Science & Innovation

Have you ever seen a snowflake up close? Have you smelt fertiliser on a country drive? Chemistry is the most sensuous of the sciences, and it may just be the most beautiful too. In our latest SCITalk, Dr Philip Ball showcases the breathtaking beauty of chemistry.

Main image: A chemical garden formed from copper nitrate in sodium silicate solution by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu.

Even the most disciplined of us falls into these rogue states from time to time, minutes of total absorption unrelated to work or duty. For some, it is the humble cat video. For others, it is the endless tapestry of Twitter.

Image of crystals of nicotinic acid by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu

Crystals of nicotinic acid by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu.

For me, this morning, it was a time-lapse video of crystal growth patterns. The world temporarily stopped moving as I fell headlong into high-resolution pictures of icy fronds appearing and clusters of spikes combining to form crystalline towers. Who knew potassium nitrate, ammonium chloride, and monopotassium phosphate could be so beautiful?

It turns out, Dr Philip Ball did. He knows all about the beauty of chemistry – from its profusions of colour to the hypnotic beauty of snowflakes forming.

Image of oxygen bubble from decomposing hydrogen peroxide by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu

Oxygen bubble from decomposing hydrogen peroxide by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu.

Dr Ball argues that chemistry is the most sensuous of the sciences. Which of us hasn’t smelt the stink of sulphur or the sting of ammonia in our nostrils? When he unveils vivid, other-worldly pictures of chemical gardens, or even when we see a close-up of water being added to a bowl of M&Ms, it’s hard to disagree with his view.

This Wednesday evening, 25 May 2022, Dr Ball will deliver his SCI Talk about the beauty of chemistry and his book of the same name, which he put together with photographers Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu. Using microphotography, time-lapse photography, and infrared thermal imaging, they have captured astonishing photos of chemical processes.

They have captured a beauty seldom seen, except by chemistry’s day-to-day practitioners. They show us the chemistry of champagne in a new light and the transformations of evaporation and distillation. They unveil the strange world of chemical gardens – from the blue tendrils of copper nitrate in sodium silicate solution, to the silky precipitation of silver chromate.

Image of precipitation of silver chromate by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu

Precipitation of silver chromate by Yan Liang and Wenting Zhu.

Some defend the beauty of science by conflating it with the pursuit of truth. As the famous snippet from Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn goes: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’ Yet, it’s clear that the beauty of chemistry does not need to be defended in such abstract terms. It’s there in champagne bubbles and the deft configurations of a snowflake. You just need to look into a microscope - or plunge mind-first down a YouTube rabbit hole.

Register here to watch the Beauty of Chemistry SCItalk this Wednesday 25 May 2022.

Agrifood

How do green spaces, gardens as well as fruit and vegetables impact our health and wellbeing? Professor Geoff Dixon tells us more.

‘We are what we eat’ is an aphorism that is becoming much better understood both by the general public and by healthcare professionals. Similarly, ‘we are where we live’ is gaining greater appreciation. Both these pithy observations underline the social and economic importance of horticulture and the allied art of gardening.

SCIblog - 12 May 2022 - We are what we eat and we are where we live - image of flower display

An exuberant display of flowers – what can be better for the soul?

Few things stimulate the human spirit more than a fine, colourful display of well grown and presented flowers. Seeing and working with green and colourful plants is increasingly recognised for its psychological power, reducing stress and increasing wellbeing. In our increasingly urbanised society, with myriads of high-rise housing blocks, the provision of well-tended parks and gardens is not a luxury – it is essential.

Hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see and sit in green spaces. Equally, providing access to gardens and gardening for schools should be a vital part of the children’s environment. They gain an understanding of biological mechanisms and the equally important need for conserving biodiversity and controlling the rate of climate change.

The recently published National Food Strategy emphasised the importance of fruit and vegetables as a major part of our diets. Both fruit and vegetables provide essential vitamins, nutrients and fibres which consumed over time diminish the incidence of cancers, coronary, strokes and digestive diseases.

SCIblog - 12 May 2022 - We are what we eat and we are where we live - image of apricots

Apricots are high in catechins.

