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Agrifood

Composts are artificial mixtures in which seeds germinate, cuttings root and whole plants grow. Their key feature is reliability of composition. The first such composts were formulated by the John Innes Centre in the 1900s. Researchers needed preparations which allowed reliable growth of plants for experiments. The main ingredients were loamy soil, sand and lime plus nutrients. John Innes composts subsequently became the mainstay of horticulturists and gardeners.

Colourful flowering in artificial composts.
Colourful flowering in artificial composts.

Variability in the loam and its weight were major disadvantages. Scientists at the University of California solved these problems by preparing mixtures of peat, sand and nutrients. Air fill porosity characteristics of ‘UC mixes’, as they became known, allow healthy seed germination, root production, growth and flowering. Lighter weight is of major significance, allowing the easy movement of plants. Arguably, simplified transport also resulted in the advent of garden centres and freer international plant trading. As a result, the garden centre industry has become a regular social feature.

A peat extraction site.
A peat extraction site.

Peat, while of major importance, is now seen as the ‘achilles heel’ of these composts. Peat bogs are very significant reservoirs for carbon dioxide and major participants in the drive for reducing the impact of climate change. The compost industry strips peat from the bogs and then mixes it into specialised formulations for seed germination or plant growth. The bogs can be reclaimed and will restart the processes of CO2 absorption, but there is still a significant environmental penalty. Social and political pressures are driving peat reduction and its elimination from garden and commercially used composts. Peat substitutes must have the key properties of adequate air fill porosity, light weight and minimal or net zero carbon demand.

A renovated peat extraction site.
A renovated peat extraction site.

One suggestion is using coir – waste arising from coconut harvesting. Like peat, this is a natural, biodegradable product. When shredded it forms a useful peat substitute, an alternative is well composted bark and fine wood chippings, which are mixed with sand. Both are valuable composts for growing ornamental plants and germinating their seedlings. Some manufacturers are also adding loamy soil into these formulae. Problems continue, however, with finding peat-free formulae for use in commercial transplant propagation. Germinating vegetable seedlings for large scale crops requires absolute regularity and reliability. Uniform, vigorous seedlings result in mature high-quality crops suitable for once over harvesting and scheduling which meets supermarkets’ specifications.


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

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.


Careers

In his winning essay in SCI Scotland’s Postgraduate Researcher competition, Alexander Triccas, postgraduate chemistry researcher at the University of Edinburgh, explains how the tiny shells produced by marine algae protect our natural environment.

Each year, SCI’s Scotland Regional Group runs the Scotland Postgraduate Researcher Competition to celebrate the work of research students working in scientific research in Scottish universities.

This year, four students produced outstanding essays. In the fourth of this year’s winning essays, Alexander Triccas explained how coccoliths provide a valuable carbon store and could play a key role in keeping our bones healthy.


Why tiny shells produced by marine algae are important for both global carbon stores and repairing bones

Although humans can engineer complex and eye-catching structures that help us navigate through our daily lives, they are nowhere close to the design and functionality of natural materials.

These mineral structures are specifically grown to provide support, protection, or food for many organisms. Humans would not exist without them. Indeed, our bones and teeth are made of calcium phosphate. But when grown in a lab, calcium phosphate forms as simple rectangular crystals, which is vastly different to how our bones and teeth look.

This is because our bodies use organic molecules to precisely control how minerals grow, producing materials that can fulfil very specific tasks. Biominerals can even be produced inside single cells. Coral reefs are held together by calcium carbonate minerals made by marine invertebrates. Elsewhere in the ocean, carbonate shells produced by small algae cells are buried on the ocean floor, over time forming the chalk rocks that make up coastal landmarks such as the White Cliffs of Dover.

SCIBlog - 13 September 2022 - microscopic image of coccoliths
Advances in microscopy are shedding new light on the composition of coccoliths.

This process is incredibly important to the environment. It takes carbon dissolved in seawater, turns it into solid material, then stores it at the bottom of the ocean. It is concerning then that we don’t know how ocean acidification and rising CO2 levels will affect coccoliths, the name given to these carbonate shells.

>> SCI’s Scotland Group connects scientists working in industry and academia throughout Scotland. Join today!

