Science & Innovation

We need to create more diverse paths into research and scientific innovation. Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, explains how industry clusters and a change of mindset could help.

What do you picture when someone mentions a chemist? Maybe you see someone like you working in a lab or office with your colleagues.

But what do people at the bus stop think? What would a secondary school student say? Do they see someone like them – or do they imagine an Einstein-like figure hidden away in a dark room with crazed hair and test tubes?

One of the most interesting messages from Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser’s Fuelling the Future: science, society and the research and innovation system talk on 29 September was the need to make sure science and technology are seen as viable careers for people throughout society.

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Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser

You don’t need to be a genius to work in research and innovation. You don’t necessarily need to be a specialist, and you certainly don’t need to be hunched over a microscope with a jumble of figures and formulae on a board behind you. An array of different people, technical and non-technical, are needed to make the sector thrive.

 

The narrow pathway of talent

Part of Dame Ottoline’s job as Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is to improve access to these sectors and to make sure that great ideas aren’t lost due to daunting entry barriers.

‘It’s a huge challenge,’ she said. ‘A large part of the challenge is the narrow concept that we all have of what a researcher and innovator look like.’

Leyser spoke about the need to create diverse routes through the system rather than squeezing everyone through the same narrow path. ‘The assessment criteria we use for individuals have become narrower and narrower,’ she added. ‘Some of it, ironically, is to make the system fairer, but objectivity in creativity is a total pipe dream. You end up crushing creativity by narrowing the criteria.’

She noted that those with mixed careers – interwoven with varied experiences – are to be welcomed. ‘That’s nothing to do with compromising excellence,’ she said. ‘Real excellence comes in multiple forms.’

>> Would you like to attend more talks like this one? Check out our Events page.

 

Challenging times

However, Leyser also spoke of the need to level up the UK from a productivity perspective. One way to do this is through smart specialisation and industry clusters. She mentioned Lincoln as an area where this approach worked well. Lincoln is home to extensive agriculture and the multinational technology corporation Siemens. As such, it made sense to help make it a centre for agricultural robotics.

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UKRI is investing heavily in research and innovation into Net Zero energy solutions.

As the largest public funder of research and innovation in the UK, UKRI has a major role to play in funding such industry clusters and intelligent innovation. It has funded more than 54,000 researchers and innovators, and UKRI grants have generated almost 900 spinouts since 2004.

These include Oxford Nanopore, a biotech company whose DNA sequencing technology is now valued at £2.5bn. It has also cast an eye on the future, including delivering more than £1bn in R&D relevant to Artificial Intelligence and in excess of £1bn towards Net Zero energy solutions.

Leyser noted that the UKRI’s goal is to embed research and innovation more broadly across society – for it to be ‘by the people and for the people, rather than the exclusive domain of the privileged few’.

It is a grand challenge, but such sentiments are certainly encouraging.

Careers

Continuing our series on Black scientists, Dr George Okafo tells us about his journey from curious child, encouraged by family and mentors, to Global Director of Healthcare Data and Analytics with a leading pharmaceutical company.

SCIblog - 11 October 2021 - Celebrating Black scientists – Dr George Okafo

What is your current position?
I am Global Director, Healthcare Data and Analytics Unit at Boehringer Ingelheim, and have been in this role for the past 10 months.

Right: Dr George Okafo

Please give us a brief outline of your role.
To build an expert team of data stewards, data scientists and statistical geneticists tasked with accessing and ingesting population-scale healthcare biobanks and then deriving target, biomarker and disease insights from this data to transform clinical development and personalise the development of new medicines.

What was it that led you to study chemistry/science and ultimately develop a career in this field? Was this your first choice?
My interest in science stems from my parents. My father was a medical doctor, and my mother was a senior midwife. As a child, I was always very curious and wanted to know why and how things worked. This curiosity has stayed with me all my life and throughout my career at GlaxoSmithKline and now at Boehringer Ingelheim. In my current role, I am still asking the same types of questions from Big Data and these answers could have a profound impact in the development of new medicines.

Was there any one person or group of people who you felt had a specific impact on your decision to pursue the career you are in?
Yes, my father and mother, who supported, encouraged and gave me the confidence to be curious, to keep trying and to never give up.

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Dr Okafo held senior director-level roles in drug discovery and development while at at GSK.

Could you outline the route that you took to get to where you are now, and how you were supported?
My career journey started at Dulwich College (London) where I studied Chemistry, Biology, Maths and Physics at A Level. This took me to Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (London), where I completed my Joint BSc in Chemistry and Biochemistry and my PhD in Cancer Chemistry.