Eating varying types of fruit and vegetables increases their value – apricots, for example, are high in catechins which are potent anti-inflammatory agents. Members of the brassica (cabbage) family are exceptionally valuable for mitigating diseases of ‘modern society’. All contain glucosynolates, which evolved as means for combating pest and pathogen attacks and co-incidentally provide similar services for humans. Watercress – an aquatic brassica – is rich in vitamins A, C and E, plus folate, calcium and iron. Its high water content means portions consumed fresh or as soups are low in calories.

SCIblog - 12 May 2022 - We are what we eat and we are where we live - image of watercress

Watercress – an aquatic brassica boasts numerous health benefits.

These messages and facts are now being recognised both publicly and politically, and not before time. For the past 50 years the universal panaceas have been pharmaceutical drugs. In moderation, these have been of immense value. Use to excess is both counterproductive and needlessly expensive health-wise and financially.

Returning to Grandma’s advice, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’, supports both individual and planetary good health.

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

Science & Innovation

An Artificial Intelligence tool that could change the way we treat heart disease wowed the judges at this year’s Bright SCIdea competition. Now that the dust has settled, we asked Raphael Peralta, from the winning CardiaTec team, about winning the competition, the need for this technology, and tips for future participants. After winning this prestigious competition and coming away with the £5,000 first prize, the future is bright for co-founders Raphael Peralta, Thelma Zablocki and Namshik Han. So, how do they reflect on the story so far?

Bright SCIdea 2022 - Team CardiTec

Team CardiaTec (UK)

Tell us about CardiaTec
Cardiovascular disease is the world’s leading cause of death, and affects countless lives. Despite this, investment and innovation within the space has been severely stagnated, especially in comparison to fields such as oncology. The current treatment landscape remains unchanged, and treatments are most often prescribed in a standardised, one-size-fits-all approach. However, people are fundamentally different, and as shown by the Covid-19 pandemic, similar groups of people can experience a disease in a significantly different manner, and as such it is very important to understand biological processes at a patient level to produce effective therapeutic outcomes.

CardiaTec is leveraging artificial intelligence to structure and analyze large scale biological data that spans the full multiomic domain. This allows for a comprehensive understanding of disease pathophysiology to better develop novel and effective therapeutics for cardiovascular disease.

Casting your mind back to the moment you were announced the winner of Bright SCIdea 2020, what were your initial thoughts?
We thought we had a good opportunity to win it, but obviously when it was announced, it was a great feeling. Winning this competition is a further validation that what we are generating has real world value.

It was a great judging panel, with a breadth of experience across drug discovery and the pharmaceutical industry. We were up against immense global competition and the fact that we won shows that there’s a need for novel innovation in the cardiovascular space to ultimately drive the development of new therapeutics that are going to help change people's lives.

How did you think of the idea? Was there a ‘eureka’ moment?
The way the initial idea came about was through the identification that the cardiovascular space had a massive unmet need compared to other spaces such as oncology. I had worked with a cardiovascular company doing some consulting work and this is where it came to light.

In combination, multiomic techniques are becoming increasingly accessible in line with technological developments, which have made processes of next generation sequencing and proteomic profiling increasingly cheaper. These processes generate large amounts of data, which then lend themselves to applications of machine learning to derive biologically meaningful insights. These process, although becoming increasingly familiar in areas such as oncology, are highly underrepresented in cardiovascular disease, and thus there spans opportunity to develop completely unique and novel insights.

How does the technology work?
Here, CardiaTec uses data across genomics, epigenomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics, to generate novel biological insights with the help of AI and machine learning applications. Taking these many ‘omics’ into consideration is what defines a ‘multiomic’ approach. Biology is complex, and trends require full multiomic assessment to truly understand where dysregulation of specific processes is occurring, to then inform the best means of intervention.

CardiaTec is developing a platform, which with time will grow to become one of the most comprehensive foundations of cardiovascular disease biology. Results and outcomes are iteratively incorporated into the model, and new hypotheses are tried and tested across a range of pre-clinical settings. Collectively, CardiaTec aims to generate novel drug targets that can be used to help reduce the burden of disease in current and future patient population.

In the process of getting to the final, there were several opportunities to engage with entrepreneurs, investors, business leaders, and experts in intellectual property (IP). Can you share key takeaways from these sessions?
One of the most important things you can do is speak to people. Every business starts from an idea. As you start developing, you change and refine the business model. We take every chance to engage with people who have industry experience. It’s really important that we take the advice of these people on board; this is especially true in the field of biotechnology where you take risks across the technology side, the commercial side, and the biological side. It takes a lot of experience to mitigate those risks.