We’re still unsure how coccoliths are produced, particularly how organic molecules are used to give them their unique shape. Proteins and sugars decide where and when the first carbonate mineral forms; then the growth of the coccolith is controlled by sugar molecules.

But how exactly do these organic molecules control the mineral that is produced? We struggle to answer this question because we don’t know how the composition of the coccolith changes as the structure grows.

Composition of the coccolith

Our research focuses on imaging coccoliths in an attempt to observe these changes. We used a technique called X-ray ptychography to map coccolith composition over the course of its formation. This revealed that coccoliths are not entirely made of calcium carbonate, instead having a hybrid structure containing mineral and organic molecules. But this isn’t all.

We revealed that the composition of the coccolith changes during its growth. We think this could represent a transition from a disordered liquid-like state to an ordered crystalline state. While this is common in other biomineral-produced organisms like corals, no evidence of this transition has been reported in coccolith formation before.

>> Read Rebecca Stevens’ winning essay on PROTAC synthesis.

This is incredibly important because it tells us how the cell is controlling the first calcium carbonate mineral that forms. The transition enables the cell to control exactly how it wants the mineral to form, meaning coccoliths can be made faster.

It might also lessen the impact that more acidic seawater has on mineral formation. This could mean coccoliths will not be affected by ocean acidification as much as expected, which is good for the planet’s long-term carbon stores.

However, this is only a prediction. Improvements to the microscopes used to analyse coccoliths will help us know if the transition occurs. Electron and X-ray microscopes are extremely useful in industry – from drug research and medical imaging, to data storage and materials analysis – but their use in these fields is still relatively novel.

SCIBlog - 13 September 2022 - image of foot X-Ray
Coccolith analysis could give us a better idea of how bones are produced.

Most advancements in instrumental procedures are done in academic research. Our work, therefore, helps us understand the benefits and limits microscopes may have, making them more suitable for industrial use.

Bone research also relies heavily on these microscopes. Our findings could be important in understanding how bones are produced, benefiting not only pharmaceutical and medical industries, but also improving human healthcare by providing better treatments to patients.


Health & Wellbeing

From luminescent polymer nanoparticles that improve rural healthcare to compostable plastic packaging, Dr Zachary Hudson and his research group at the University of British Columbia are developing solutions to pressing issues.

For those of us who live in cities, we take easy access to hospitals for granted, but what about those in remote areas? What if there were an easier way to diagnose diseases and improve healthcare for those in secluded rural areas?

Luminescent dyes used to make fluorescent Pdots.
Luminescent dyes used to make fluorescent Pdots.

Well, Dr Zachary Hudson and his group at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada are developing luminescent polymer nanoparticles that could provide portable, low-cost tools for bio-imaging and analysis in rural areas. These nanoparticles are so bright that they can be detected by smartphone, helping clinicians quantify chemical substances of interest such as cancer cells.

Dr Hudson’s work spans other areas too, including working with industry to develop compostable plastics and ongoing research in opto-electronics. His creativity in applied polymer science was recognised recently with the 8th Polymer International-IUPAC award, organised by SCI, the Editorial Board of Polymer International, and IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry).

We caught up with Zac to ask about these luminous Pdots, compostable plastics, and how it felt to be recognised by his peers.


Dr Zachary Hudson
Dr Zachary Hudson

Tell us about the nanoparticle and remote diagnostic technologies you are developing to boost rural healthcare.

Our group is working with Professor Russ Algar, an analytical chemist at UBC, to develop fluorescent nanoparticles that are bright enough to be detected by a handheld smartphone camera.

The concept is to design nanoparticles that can quantify biological analytes of interest, such as cancer cells or enzymes, and provide a signal that a smartphone can measure. In this way, we hope to create portable, low-cost tools for bioanalysis for use in remote or low-income regions.

Why is the capacity to conduct remote diagnostics so important for those in remote areas?

Coming from Vancouver, I have ready access to sophisticated lab facilities and hospitals that are only a short distance from where I live. This gives me access to some of the world’s most advanced techniques in molecular medicine with relative ease.

For most of the world’s population, however, geography or resources limit their access to these advanced tools that can have a real, positive impact on human health. Expanding access to molecular diagnostic technologies can help more people get the diagnosis they need without a dedicated lab.

How did the ideas for the Pdots come about?

