overlay virtual makeup, recommend products for your complexion, and even detect skin conditions. Small machines that look like coffee-makes blend bespoke makeup. Indeed, Dr Brockway noted that Yves Saint Laurent has created a blender that produces up to 15,000 different shades.

Even blockchain has elbowed into the act. It is being used to make sure that a product’s ingredients aren’t changed in between batches. By showing customers every time-stamped link of the supply chain, companies can prove that their products are organic or ethically sourced. The reason why blockchain is significant here is that, once recorded, the data stored cannot be amended.

At first glance, proving the provenance of materials to customers might seem like a marketing ploy, but this is also being done in response to the increasing fussiness of the consumer.

Collagen is the main component of connective tissue.
Collagen is the main component of connective tissue.

Dr Brockway said all brands are now under pressure to incorporate sustainability into their business practices. The younger age group is also looking for more organic, vegan-friendly ingredients, and businesses have had to respond.

For example, microbial fermentation is being used instead of roosters’ coxcombs to create hyaluronic acid. Similarly, Geltor claims to have created the first ever biodesigned vegan human collagen for skincare (HumaColl21®). Such collagen is usually provided by our friends the fish.

These advances are significant, certainly to the life expectancies of roosters and fish, but of such ingredients revolutions are not made. Other forces will shake the industry.


Meditating on omics

Back in the 1970s, scientists thought the microbes that live on our skin were simple, but next-generation DNA technology reveals that thousands of species of bacteria live on our skin (a pleasant thought). Dr Brockway says these microbes tell us about our lifestyles – to the point that they even know if you own a pet.

So, what is the significance of this? Developments in DNA technology and omics (various disciplines in biology including genomics, proteomics, metagenomics, and metabolomics) mean we can now get not just a snapshot, but an entire picture of what’s going on on your face.

‘Thanks to omics we really know what’s now going on with our skin and see what our products are doing,’ Dr Brockway said. ‘We know the target better. We know which collagens, out of the 263, we need to encourage.’

We are learning more and more about how our skin behaves. And those time-honoured potions and lotions espoused by our grandparents – it will make sense soon, not just why they work, but why they work for some and not for others. In cosmetics, we are leaving the era of checkers and entering the age of chess.


This is the first of three cosmetic SCItalks between now and Christmas. Register now for the Scientific artistry of fragrances.

Agrifood

As we speak, apples and pears are ripening on the trees. But how do you grow apple and pear trees from scratch and keep them alive? Our resident gardening expert, Professor Geoff Dixon, investigates.

Autumn is the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, as John Keats said in his Ode to Autumn. It is a time for harvesting temperate tree fruits, especially apples and pears in gardens and orchards.

This fruit is distinctive and delicious. The ‘Sunset’ apple cultivar, derived from the Cox’s Orange Pippin, produces red and gold striped fruit and sweet tasting flesh, while the French pear cultivar doyenne du comice has the most superb taste if caught at peak ripeness.

The sunset apple<
The sunset apple.

Both apples and pears ripen after harvesting, emitting ethylene and passing through a climacteric, or critical biological stage. When respiration reaches a peak, the fruits’ flavour is most satisfying.

Both apples and pears are best planted in late autumn or during winter when the trees are dormant, either as container-grown or preferably bare root trees. Place each tree in a hole that is large enough for the entire root system, ensuring that the graft union sits well above the soil level.

Each tree consists of two parts: the rootstock, selected originally from wild species, and the scion, which is the fruiting cultivar. Apple cultivars mostly dwarf Malling no. 9, and pear scions are grafted onto quince rootstocks. A stake should be driven into the hole before putting the tree in place.

Pour ample water into the hole, keeping the roots wet. Do so again once soil is replaced and firmed round the tree. As the tree establishes and produces leaves and flowers, water well and regularly, especially during dry periods.

French pear cultivar doyenne du comice
French pear cultivar doyenne du comice

Feed with fertilisers that contain large amounts of potash and phosphate but minimal nitrogen. This encourages vigorous root growth. Sprinkling compost or farmyard manure around the tree helps retain soil moisture.

Climate change is having significant deleterious impacts on all members of the Rosaceae family, including apples and pears. Australian studies indicate that temperatures are reaching higher than the evolutionary maximum for these species.