How difficult has it been taking that idea and turning it into a viable business proposition?
Thelma and I came out of the MPhil in Bioscience Enterprise at the University of Cambridge. It gave us this really strong foundation to start building. We also had the biological knowledge from our previous degrees. This framework, where we had key opinion leaders and great people in the field with whom we could bounce ideas off, was the first step. We saw that the idea was really positive and was received well by a lot of people. So, we thought: ‘we’re onto something’.

When building a biotech company, if you’re not passionate about it and don’t want to spend a lot of your time dedicated to the project, then it’s not going to take off. You need to be there to make changes, and really embrace and understand where you believe it’s going to go in line with the advice you've been given and the insights that you have generated.

We’re not only interested in understanding the intricate nature of biology. We’re also interested in how this has real life application in changing people’s lives. Every person we speak to has been affected in some way by cardiovascular disease.

I noticed that your presentation was really polished. Do you have any tips for people presenting in the final?
We’ve presented a lot of times so I think practice makes perfect. With a presentation, you need to be able to tell a story. It’s all about the storyline and building that image. You have to take care and be diligent in the process. Take time to make sure everything is structured correctly and that the story flows. Don’t be afraid to present to a lot of people who will give you advice. Take the time to make the amendments and run it through again and again, and see what the response is. So, take your time on the presentation to get your story across.

You were both very calm when the judges’ questions came. How did you prepare for these questions?
Out of this Cambridge network, the people we spoke to all asked the right questions. You see the pattern of these questions. They all want to know similar things. So, once we identified that pattern, we wrote down the questions that were important from our conversations and we practiced responses to these questions, which were by this point, fully embedded into the company’s business model; which then lends itself to an insightful, actionable response.

How are you going to use the £5,000 prize money and what’s next?
We’ll put the prize money towards refining of some of our technology. In terms of what’s next, Thelma (Zablocki), Namshik (Han), and I are dedicated to this company. We want to see it through and eventually make a drug that ends up reaching patients. This will take a long time.

To see that in the real world, where someone’s getting prescribed a drug that you discovered would be incredible.

>> For more on this year’s Bright SCIdea final, go to: https://www.soci.org/news/2022/3/bright-scidea-final-2022.

Careers

Dr Yalinu Poya Gow’s eventful career has taken her from Papua New Guinea and China to Glasgow, with an impressive array of awards collected along the way. She spoke to us about her successes, overcoming challenges, and feeding the world’s growing population through ammonia synthesis.

SCIblog - 05 May 2022 - image of Dr Yalinu Poya Gow

Dr Yalinu Poya Gow

Tell us about your career path to date.

I was born and raised in Lae, Morobe Province, in Papua New Guinea. I did all my schooling there, then moved to Port Moresby, the capital, to do my university studies. I attended the University of Papua New Guinea and graduated in 2011 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Science, majoring in Chemistry. After graduation, I worked at the Porgera Gold Mine in the pressure oxidation circuit as a Process Technician.

In 2014, I moved to China and did a Master’s in Inorganic Chemistry, majoring in Heterogeneous Catalysis, and received the Outstanding International Student award. In Autumn 2016, I was accepted into the University of Glasgow and began my PhD in Chemistry, majoring in Heterogeneous Catalysis.

I completed my PhD studies December 2019 and graduated in June 2020. My PhD research was on making catalysts suitable for small-scale ammonia production, such as on a farm. Ammonia is a simple compound that is primarily used to make synthetic fertilisers to grow food to feed 40% of the world population; as a result, there is great interest in sustainable ammonia production on a small-scale.

I have received a total of 18 awards and honours in relation to my PhD work, including: the 2020 Commonwealth Chemistry award winner in Green Chemistry; the 2019 Green Talent Award from the German Ministry of Education and Research; and the Plutonium Element Award by International Union of Pure Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) as one of the top 118 chemists in the world under the age of 40; and first place in a Society of Chemical Industry PhD Student Competition.

My research has been highlighted and featured by the American Chemical Society, Scottish Funding Council, Society of Chemical Industry and QS Top Universities. In addition, I have been honoured by the University of Glasgow for my ammonia synthesis research and named 2020 University of Glasgow Future World Changer.

Which aspects of your work motivate you most?