We became interested in Pdots due to Professor Algar’s groundbreaking work using quantum dots for smartphone-based bioanalysis. We learned that by tapping into the versatility of polymer chemistry, we could create polymer nanoparticles, or Pdots, that combined many advanced functions into a single particle.

>> From Covid-19 to the two World Wars, how has adversity shaped innovation? We took a closer look.

How have you worked with other partners to turn these ideas into a reality?

We are currently planning a major initiative with rural health organisations in British Columbia to help move these tools toward practical use. Stay tuned for more info!

You’ve also worked with local industry to reduce the use of single-use plastics. How have you gone about this?

There has been a major push in Canada to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics, and many companies are currently developing new products to respond to this need. Our lab has worked with local industry to formulate and test compostable plastics that can act as substitutes for petroleum-based plastics in consumer packaging.

The Nexe Pod
The Nexe Pod, a fully compostable, plant-based coffee pod created by NEXE Innovations, with Zac as Chief Scientific Officer, received a $1m funding grant from the Canadian government in 2021.

You’ve helped develop compostable materials. How tricky is this from both a material and an environmental perspective?

Compostable plastics are challenging for a few reasons: the demand for them is skyrocketing, so robust supply chains are needed to help companies get away from petroleum feedstocks. The regulatory framework around compostable plastics also varies widely by country, which poses challenges for international commercialisation.

Finally, most machinery for the high-speed manufacturing of plastic packaging is highly optimised for petroleum-based plastics, so new equipment and techniques that are suitable for processing compostable plastics need to be developed alongside the plastics themselves.

>> Do you work in pharmaceutical development? Check out our upcoming events.

What’s next for these innovations, and are you working on anything else interesting?

I've spent most of my career working on light-emitting materials for display technologies and bioimaging, and we’ve recently learned that many of these same materials make useful photocatalysts with applications in the pharmaceutical industry.

We recently partnered with Bristol Myers Squibb to develop all-organic photocatalysts with performance on par with some of the expensive iridium-based catalysts that industry is currently using. I'm looking forward to developing this area further.

What was it like to win the 8th Polymer International-IUPAC award for Creativity in Applied Polymer Science?

It was a great feeling to have our group’s work recognised by the international polymer community. The award lecture at the IUPAC conference also gave us the perfect venue to highlight some of the research directions I’m most excited about in the years ahead.


Sustainability & Environment

Have we underestimated the eco-anxiety middle-aged and older people feel? According to a recent survey, younger folks aren’t the only ones frowning at the horizon. Eoin Redahan writes.

When you think of a middle-aged person suffering from exo-anxiety, what do you imagine? Is it a grey-haired woman gazing from a mountain peak with a single, heroic tear staining her cheek? Is it an auld fella rending his garments and shaking his fist at the sun?

I mean, possibly, but the reality is probably less dramatic. It could be the Pakistani householder who wonders if her family home will be swept away in the next flood. It might be the 39-year-old Australian who wonders if his country will be habitable when his young child grows up.

It might be the Maldivian who wonders if his homeland will go the way of Atlantis within 20 years. It was me when someone decided it would be a good idea to have a barbecue in the fields beside my house in the middle of the heatwave – when the grass was as dry as straw and wildfires scorched in south London.

Map of Atlantis
Athanasius Kircher's map of Atlantis, placing it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, from Mundus Subterraneus, 1669. Will people pore over maps of the Maldives in the same way?

The presumption by many is that it’s only the young who feel anxious about climate change, for it is they who will inherit the mess. However, according to recent ONS statistics, the middle-aged and the old are almost as worry-weary as young people.

Having analysed a recent ONS Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, straw specialist firm Drinking Straw filtered some of the stats. They reveal that 62% of UK people over the age of 16 worry that rising temperatures will directly affect them by 2030. Of these, 70% of 16-29 year olds were worried about the heat, but 59% of 50-69 year olds were also worried, as were 57% of those aged 70 and over.

In other areas, the differences were even less stark. When it came to anxiety over extreme weather events, 48% of all adults were worried – only slightly less than the 49% of 16 to 29 year olds who did so.

>> How can I make my garden more sustainable? Professor Geoff Dixon shows us how.

Similarly, regarding water supply shortages, 40% of all adults are concerned about them overall, compared to 43% of those aged 16 to 29. Admittedly, young people are more worried than older adults about rising sea levels (45% vs. 31%), but the differences are noticeably narrow in most metrics.