I then spent a year at the University of Toronto in Canada as a Postdoctoral Fellow, before embarking on my career in the Pharmaceutical Industry, starting at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). I spent 30 years at GSK, where I held many senior director-level roles in drug discovery and development. During my time, I made it my mission to learn as much about the R&D process and used this knowledge to understand how innovation can impact and transform drug research.

I have been very fortunate in my career to be surrounded by many brilliant and inspirational people who had the patience to share their knowledge with me and answer my many questions.

>> Curious to read more about some of the great Black scientists from the past? Here’s our blog on Lewis Howard Latimer.

Considering your own career route, what message do you have for Black people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Surround yourself with brilliant people who can inspire you. Look for people who you respect and can coach and mentor you. Don’t be afraid to fail. Work hard and keep trying.

What do you think are the specific barriers that might be preventing young Black people from pursuing chemistry/science?
No, I do not see colour as a barrier nor a hindrance to pursuing a career in science. I think it is important to look for role models from the same background to help inspire you, to answer your questions and to encourage you.

What steps do you think can be taken by academia and businesses to increase the number of Black people studying and pursuing chemistry/science as a career?
Have more role models from different backgrounds. This sends a very powerful message to young people studying science reinforcing the message… I can do that!

Could you share one experience which has helped to define your career path?
Not so much an experience, but a mindset – staying curious, inquisitive, always willing to learn something new, having courage that failure is not the end, but an opportunity to learn.

Careers

Marking Black History Month and following on from the #BlackInChem initiative, SCI is continuing its look back at some of the unsung Black scientists who pioneered, and made important contributions, to the advancement of science.

Today we profile Lewis Howard Latimer, much admired by his contemporaries; Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, but sadly a name, and story, that is not as well known.

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Lewis Howard Latimer | Image Credit: By Unknown author - http://www.lrc.rpi.edu/resources/news/pressReleases/img/Lewis.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2032528

Lewis Howard Latimer, the youngest of four children, was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on 4 September 1848. His father, George Latimer, a slave who had escaped, became something of a cause celebre when his owner recaptured him. However, abolitionists took his case to the Supreme Court and his freedom was secured.

Lewis proved to be an excellent student, with a particular flair for drawing, as well as writing poetry and stories, but lack of finance and restricted access to education meant that by 15 years of age, Lewis had joined the US Navy. The history books indicate that he was honourably discharged in 1865; when the Civil War ended.

Soon after, Latimer found work as an office boy with the patent firm Crosby, Halstead and Gould. It is here that combining his talent for drawing, and developing the skills of a draughtsman he was eventually promoted to the position of head draftsman. The history books record that Latimer’s first patent, in 1874 with colleague Charles Brown, was an improved toilet system for railroad cars.

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Lewis Latimer was instrumental in helping Alexander Graham Bell file his patent for the telephone ahead of his competitors.

Latimer had many inventions, but it could be argued that his drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, helped seal his place in science history. The story goes that Bell was in a race against time, as rivals were also looking to gain patent rights for a similar device. Bell hired Latimer who used his expertise in drawing and submitting patent applications to help Bell file his patent just hours, it said, before his rival in 1876.

By 1880 Latimer had taken up the post of mechanical draughtsman for the inventor Hiram Maxim, who was also the founder of the US Electric Lighting Company. Now focused on incandescent lighting, Latimer along with Joseph Nichols, invented a light bulb which used a carbon filament, an improvement on Thomas Edison’s paper filament. The invention, patented in 1881, was sold to the US Electric Lighting Company in the same year.

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Latimer invented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs | Editorial credit: Claudio Zaccherini / Shutterstock.com

1A booklet by the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation noted; ‘Latimer invented and patented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs. He taught the process to company workers, and soon it was being used in factory production. Latimer also assisted in installing Maxim lighting systems in New York City, Philadelphia, Montreal and London. During the installation of lighting in Montreal, where a lot of people spoke only French, Latimer learned the language in order to competently instruct the workers. In London he set up the first factory for the Maxim-Weston Electric Light Company. That required him to teach the workmen all the processes for making Maxim lamps, including glass blowing. In just nine months Latimer had the factory in full production.’

In 1882 Latimer left Hiram Maxim and in 1884 joined the Edison Electric Light Company, where he was given the title draughtsman-engineer. In 1890 he joined the Edison Legal Department, and in 1893 testified in a case where the company said that its incandescent lamp patents had been infringed. In 1896 the Board of Patent Control of GE and Westinghouse was formed and Latimer became its Chief Draughtsman. He continued in that role until 1911 when he joined the consulting firm Edwin W Hammer.