The aspect of my job and research that motivates me the most is contributing to a greater cause. I play a role in contributing towards improving the livelihoods of billions across the world. I am also an educator, teaching students across the world, so in a sense I am developing the world’s human resource: equipping scientists and engineers into bettering themselves and the world. This is my motivation.

SCIblog - 05 May 2022 - image of a tractor working the field

Ammonia synthesis research is key in helping us feed the world’s rapidly growing population.

What personal challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

The personal challenge that I face is being undervalued. I, as a scientist, am usually overlooked. You see, everyone talks about sustainability, climate change, and what we should do to overcome these challenges, but when it comes to getting the job done, young scientists like me who have a lot to offer are being overlooked by institutions and organisations despite meeting criteria.

The thing with me is that I came the hard way, I worked extremely hard to get where I am and do not sway from paths nor give up easily. I continue to grow in my passion in science and research despite the limited opportunities. I believe all good things come to those who work hard and are patient.

>> We have spoken to many amazing women chemists. Read more about Dr Anita Shukla and the drug delivery systems she is developing.

What is the greatest future challenge for those in your industry and at home, and how could these be addressed through your work?

The greatest challenge is the lack of opportunities. Catalysis is somewhat a niche field when it comes to research fellowships, industrial jobs, or anything in between. Catalysis can help solve some of our problems, but it is often overlooked. Ammonia synthesis is a testament to how catalysis feeds 40% of the world population. When you take into account the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and the world’s growing population, ammonia synthesis should be highly worthy of consideration.

It is the same in where I come from. Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands have brilliant and naturally gifted people. The only challenge is the lack of opportunities and services.

Which mentors have helped you along the way and how did they make a difference?

Mentors that have helped me along the way were my parents, who always believed in my potential, instilled in me hard work and discipline, and always reminded me that I have a purpose. I also have had the support of my science teachers at school, undergraduate lecturers and postgraduate supervisors. They are all heroes and heroines of science and have shaped my life greatly!

What is the current state of play within your sector with respect to equality, diversity, and inclusion – and is enough being done to attract and retain diverse talent?

I am a Pacific Islander woman in Chemistry. I am a minority in the world and more so in my field. Opportunities should be given to us as we do not just represent ourselves, we represent an entire people of the Pacific.

That is the whole reason why I wanted to do a PhD in Chemistry with an underlying theme of sustainability, so I can give something back and help my people because they are the ones who face the drastic effects of climate firsthand.

Many people speak of inclusivity on paper, but it needs to come into fruition. Inclusivity is not just a box to tick. There is so much diverse talent out there – brilliant, and qualified people from minority ethnicities.

Is there any advice you would give to young professionals and young people from Papua New Guinea?

Never give up – that is all. Where you come from, your past or present, status in life, background, gender, age, what you look like, these should not hold you back from achieving your goals. Yes, life is hard, but you have a purpose.

Some have it easy, most of us have it hard, but we are tough and resilient people. Eventually, you will reach your goals one day, look back and see that all the hardship faced along the way was totally worth it.

>> Interested in a career in science communication? Then read Suze Kundu’s story.

Sustainability & Environment

Re-using waste materials and converting them into chemicals will help us create a closed-loop system. Ahead of the SCI Engineering Biology symposium on 23 May, Martin Hayes, Biotechnology Lead at Johnson Matthey, spoke about some exciting approaches and the challenges involved in making the low-carbon transition.

The journey to Net Zero is well underway, with a number of countries already committed to Net Zero by 2050. To achieve this ambitious goal, companies and governments must take a new approach to waste, shifting from linear processing to a circular model.

This involves recycling and reusing products to create a closed-loop system that uses fewer resources and reduces waste, pollution and carbon emissions. As we journey towards Net Zero, these ‘circularity’ principles are increasingly embedded in the research and design of products.

Re-using waste from chemical processes

As a leader in sustainable technologies, Johnson Matthey (JM) is striving to help the chemical industry transition. Martin Hayes, Biotechnology Lead, explains: ‘More and more companies are starting to move away from linear chemical processes to circular ones, which is definitely a step in the right direction.

‘They’re looking at how the waste from chemical processes may be the source for biological processes. Biological entities such as enzymes or organisms can even recover precious metals from waste streams, maximising value while reducing waste.’

>> How are young chemists tackling climate change? Read more in our COP26 review.