Surprisingly, it turns out the percentage of those who don’t care at all about the merciless heat, parched land, rising sea levels, and freak weather events is fairly consistent across all segments, with the 12% of 16-29 year olds not giving a fig similar to the 14% of indifferent adults.

Don't go home until you see the celebrated Dubuque soft coal burner.
ONS figures reveal that most people have made climate-friendly changes to their day-to-day lives, whether they grew up in the age of renewables or the age of coal.

Action stations?

Broadly speaking, UK adults are becoming more eco-conscious, if data from the ONS’ Climate change insights, families and households, UK: August 2022 survey are to be believed. The survey has found that 77% of adults have made some, or a lot of changes, to their lifestyles to tackle climate change.

When the remaining 23% were asked why they made no change to their lifestyles, the most common reason given was: the belief that large polluters should make changes before individuals, followed closely by those who felt that individual change wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Electric vehicle charging 

It’s clear to most of us that the government must help drive change, including on our roads. Despite the UK’s lagging electric vehicle infrastructure, the study revealed that the number of licensed zero emission vehicles, ultra-low emission vehicles, and plug-in vehicles increased by 71% or more last year.

If people knew there were sufficient charging points dotted around their areas – and if they were further incentivised to give up their gas-guzzling vehicles – those numbers would surely increase.

As bleak as the situation is, it is heartening to see our attitudes changing. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just read a climate-related story that brought a tear to my eye. If anyone wants me, I’ll be weeping in a dark room (passive-cooled, mercifully).


Careers

In the latest of our Careers for Chemistry Postdocs series, Dr Chris Unsworth, Head of Stakeholder Engagement and Hydrogen at Ofgem, talks about rising to the net zero challenge, creating a productive, inclusive working environment, and transferable PhD skills.

Tell us about your career path to date.

Currently, I’m the Head of Stakeholder Engagement and Hydrogen at Ofgem. Prior to that, I was Private Secretary to the Co-Directors of the Energy Systems Management and Security (ESMS) Directorate at the energy regulator Ofgem. I’ve also worked as Senior Manager in the GB Wholesale Markets team and as a Research & Insight Manager within Ofgem’s Consumer and Behavioural Insights team.

SCIBlog - 31 August 2022 - portrait image of Chris Unsworth
Pictured above: Dr Chris Unsworth

What is a typical day like for you at Ofgem?

I’d say there isn’t a typical day in my job, especially given recent events. Our work needed to shift dramatically to make sure gas and electricity kept flowing at the start of the pandemic and during the sharp increase in wholesale prices for gas.

I wore many hats in my role as Private Secretary. I often acted in a Chief of Staff role for the directorate, getting a sense of the mood within our part of the organisation and advising on how to overcome internal issues as they arise. I also often acted as advisor to the Co-Directors of ESMS as they explored which tools can be used to deliver net zero.

Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?

I enjoy being able to work on the net zero challenge in a really meaningful way. I also enjoy being surrounded by colleagues who feel the purpose and weight of responsibility in making progress towards a net zero future. It keeps you accountable, but it’s also really inspiring.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

The reasons I gave above for really enjoying my job can also be described as the most challenging! Delivering a net zero future represents the largest transformation that has ever needed to happen at an industrial level.

Also, because folks are so passionate about their work, it’s really important to make spaces where staff can be transparent and open on their views of the way forward. It’s more important, however, for me to act in a diplomatic manner to make sure we get aligned on a clear and singular route to solving problems.

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

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

I don’t use the skills I practised in the lab directly in my role. However, there are lots of transferable skills that I picked up from my MChem and PhD in Chemistry. Being able to interrogate evidence and critically assess it is really important in knowing which trends are valid and, therefore, which policy options are the best to investigate further.

Being able to bring data and information from lots of disparate sources and use them to create a clear view of what’s going on is another skill that I practise often. I also do a lot of thinking around systems and flows and the various interactions that go on underneath the surface. Visualising systems and interactions is definitely a helpful skill that I first practised in my degrees.

>> How do you go from a Chemistry degree to a business development specialism? Mark Dodsworth told us his story.

Which other skills are required in the work you do?