On 24 January 1918, Latimer was named one of the 28 charter members – and the only African-American member – of the Edison Pioneers, ‘a distinguished group of people who worked to keep the ideals of Thomas Edison alive.’ The Edison Pioneers helped create the US’ electric power industry.

Latimer received patents for several inventions, including the safety elevator. He also had a passion for social justice. In a letter written in 1895 in support of the National Conference of Coloured Men, Latimer wrote: ‘I have faith to believe that the nation will respond to our plea for equality before the law, security under the law, and an opportunity, by and through maintenance of the law, to enjoy with our fellow citizens of all races and complexions the blessings guaranteed us under the constitution.’

Latimer died on 11 December 1928. Edison Pioneers historian and long time private secretary of Thomas Edison, William H. Meadowcroft wrote1 ‘Lewis Howard Latimer was of the coloured race, the only one in our organisation, and was one of those to respond to the initial call that led to the formation of the Edison Pioneers, January 24 1918. Broadmindedness, versatility in the accomplishment of things intellectual and cultural, a linguist, a devoted husband and father, all were characteristics of him, and his genial presence will be missed from our gatherings…We hardly mourn his inevitable going so much as we rejoice in pleasant memory at having being associated with him in a great work for all peoples under a great man.’

1For more information on Latimer’s life, work and legacy, see the Edison Electric Institute resource: Thomas Alva Edison Associate: Lewis Howard Latimer: A Black Inventor.

Careers

SCI’s America International group has awarded the 2021 Perkin Medal to Dr Jane Frommer. The 114th Perkin Medal was presented to Jane at the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to chemistry.

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Dr Jane Frommer

Dr Frommer is renowned for her key contributions in electronically conducting polymers and scanning probe instrumentation. Her pioneering work with scanning probes paved the way for their use in chemistry, materials science and, eventually, in nanotechnology. According to SCI America, her nanoscopic analytic methods are vital to nanostructural research and are used across many industries.

Dr Frommer began her career in 1980 at Allied Corporate Laboratories (now Honeywell), where she created the solution state of electronically conducting organic polymers. In 1986, she joined IBM where, along with other instrumentalists, she demonstrated the ability to image and manipulate single molecules using scanning tunnelling microscopy. During her multi-year assignment at the University of Basel Physics Institute in the early 1990s, Dr Frommer’s team expanded the capability of scanning probes in measuring the functional properties of organic thin films with atomic force microscopy.

Since 2018, she has worked as a science advisor for Google. In this capacity, she has sought to increase the amount of open source data available in the physical and life sciences. She also helps Silicon Valley start-ups navigate the chemical and material challenges of nanotechnology and has mentored countless students and young scientists in high school, college, and in her laboratory in recent decades.

SCI Awards - Medals - Image for the Perkin Medal - social graphic

Previous recipients of the Perkin medal include Barbara Haviland Minor, of the Chemours Company, and Ann E Weber, of Kallyope Inc.

Dr Frommer has written more than 100 referred publications and is the co-inventor of more than 50 issued patents. With her extraordinary body of work spanning more than 40 years, she is a worthy recipient of the prestigious Perkin Medal.

The Perkin Medal is widely acknowledged as the highest honour in American industrial chemistry. It was established to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Henry Perkin’s discovery of mauveine at the age of just 18. Perkin’s creation of mauveine, the world’s first synthetic aniline dye, revolutionised chemistry and opened up new frontiers in textiles, clothing, and other industries. Perkin was a founding member of SCI and this Medal was first presented to him in New York in 1906.

For more information on the Perkin Medal and the nomination process, visit: soci.org/awards/medals/perkin-medal

Agrifood

Lilies provide gloriously beautiful and well scented flowering border plants. Choose flowering size bulbs in the garden centre or from a catalogue. Grow these through the winter potted in a general garden compost placed in an unheated greenhouse or cold frame. By March or early-April, substantial green shoots will have formed from the bulbs and they can be transplanted into the garden.

Lilies need a sunny border and very fertile soil to encourage vigorous root growth capable of supporting the flowering spike and ancillary bulbs as they are initiated. This produces magnificent flowers and an increasing colony of bulbs that will spread and become established over future seasons.

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Lilium longiflorum, often called the Easter lily | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Regular watering and feeding with nutrients are needed, especially potassium, which encourages root and shoot growth. Stake the flower spike as it grows, giving support for the flowers because they are heavy when fully open and easily damaged by winds.