In other cases, gas fermentation can upgrade waste products, particularly carbon dioxide and hydrogen, and convert them into chemicals. Hayes explains: ‘In this instance JM joins biology and chemistry to get the desired end product without affecting the customer experience, but making the process much cleaner.’

SCIblog - 3 May 2022 - Engineering biology for low-carbon chemistry - image of pomegranates that have gone bad

Fermented food waste could be converted into chemical building blocks.

Food waste is another contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. A circular approach may consider fermenting food waste to convert it into useful chemical building blocks. ‘What is valuable about this is that these chemicals are not produced from virgin fossil material,’ he adds.

Collaboration and feedstock issues

To realise the potential in these technologies and new businesses, it’s important to take a collaborative approach and for multi-disciplinary teams to work together. Hayes continues: ‘We know that getting the biology to the end product requires engineers, chemists, microbiologists, and biochemists – different scientists working together with commercial expertise to make a product that is sustainable, has a low environmental footprint, and is still profitable.

‘We work collaboratively in partnership because we recognise we need to develop these solutions in ways that reflect the needs of each client and the broader society.’

But the scale of the issue shouldn’t be underestimated. On the one hand, those biological entities will require engineering to become efficient catalysts, working selectively with less-than-ideal feedstocks under demanding reaction conditions. On the other hand, scaling up and optimising processes such as fermentation can be resource intensive and involve large volumes.#

SCIblog - 3 May 2022 - Engineering biology for low-carbon chemistry - image of Johnson Matthey logo

Johnson Matthey will be Platinum sponsors for the upcoming Engineering Biology symposium | Editorial image credit: Casimiro PT / Shutterstock

This type of catalyst customisation and process intensification calls for a multi-disciplinary team: bioinformaticians, molecular biologists, chemists and chemical engineers working together.

While the UK leads in renewable technologies, it is also important to think in terms of connected systems rather than isolated applications of technology. That broader perspective in a circular system will get us towards Net Zero and is embodied by the SCI’s symposium on Engineering Biology with which JM is proud to be associated as a (fittingly) Platinum sponsor. This is a topic which is entirely consistent with, and supportive of, JM’s vision of a cleaner, healthier world.

>> Sign up here for SCI's Engineering Biology – applications for chemistry-using business on 23 May.

>> How do we move to non-fossil fuel feedstocks? Here’s our report on the Parliamentary & Scientific Committee Discussion Meeting on 28 March.

Sustainability & Environment

By rethinking the way our products are designed and changing the way we use plastics, we can tackle the blight of marine litter and the general accumulation of plastic waste. But, as Professor Richard Thompson said in our latest SCItalk, systemic issues and historical excesses have made this no easy task.

Contrary to popular perception, plastic is not the villain. When it comes to marine littering, we are the ogres, with our single-use bottles bobbing in the oceans and the detritus of our everyday lives littering the coastline.

We are the reason why 700 species are known to encounter plastic debris in the environment. It is because of us that plastics have beaten us to the bottom of the deepest oceans and glint in the sun near the summit of Mt. Everest.

According to Richard Thompson, of the Marine Institute School of Biological and Marine Sciences at the University of Plymouth: ‘Plastic debris is everywhere. Its quantity in the ocean is likely to triple between 2015 and 2025.’

As Professor Thompson pointed out all of these facts to his audience in our latest SCItalk on 23 March, he outlined potential solutions. However, there is no ignoring the depth of the issues at hand when it comes to the litter in our seas.


The problems

1 - The weight of history

Society has gradually woken up to the menace of discarded plastics and, laterally, to the threat of microplastics and nanoplastics. The problem is that we left the barn door open decades ago. So, all of those plastic microbeads from shower gels, fibres from clothing, and tyre wear particles polluted our seas for many years before it came to public and scientific attention.

Professor Thompson said that 300 papers were published globally on microplastics in the last academic year alone, but research in the area was relatively thin on the ground before Thompson and his colleagues released their pioneering study on microplastics in Science in 2004.

2 - Bad habits

‘The business model for the use of plastics hasn’t really changed since the 1950s,’ Professor Thompson said. According to him, we have had 60 years of behavioural training to just throw products away, and our waterways reflect this attitude.

According to Professor Thompson, 50% of shoreline litter items recorded during the 2010s originated from single-use applications. Without a sea change in our attitude towards single-use items, this problem will persist.