My current role is very people oriented and so I need to practise a high level of emotional intelligence. I came out as a gay man while doing my degrees at the University of York and I had specific role models there who helped me explore who I was.

I think my experiences during my degrees really helped grow my capacity for empathy and understanding in others. I’ve been afforded the opportunity to work on a huge number of Diversity & Inclusion initiatives as a result of being open and out at work. I’m also very lucky to work in a space where I feel comfortable to do so.

SCIBlog - 31 August 2022 - image of Chris Unsworth stood behind a podium presenting
Pictured above: Dr Chris Unsworth

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

If you feel a sense of purpose in something you’re doing, then go in that direction. You will always enjoy your work if you understand why you are doing that work.

This may involve you taking a few left turns as you move between different things, but there’s no need to worry about that so much if there’s a clear and consistent theme and purpose that ties it all together.


Health & Wellbeing

Those with the blood group O reportedly have the lowest likelihood of catching Covid-19, and the new top-up jab should provide relief against sub-variants of the disease.

By now, most of us have been stricken by Covid, but 15% of people in the UK have evaded the virus. According to a testing expert at the London Medical Laboratory, the great escape is down to three factors: blood group, vaccines, and lifestyle.

Having assessed the findings of recent Covid-19 blood type studies, Dr Quinton Fivelman PhD, Chief Scientific Officer at London Medical Laboratory (LML), believes that people with the blood group O are less likely to be infected than those with other blood groups, while those with blood type A are far more likely to contract the virus.

via GIPHY

‘There have now been too many studies to ignore which reveal that people have a lower chance of catching the virus, or developing a severe illness, if they have blood group O,’ he said.

Indeed, research from the New England Journal of Medicine had previously found that those with blood type O were 35% less likely to be infected, whereas those with Type A were 45% more vulnerable. A further benefit of type O blood is the reduced risk of heart disease compared to those with type A or B blood.

>> What is the ideal body position to adopt when taking a pill? Wonder no more.
Woman with face mask
Staged stock images are not thought to increase your chances of contracting Covid-19.

According to the NHS, almost half of the population (48%) has the O blood group; so, clearly, other factors come into play in terms of our susceptibility. Dr Fivelman said: ‘By far the most important factor is the number of antibodies you carry, from inoculations and previous infections, together with your level of overall health and fitness.’


Tackling the sub-variants

Covid variants  

So, those who are more careful about visiting crowded places, who eat well, and are fortunate enough not to have an underlying illness have better chances of avoiding Covid-19. According to LML, having been vaccinated also helps, though these benefits have slowly worn off. That is why the new top-up jab with the Omicron variant could provide some relief for those who take it.

‘The new Omicron jab has come none-too-soon, so many people are now suffering repeated Covid infections,’ he added. ‘That’s because the new Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants do not produce as high an immune response as the previous strains, so re-infection is more likely to occur.

‘Higher levels of antibodies are important to neutralise the virus, stopping infection and limiting people transmitting the virus to others.’

>> Which herbs could boost your wellbeing? Dr Vivien Rolfe tells us more.

Careers

In her winning essay in SCI Scotland’s Postgraduate Researcher competition, Rebecca Stevens, Industrial PhD student with GSK and the University of Strathclyde, talks about the potential of PROTACS.

Each year, SCI’s Scotland Regional Group runs the Scotland Postgraduate Researcher Competition to celebrate the work of research students working in scientific research in Scottish universities.

This year, four students produced outstanding essays in which they describe their research projects and the need for them. In the third of this year’s winning essays, Rebecca Stevens discusses her work in developing a multistep synthetic platform for Proteolysis Targeting Chimeras (PROTAC) synthesis and the potential of PROTACS in general.

Rebecca Stevens
Pictured above: Rebecca Stevens

A ‘PROTAC-tical’ synthetic approach to new pharmaceutical modalities

PROTACs are a rapidly evolving new drug modality that is currently sparking great excitement within the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

Despite the first PROTAC only being reported in 2001, 12 of these potential drugs have already entered phase I/II clinical trials. In fact, a handful of new biotechnology companies have launched in the last two decades with a primary focus on these molecules. So, what’s so special about them?