Rewards come in mid-summer with magnificent colourful flowers and wonderful perfumes on warm evenings. Apart from severe winters, lilies are hardy garden plants unless they are from groups specified as tender and requiring protection. In the autumn, simply cut down the flowering spike and remove any fallen foliage.

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Buds developed on lily scales after culturing | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

The Lilium genus has about 100 species originating worldwide mainly from north temperate areas of Europe, Asia and America. The colour range includes white, yellow, orange, pink, red and purple. Plant breeders in The Netherlands, Japan and North America have produced a huge range of multi-coloured hybrids.

Taxonomically, Lilium is divided into divisions, of which the Turk’s Caps, Martagons and American hybrids are popular. The most destructive pest is the scarlet lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii) which devours foliage, flowers and bulbs. The first signs of trouble are shot holes in the foliage. Picking off beetles and larvae is an effective means of dealing with low-level infestations.

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Comparison of lily bulbils growing from scale leaves, immature bulb and flowering size bulb | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Asexual propagation is a simple and enjoyable occupation. Divide a good-sized bulb into its scales. Choose healthy scales from the outer rings and place these in a plastic box containing damp kitchen paper and place in an airing cupboard. After about 10-12 weeks, small bulbils will have formed on each scale.

Select the boldest mother scales and bulbils and plant in a tray of seedling compost and grow in the greenhouse. After two or three months the most vigorous young plants can be potted individually. Eventually these are planted in the garden and will develop into flowering size bulbs after two or three years.

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

Sustainability & Environment

The War on Plastic is a grand title. To most of us, it doesn’t seem like much of a war at all – more like a series of skirmishes. Nevertheless, if you look closely, you’ll see that a lot of companies are tackling the issue.

GSK Consumer Healthcare (GSKCH) is one such organisation. The healthcare brand that gave us Sensodyne and Advil has launched a carbon neutral toothbrush to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels (which create virgin plastic).

The composition of its Dr. Best tooth scrubber is interesting. The handle comprises a mixture of a cellulose derived from pine, spruce, and birch trees and tall oil, which comes from the wood pulping industry. The bristles are made from castor oil and the plastic-free packaging includes a cellulose window.

According to GSKCH, Dr. Best is Germany’s favourite toothbrush brand and there are plans to apply the technology to toothbrushes across its portfolio, including its Sensodyne brand. At the moment, GSK needs to apply carbon offsetting initiatives to make the toothbrush carbon neutral, but it says it is working on future solutions that do not require this approach.

Net zero shopping

GSK isn’t the only company that is actively reducing the use of plastics and minimising waste. Supermarket chain Morrisons has made aggressive moves in recent years to cut waste, and has just launched six ‘net zero waste’ stores in Edinburgh that will operate with zero waste by 2025.

Customers at these stores will be able to bring back hard-to-recycle plastics such as food wrappers, foils, yoghurt tubs, mixed material crisp tubes, coffee tubs, batteries, and plant pots. At the same time, all store waste will be collected by a range of specialist waste partners for recycling within the UK, and unsold food will be offered to customers at a cheaper price on the Too Good to Go app.

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Morrisons’ proactive approach will help find a new life for hard-to-recycle packaging.

‘We’re not going to reach our ambitious targets through incremental improvements alone,’ said Jamie Winter, Sustainability Procurement Director at Morrisons. ‘Sometimes you need to take giant steps and we believe that waste is one of those areas. We believe that we can, at a stroke, enable these trial stores to move from recycling around 27% of their general waste to over 84% and with a clear line of sight to 100%.

‘We all need to see waste as a resource to be repurposed and reused. The technology, creativity and will exists – it’s a question of harnessing the right process for the right type of waste and executing it well.’

If this approach is successful, Morrisons plans to roll out the zero waste store format in all of its 498 stores across the UK next year.

>> Interested in reading more about sustainability and the environment? Check out our blog archive.

Stamping out single-use plastics

The government has also issued its latest battle cry in the war on plastics. Having defeated plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, it has turned its attention to other single-use plastics.

Single-use plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups are among the items that could be banned in England following public consultation.

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The humble cotton bud has now been retired from active service.

Somewhat surprisingly, it estimates that each person in England uses 18 single-use plastic plates and 37 single-use plastic items of cutlery each year; so, it has begun moves to cut out this waste stream.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “We have made progress to turn the tide on plastic, banning the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, while our carrier bag charge has cut sales by 95% in the main supermarkets. Now we are looking to go a step further as we build back greener.”

All in all, it’s encouraging to see that companies and the government are brushing up on their sustainable practices.

>> Curious to find out what the future looks like for lab-processed food and meat alternatives? Read what the experts say here.