>> Why are we ignoring climate change and what can we do about it? Read more on our blog post.

SCIblog - 21 April 2022 - Marine Litter - image of nanoplastics found on a beach

Microplastics have been subject to great scrutiny, but much of the research is quite recent.
3 - We need to talk about nanoplastics

The problems with larger plastics and even microplastics are now well documented. The worrying thing, according to Thompson, is that there are knowledge gaps when it comes to nanoplastics in the natural environment. What are the effects of nanoplastic ingestion? What are the effects of human health? Time will tell, but Thompson was keen to ask if we really need that information before we take action.

He was more sanguine about the effects of microplastics. ‘The concentration of microplastics is probably not yet causing widespread ecological harm,’ he said, ‘but if we don’t take measures, we’ll pass into widespread ecological harm within the next 50-100 years.’


The solutions

It seems counterintuitive to think of petrochemical plastics as a sustainable solution; and yet, despite the environmental problems posed by their durability, they do have a role to play in a greener approach.

‘If used responsibly, plastics can reduce our footprint on the planet,’ Thompson noted. Indeed, the lightweight plastic parts in our cars and in aviation can actually help reduce carbon emissions. But despite their merits, how do we keep plastic litter from our seas?

1 - Design for end of life… and a new one

To illustrate a flaw in the way we design plastic products, Professor Thompson gave the example of an orange coloured drinks bottle. While the bright colour may help sell juice drinks, there is an issue with recycling these coloured plastics because their value as a recyclate is lower. Clear plastics, on the other hand, are much more viable to recycle.

He argues that many products aren’t being designed with the whole lifecycle in mind. ‘We’re still failing to get to grips with linking design to end of life,’ he said, before highlighting the importance of communicating how products should be disposed of right from the design stage.

Basically, our products should be designed with end of life in mind. ‘If we haven’t even designed a plastic bottle properly,’ he lamented, ‘what hope do we have with something that’s more complicated?’

SCIblog - 21 April 2022 - Marine Litter - image of colourful plastic bottles

Those brightly coloured plastic bottles look nice and fancy, but they can be challenging to recycle in a circular economy.
2 - Ever recycle? Ever fail? Recycle again. Recycle better

Professor Thompson argued that better practices are needed to help divert materials away from our seas (and it should be noted that there are other types of discarded materials to be found there). If we recycle greater quantities of end of life plastic products and bring them into a circular economy, he said, ‘we’d decouple ourselves from oil and gas as the carbon source for new production because the carbon source we use would be the plastic waste’.

He said more could also be done with labelling so that customers know whether, for example, a product is compostable and which waste stream it needs to be placed in to achieve that. He also noted that addressing our single-use culture would be a good place to start if we want to change the business model of linear use.

3 - Broaden the discussion and pull those policy levers

The good news is that there is an appetite for change. ‘Ten years or so ago there was no consensus that there was a problem,’ Thompson noted. ‘I would argue that this has changed.’ However, he also feels that it is essential to gather reliable, independent evidence to inform interventions, rather than espousing solutions that could make things worse.

‘We need to gather that evidence from different disciplines,’ he said. ‘We need to have at the table product designers and couple them with the waste managers. We need to have economists at the table. We also need to bring in social scientists to look at behaviour. We’ve got to think about this in the round.’

He also felt that policy measures – such as mandating recycled content – could be a good option, along with better design and disposal.

The tools we need to tackle plastic pollution are already at our disposal. We just need to act more responsibly – which, unfortunately, has been part of the problem all along.

As Professor Thompson said: ‘It’s not the plastics per se that are the problem – it’s the way we’ve chosen to use them.’

>> For more interesting SCI talks like Professor Thompson’s, check out our YouTube channel.

>> Find out more about the work of Professor Thompson and his colleagues here: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/marine-litter.

Agrifood

There was a happening in York recently – a Hemp Happening – organised by SCI’s Agrisciences Group and Biovale. It took place at York’s STEM Centre and explored the issues around growing and using industrial hemp. Despite these issues, there is a growing demand for hemp fibre and shiv as we look to use sustainable natural fibres and move to a low-carbon economy.

In 10 years’ time, you’ll walk out of your hemp-insulated home, wearing your hemp fibre t-shirt, polishing off the last of your hemp and beet burger, before heading to work in your hemp seed oil-powered car.