Traditional drug discovery relies on optimising small-molecules to inhibit the action of a protein target and subsequently elicit a downstream effect on cellular function. However, many proteins are not tractable to this approach due to their lack of defined binding sites. This is where PROTACs offer a unique opportunity to target traditionally ‘undruggable’ parts of the proteome; instead of inhibiting the protein, PROTACs simply remove it altogether.

PROTACs are heterobifunctional molecules made up of two small-molecule binders attached together via a covalent linker; one end binds to the protein of interest and the other to an E3 ubiquitin ligase.

SCIBlog - 18 August 2022 - image of female scientist at desk
Rebecca is working on a multistep platform for PROTAC synthesis.

By bringing these two proteins into close proximity, PROTACs exploit the body’s own protein degradation mechanisms to tag and degrade desired proteins of interest in a method known as ‘targeted protein degradation’.

This different mechanism of action offers some revolutionary advantages over small-molecule drugs. Alongside potentially accessing ‘undruggable’ targets, PROTACs can overcome resistance mechanisms from which other drugs suffer, as well as acting in a catalytic manner, ultimately requiring less compound for therapeutic effects and maximising profits.

>> SCI’s Scotland Group connects scientists working in industry and academia throughout Scotland.

Problems with PROTACS

While great in theory, the reality is that with two small-molecule binders and a linker, PROTACs are typically double the size and complexity of normal drugs, so their synthesis is far from simple.

Classic drug discovery programmes often make many bespoke analogues alongside their use of library synthesis, using a design-make test cycle to optimise hits and find a lead molecule. With PROTACs, linear synthetic routes are much longer for bespoke compounds, underlining an even greater need for new PROTAC parallel synthesis platforms.

>> Read Marina Economidou’s winning essay on palladium recovery

Additionally, the design of PROTACs is more challenging as there are three separate parts of the structure to optimise, and small changes can have a large impact on their biological activity. As such, very simple chemistry is used to connect the three parts of the molecule, resulting in limited chemical space for exploration, causing potentially interesting bioactive compounds to be missed.

A platform for PROTAC synthesis

My PhD project seeks to develop a multistep synthetic platform for PROTAC synthesis, using modern chemical transformations such as C(sp2)-C(sp3) cross-couplings and metallaphotoredox chemistry.

Starting from already complex intermediates in the synthetic route, methods for late-stage functionalisation are under development to complete the final synthetic steps. By making elaborate changes at a late stage, a variety of structurally diverse PROTACs can be synthesised from a single building block, offering an economical and sustainable approach to optimisation for the industries involved.

Furthermore, the purification step prior to testing will be eliminated, with crude reaction mixtures taken into cells in an emerging ‘direct-to-biology high-throughput-chemistry’ approach. This removes a key bottleneck associated with hit identification and lead optimisation, delivering biological results in very short turnaround times.

The synthetic methods developed in the project will offer new capabilities for efficient and sustainable synthesis of PROTACs and other related modalities. Increasing the pace of data generation could accelerate the exploration of structure-activity relationships and deployment in large parallel arrays could provide a significant quantity of data to inform new machine learning models.

Ultimately, for industry, this ‘PROTAC-tical’ approach offers a huge opportunity for rapidly progressing PROTAC projects and discovering novel PROTACs with clinical potential.

>> Our Careers for Chemistry Postdocs series explores the different career paths taken by chemistry graduates.

Health & Wellbeing

What is the best posture to adopt when taking a pill, and why does it help your body to absorb the medicine quicker?

Was Mary Poppins wrong? A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but does it do so in the most delightful way? Not according to Johns Hopkins University researchers in the US.

via GIPHY

They say the body posture you adopt when taking a pill affects how quickly your body absorbs the medicine by up to an hour. It’s all down to the positioning of the stomach relative to where the pill enters it.

The team identified this after creating StomachSim – a model that simulates drug dissolution mechanics in the stomach. The model works by blending physics and biomechanics to mimic what’s going on when our stomachs digest medicine and food.


Standing up, on your back, or by your side?

SCIBlog - 19 August 2022 - image women lying down reaching for pill
Looks like we’ve got a pro here.

Without further ado, here are the four contenders for taking the pill: standing up, lying down on your right side, lying down on your left side, and swallowing the pill on your back.

>> What’s next in wearables? We looked at a few Bright SCIdeas.