This stresses the plants. It adversely affects their health and performance and reduces their ability to store carbon and produce fruit crops.

The Pear scab Venturia pirina
The pear scab Venturia pirina

Levels of pest and disease infections are increasing. In particular, sap-sucking woolly aphids (Eriosoma lanigerum) have increased from minor to major apple pests in the last decade. Pear scab Venturia pirina has become a major cause of defoliation.

Chemical control options for both are limited, but regular drenching sprays with seaweed extracts may reduce their impact. Seaweed extracts additionally provide some foliar absorbed nutrients and increase the visual quality of fruit.


Professor Geoff Dixon is author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.

Careers

Eye-catching infographics, punchy messaging, and clear language are just three ways to grab people’s attention. Laura West, Senior Scientific Excellence Coordinator of R&D Biopharm Discovery at GSK, explains how to make your scientific research more visually attractive.

When it comes to displaying your scientific work, the experiments and data could be your best, but getting the visibility your work deserves and engaging your target audience require careful thought. It is, therefore, vital to be to think about how you communicate, not just what you communicate.

Every day, we are inundated with information. It’s more important now than ever to grab the attention of your audience, while improving the way you communicate. This helps people retain information about the data and key messages you deliver.

Ask yourself: what is the key message I want people to take away from this piece of work? You can then start to build around that.

When it comes to the overall layout of your work, you need to think about visual hierarchy, which is the arrangement of the elements on the page. This tells readers what to focus on depending on its importance.

It’s also worth thinking about how people best consume their media. Infographics, data visualisation graphs, images, and short videos are all great ways to attract and hold people’s attention.

Here are five ways to boost engagement in your work today.


1. Start with a bold, catchy message

Image from Naja Bertolt Jensen, Data: Plastic Pollution - Our World in Data. Graphic from Laura West
Image from Naja Bertolt Jensen, Data: Plastic Pollution - Our World in Data. Graphic from Laura West

A clear, simple message that is big, bright, bold and catchy will grab people’s attention. Take a look at the infographic below. Notice how your eyes are immediately drawn to ‘Plastic Pollution’, which is short, punchy, and immediately noticeable.


2. Pick relevant images

Number 65 

65% of people recall information for up to three days when it is paired with a relevant image. So, pick relatable images to make your work more memorable.


3. Keep it simple

COVID-19 #CoronaVirus Infographic Datapack — Information is Beautiful
Covid 19 Infographic Datapack from Information is Beautiful.

Aim to keep your sentences short and use simplified language. This approach will make your work more accessible and easier to understand, and it will help your audience retain information.

Second, if you have a large amount of data, consider how to display it so that people can immediately follow what you’re showing them.

Take a look at the ‘Coronavirus Riskiest Activities’ infographic below. You can immediately see that ‘nightclub’ is the riskiest activity from the huge amount of information on the page. Note the use of negative space (or empty space) on the page to intensify the size of each bubble.


4. Use colour and contrast

number of facilities able to manufacture mrna vaccines outside of the eu usa can
This infographic from Statista uses a simple colour scale to clearly demonstrate the data

Colour choice matters. Our eyes pick up the contrast between certain colours and using this to your advantage will help accentuate the importance of certain items on the page. Think about the contrast between the colours you are displaying to make the text or imagery striking. This helps readers associate patterns or trends quickly.

In the image above, for example, it is easy to identify the teal colours against the white background and grey world map and immediately identify the countries.


5. Think about how people read

Readers use a Z pattern to visually skim content
Readers use a 'Z' pattern to visually skim content.

Studies show that when we ingest digital information, we first scan the page in a ‘Z’ or ‘F’ pattern to determine whether it is worth reading.

If the information is predominantly text heavy, we read by scanning the left side of the page as this contains left aligned headings and bullet points. When reading information that is not in text-heavy paragraphs, we tend to read in the more ‘Z’ aligned format (left to right and top to bottom).

When thinking about the type of work you are displaying, consider where you want your most important information on the page.


Health & Wellbeing

Reading outside his research area and efficient chemistry helped 2022 Perkin Medal winner Dennis Liotta develop groundbreaking drugs.

There has been an explosion of statistics in football, but one of the most influential figures in this revolution, Ramm Mylvaganam, didn’t care for the game. He worked for the confectionary company Mars. He sold chairs. He knew nothing about football.