Is this scenario fantastical? Yes, obviously, but as delegates attending Hemp Happening explained on 6 April, all of these products exist right now. The sheer breadth of them underlines what a useful and versatile material hemp is. If enabled through policy, hemp could play a big part in our low-carbon future. Here are five ways it could make a significant difference.


1. Carbon sequestration

Hemp has much-vaunted carbon-sequestering potential which, given our climate change travails, could prove extremely useful. Some experts say it is even better at capturing atmospheric carbon than trees. According to SAC Consulting, industrial hemp absorbs nine to 13 tonnes of CO2 per hectare. To put hemp’s absorption capacity into context, hemp market specialists Unyte Hemp said it absorbs 25 times more CO2 than a forest of the same size.

Of course, that’s all very well, but how do you make sure this carbon remains sequestered?


2. A future heavyweight champion?

One fitting home for hemp (and the carbon it has captured) is in construction, especially given the carbon-intensive nature of the industry. So, with the pressure intensifying to replace and retrofit the UK’s inefficient building stock, hemp is well placed to reduce emissions and improve building performance.

Hemp is not just used in insulation materials due to its excellent thermal performance characteristics. It is also used in rendering buildings and for non-load bearing blocks in construction. Indeed, hempcrete blocks, which are made from hemp shiv, lime, and sand or pozzolans, have a net carbon negative footprint.

SCIblog - 19 April 2022 - Hemp Happening - image of different hemp products

Hemp is used in everything from food supplements to medicines, cosmetics, and construction products.

3. Farmer’s friend

Hemp also helps the earth. As flash flooding strips our soils, the plant’s root density and deep structure protects against soil erosion and mitigates compaction. Hemp also provides nutrients to help maintain soil health, making it useful in crop rotation.

As insect populations dwindle, the role of pesticides and herbicides are coming into sharper relief. In that respect, hemp has a natural advantage over other crops as it doesn’t require pesticides and fertilisers.


4.The Swiss Army knife of materials

We have long heard of the health benefits of hemp-derived products such as cannabidiol oil (or CBD oil), but pretty much the whole plant can be used. Its seeds are rich in omega-3, omega-6, and fatty acids, and help fend heart problems.

As mentioned above, the fibrous part of the plant sequesters carbon and produces low-carbon materials for construction, while its roots are used to treat joint pain and for deep tissue healing.

And then we have hemp for bioethanol production and even hemp seed veggie burgers. The list goes on; so, there are many ways for farmers to make money from it.

>> What can be done to make our soils healthier? Take a look at our blog on solving soil degradation.

SCIblog - 19 April 2022 - Hemp Happening - image of hemp insulation

Hemp has excellent insulation properties.

5. Non-thirsty textiles

I bet you know at least one person with a bamboo t-shirt or socks. Hemp has similar textile potential to its super material cousin. As the fashion industry interrogates its wayward past, the pressure will increase to lighten the footprint of clothing materials. Estimates vary, but hemp is said to need less than half the water required to cultivate and process than cotton textiles and its toughness is handy in long-lasting carpeting.

Mr Elephant, could you step through please?

Hemp has been heralded as a wonder material for decades but there is that elephant in the room. The restricted uses of hemp-related materials curb the extent to which it can be grown in the UK. At the event, delegates noted that outdated legislation, lack of government support, and education are among the factors holding back the growth of hemp on an industrial scale.

And yet, there is growing demand for natural materials that tackle climate change, especially those that sequester carbon. With pension funds increasingly divesting from fossil fuels, and the ever growing importance of corporate sustainability in business, sustainable materials such as hemp are now more attractive.

Arguably the most exciting contribution of the day was the mention of zero-cannabinoid industrial hemp. Even though the THC content levels present in hemp are low (compared to the high levels found in marijuana) and it’s unattractive as a THC source, hemp is still very strictly regulated in the UK compared to North America and the rest of the EU.

One participant mentioned that hemp genes could be edited to remove the cannabinoid – and, if that were to be achieved, it could change everything. Then we would really see hemp happening in the UK.

>> Interested in more events like this one? Visit our Events pages.

Careers

Interested in a career in chemistry publishing? Then see how Bryden Le Bailly, Senior Editor at Nature, navigated the path from academia to science communication.