According to the researchers, if you take a pill while lying on your left side, it could take more than 100 minutes for the medicine to dissolve. Lying on your back is next in third, the narrowest of whiskers behind swallowing a pill standing up. This time-honoured method takes about 23 minutes to take effect.

However, by far the most effective method (and, therefore, the most delightful way) is lying on your right side, with dissolution taking a mere 10 minutes. The reason is that it sends pills into the deepest part of the stomach, making it 2.3 times faster to dissolve than the upright posture you’re probably taking to swallow your multi-vits.

SCIBlog - 19 August 2022 - diagram of how posture affects medicine absorption
Your posture is key in ensuring your body absorbs medicine quickly. Image: Khamar Hopkins/John Hopkins University.

‘We were very surprised that posture had such an immense effect on the dissolution rate of a pill,’ said senior author Rajat Mittal, a Johns Hopkins engineer. ‘I never thought about whether I was doing it right or wrong but now I’ll definitely think about it every time I take a pill.’

Next week, we will investigate more of the medical approaches espoused by much-loved fictional characters, starting with George’s Marvellous Medicine, before moving onto the witches in Macbeth. No one is safe.

In the meantime, you can read the researchers’ work in Physics of Fluids.


Agrifood

Which species can you plant to increase the nutrients in your soil and boost biodiversity, and which pathogen tackles some of those pesky weeds? Our resident gardening expert, Professor Geoff Dixon, tells us more.

The term ‘sustainability’ for gardening means replacing what you take out of the soil and supporting localised biodiversity. Harvested crops, for example, take out nutrients and water from the soil. Replacements should be supplied that aid biodiversity and have minimal impact, or zero impact, on climate change.

Seaweed (Ascophyllum) has been recognised as a valuable fertiliser source in British coastal areas for centuries. Now, proprietary seaweed extracts are gaining popularity either when applied directly as liquid feeds or sprays, or when added into composts.

Classed as biostimulants, seaweed extracts contain several micro-nutrients and a range of valuable plant stimulatory growth regulators. They encourage pest and disease tolerance, increase frost tolerance, stimulate germination, increase robust growth, and add polish to fruit such as apples and pears.

SCIBlog - 15 August 2022 - image of dry seaweed

Seaweed bolsters some of the nutrients lost through gardening. Image from Geoff Dixon.

Benefits of borage

Some plants are very effective supporters of biodiversity. Borage (Borago officinalis), known also as starflower or bugloss, is a robust annual plant of Mediterranean origin with pollinator-attractive blue flowers.

It is very drought resistant and suitable for dry gardens. Although an annual, it is self-seeding and could spread widely. It is very attractive to bees as it produces copious light – and delicately flavoured honey.

Its flowers and foliage are edible with a cucumber-like flavour, making it suitable in salads and as garnishes, while in Germany it is served as grűne soße (green sauce). When used as a companion plant for crops such as legumes or brassicas, it will also help to suppress weeds.

SCIBlog - 15 August 2022 - image of lavender field

Borage is good for bee and belly. Image from Geoff Dixon.

Weeding out the problem

Weeds are a continuous problem for gardeners and their prevalence varies with the seasons. Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), also known as ‘old man in the spring’, persists whatever the weather.

It is ephemeral but can seed and regrow several times per year. As a result, once established, it is difficult to control without very diligent hand weeding and hoeing out young seedlings before the flowers form.

There is, however, a form of biological control that can aid the gardener. Groundsel is susceptible to the fungal rust pathogen (Puccinia lagenophorae). This pathogen arrived in Great Britain from Australia in the early 1960s. Since then, it has become well established and outbreaks on groundsel start to become obvious in mid- to late-summer, especially in warm dry periods.

SCIBlog - 15 August 2022 - image of rust-infected groundsel plant

A fungal pathogen can kill groundsel, a weed that comes through several times a year. Image from Geoff Dixon.

Severe infections weaken, and eventually kill, groundsel plants. Gardeners should take advantage of the infection and remove the diseased weeds before any seeds are produced.

>> How else has climate change changed the way our gardens grow, and what can be done to alleviate its effects? Geoff Dixon investigates.

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

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon. You can find more of his work here.

Careers

In her winning essay in SCI Scotland’s Postgraduate Researcher competition, Marina Economidou, first year PhD Student at GSK/The University of Strathclyde, talks about palladium recovery.