However, this key figure outlined in Rory Smith’s recent book, Expected Goals: The story of how data conquered football, came into the field of football analysis and changed the game forever – partly because he approached the game with the fresh perspective of the outsider.

So, what do football statistics have to do with a chemist who came up with life-saving medications? Well, Dr Dennis Liotta, who came up with AIDS antivirals that have saved thousands of lives, may not have entered medicinal chemistry as a complete outsider. He was a chemist, after all. However, like Ramm Mylvaganam, his broad breadth of knowledge from different areas gave him a unique perspective on a new field.

Reading at random

Dr Liotta didn’t take the standard path into medicinal chemistry. In fact, he wasn't a diligent chemistry student at first – and that, in an odd way, contributed to his later success.

For the first couple of years at university, he was more interested in his extracurricular activities; but in his third year, he realised he needed to catch up. He worked hard and burnt the midnight oil. He also did something unusual.

‘I did something that’s kind of ridiculous-sounding,’ he said. ‘I had this big fat organic chemistry book, and I would just open it up randomly to some page and read 10 or 12 pages and close it back up. Over time, I ended up covering not only the things I missed, but actually learning about a lot of things that wouldn't have been covered.’

As his career progressed, Dr Liotta realised the importance of not just working harder, but working smarter. On Sundays, he would sit down with a bunch of academic journals to stay abreast of developments. However, as he read them, he discovered other papers – ones outside his research area – that piqued his interest.

SCIBlog - 21 September 2022 - image of Dennis Liotta
Dennis Liotta in one of his lab spaces at Emory. Image by Marcusrpolo.

‘I’d see something intriguing. And so I’d say, that’s interesting, let me read. I started learning about things that I didn’t technically need to know about, because they were outside of my immediate interest. But those things really changed my life. And, ultimately, I think they were the differentiating factor.’

The intellectual stretch

This intellectual curiosity led to more than 100 patents, including a groundbreaking drug in the fight against AIDS that is still used today and a hand in developing an important hepatitis C drug.

‘In science, many times the people who actually make the most significant innovations are the people who come at a problem that’s outside of their field,’ Dr Liotta said. ‘Without realising it, we all get programmed in terms of how we think about problems, what we accept as fact.’

‘But when you come at a problem that’s outside your field… you aren't immersed in it. So, you think about the problems differently. And many times, in thinking about the problems differently, you’ll come up with an alternative solution that people in the field wouldn’t.’

We’ve often heard the stories of Steve Jobs wandering into random classes while at university when he should have been attending his actual course. Apparently, a calligraphy class inspired the font later used in Apple’s products. In other words, early specialism can sometimes hinder creativity.

‘I've looked into people who have made really some amazing contributions, and many times there’s been an intellectual stretch,’ Dr Liotta said. ‘They’ve gone out there and done something that they weren’t really trained to do. You can fall on your face from time to time, but it’s really nice when we're able to make contributions in areas where we don’t really have any formal training.’

Chance favours…

Of course, there’s so much more to creating life-saving drugs than intellectual curiosity and a different way of thinking. Dr Liotta and his colleagues had the technical skill to turn their ideas into something real. He was a skilled chemist who teamed up with an excellent virologist, Raymond Schinazi. The result of this blend of their skills gave them an edge over others developing AIDS therapeutics.

SCIBlog - 21 September 2022 - image of white pills spilling out of bottle
Dr Liotta invented breakthrough HIV drug Emtricitabine.

‘The very first thing we did was we figured out a spectacular way of preparing the compounds – very clean, very efficient,’ he said. ‘And that [meant we could] explore all sorts of different permutations around the series of compounds that others couldn’t easily do, because their methods were so bad for making [them].

‘So, even though we were competing against some very important pharmaceutical companies that had infinitely more money than we had – dozens of really smart people they put on the project – we were able to run circles around them because we had a really efficient methodology and that enabled us to make some compounds.’

The amazing thing is that the very first compound and the third compound the pair came up with led to FDA-approved drugs. It is a fine thing, indeed, when skill and serendipity meet.

‘Chance favours the prepared mind,’ Dr Liotta said, ‘or, as my colleagues say: you work hard to put yourself in a position to get lucky.’

>> Learn more about Dr Liotta’s career path and research from our recent Q&A.