Tell us about your career path to date.
I am a Senior Editor at Nature magazine, overseeing what we publish at the chemistry/biology interface. I completed a MSci in Chemistry at the University of Bristol, followed by a PhD in Organic Chemistry at the University of Manchester in which I looked at signalling with synthetic systems in membranes. I was always interested in education generally, and a great teacher of mine told me Chemistry would have enough to keep me engaged. She wasn’t wrong.

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Bryden Le Bailly, Senior Editor at Nature magazine

A short post-doctoral position let me carry on research for a year, but I became more certain that a career in academia wasn’t for me. I enjoyed the idea of research more than its realities, and academia didn’t really work with other life choices I wanted to make. Editorial work suits this balance far better while staying close to the science.

Coupled with my interest in science communication, it looked like a good fit. To read and discuss exciting, cutting-edge research didn’t seem too bad a way to make a living. I looked into editorial jobs and, after discussions with a former editor in the Bristol Chemistry department, I started applying for positions at Nature journals. A locum position at Nature Nanotechnology led to me applying for the permanent position at Nature, where I’ve been for a little over five years.

What is a typical day like in your job?
The core of the job is deciding which submissions to review and publish. So, I read, a lot. The areas I cover comprise how molecules are made and how they can be used to interrogate biology or as therapeutic leads, as well as biochemistry, membrane protein biology, and a few other bits and pieces.

If that sounds like a wide range of topics, it is! It’s the same for all Nature editors. This keeps the job varied and interesting. The rest of the job stems from the papers I handle: overseeing peer review, taking decisions post-review, and what reviewer requests need addressing before we can proceed.

This all involves discussions with my fellow editors. In addition, I speak to Principal Investigators (PIs) and other lab members about work coming out of their labs that might be suitable for Nature.

After we decide we’ll publish something, I look for other ways we can promote the work. I pitch papers we are publishing for associated coverage in News & Views, features, or to go on the magazine cover.

Finally, Nature editors commission reviews and perspectives on topics we think are important and timely, and we discuss with our magazine editors news or topics that we believe should be covered journalistically.

Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?
Travelling for the job has to be one of its best perks. I manage to take around five to six trips a year, locally and internationally, to conferences and labs. Discussing brand new science one-on-one with the foremost experts in that field is a massive privilege.

However, I also enjoy supporting early-career researchers to publish in Nature and guiding them through our selection process and expectations. A longer-term way I have looked to support early career researchers (ECRs) is by delivering writing and publishing Masterclasses.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
Saying no to about 90% of what gets sent to my desk at Nature, despite it being (mostly) great science.

>> Excited about a career in next generation drug development? Read how Rachel Ellis became involved in Rachel's Careers for Chemistry blog.

How do you use the skills you obtained during your PhD/Postdoc in your job?
A good knowledge of organic chemistry and chemical biology is very helpful, not only for assessing manuscripts but also to advise on standards for Nature and the rest of the Nature portfolio. I am glad I chose research projects that required me to learn a range of techniques and delve into lots of different areas. Some of the more tangentially related areas to my studies are core responsibilities for me in my job now.

Which other skills are required in the work you do?
An interest in a breadth of science and willingness to learn are key. You will be exposed to areas you had previously never appreciated or knew existed in this job, and it is important to understand every submission from all its angles, and quickly.

This involves effective communication with other editors. Communication and learning skills also come into play when you’re out and about, where you might discuss 15 different subjects over a poster session at the end of a long day, or during a visit to an institute. Finally, editors need a good eye for detail.

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Bryden has used his background in organic chemistry to forge a career in publishing.

Is there any advice you would give to others interested in pursuing a similar career path?
Firstly, the pace of the job and its expectations are very different from research. Looking at a manuscript from a scientific and editorial standpoint are two very different things. Consider if you have a critical eye when reviewing papers for a journal or reading the literature.

If you can explain to your colleagues or friends why a piece of research is exciting or ground-breaking, this is a good starting point. However, my principal advice would be to talk to editors.

We go to conferences and are happy to discuss the job in more detail. When I first applied for editorial roles, it was helpful to discuss the position with a former editor. When I didn’t get the jobs I applied for, one of the interviewers called me to explain and encourage me in the right direction. This experience was invaluable in getting me to where I am today.

>> Suze Kundu went from academia to presenting TV shows on the Discovery Channel. Trace her storied career path in Suze's Women in Chem blog.