Each year, SCI’s Scotland Regional Group runs the Scotland Postgraduate Researcher Competition to celebrate the work of research students working in scientific research in Scottish universities.

This year, four students produced outstanding essays in which they describe their research projects and the need for them. In the second of this year’s winning essays, Marina Economidou explains the need for palladium recovery and making it more efficient.

SCIBlog - 12 August 2022 - portrait image of Marina Economidou

Pictured above: Marina Economidou

U-Pd-ating the workflows for metal removal in industrial processes

Palladium-catalysed reactions have great utility in the pharmaceutical industry as they offer an easy way to access important functional motifs in molecules through the formation of carbon-carbon or carbon-hetero-atom bonds.

The superior performance of such reactions over classical methodologies is evident in modern drug syntheses, where Buchwald-Hartwig, Negishi or Suzuki cross-coupling reactions are frequently employed.

However, the demand for efficient methods of palladium recovery runs parallel to the increased use of catalysts in synthesis. The interest in metal extraction can be attributed to several reasons.

Cross-coupling steps are usually situated late in the synthetic route, resulting in metal residues in the final product. In addition to possessing intrinsic toxicity, elemental impurities can have an unfavourable impact on downstream chemistry.

Hence, their limit must be below the threshold set by the International Council for Harmonisation of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals for Human Use (ICH).

The need for palladium recovery

However, the importance of palladium recovery does not only arise from the need to meet regulatory criteria. The volatility of palladium supply as a result of geopolitical instabilities has been a focus of attention this year, with Russia producing up to 30% of the global supply and prices reaching an all-time high of £81,179 per kilogramme.

Therefore, aside from the need to remove metals from the product for regulatory reasons, there is a desire to recover metals from waste streams as effectively as possible due to their finite nature and high costs.

The sustainability benefits of recovery for circular use are an additional incentive for an efficient extraction process, as catalysts can be regenerated when metal is returned to suppliers.

The increasing pressure for greener processes and more ambitious sustainability goals – such as GlaxoSmithKline’s environmental sustainability target of net zero impact on climate by 2030 – also contribute to the need for further refinement of working practices.

>> SCI's Scotland Group connects scientists working in industry and academia throughout Scotland.

SCIBlog - 12 August 2022 - image of silver Palladium pieces

Palladium has many uses including in catalytic converters, surgical instruments, and dental fillings.

Improving extraction processes

It is essential to have well-controlled and reproducible processes for pharmaceutical production, as redevelopment requires further laboratory work and additional time and resources.

With several industry reports on the inconsistent removal of palladium following catalytic synthetic steps, there seems to be a knowledge gap as to which factors affect the efficiency of extraction and why there can be significant differences between laboratory and plant conditions.

The focus of my PhD is investigating the speciation of palladium in solution in the presence of pharmaceutically relevant molecules, to offer an insight into the efficiency of metal extraction at the end of processes.

By understanding the oxidation state and coordinative saturation of the palladium species formed in the presence of different ligands, a better relationship could be established between the observed performance of metal extraction processes under inert and non-inert conditions.

With the wide breadth of ligands and extractants that are now commercially available for cross-coupling reactions, my ambition is to generate a workflow for smart condition selection that not only achieves selective metal recovery, but is scalable and can be transferred to plant with consistent performance.

The cost and preciousness of metal catalysts are both factors that prohibit their one-time use in processes. Understanding how palladium can be extracted and recovered in an efficient manner will not only deliver reliable processes that meet the demands of the market in the production of goods, it will also lead to economic and environmental benefits.


>> Read Angus McLuskie’s winning essay on replacing toxic feedstocks.

>> Our Careers for Chemistry Postdocs series explores the different career paths taken by chemistry graduates.

Careers

There is still work to be done to redress racial inequality in chemistry, and across science in general, but relatable role models can have a positive influence on the next generation.

Homophily. Ever heard of it? Me neither, until 30 minutes ago. Homophily basically means that we are more likely to connect with people who are similar to us in some way.

In work terms, homophily could be a relatable role model. So, as an Irish science writer, I admire Flann O’Brien for his ability to decongest complicated subjects with such wit and flair (not so much for hiding whiskey in the toilet during interviews). For a young chemist, a role model could be someone from a similar background who excels in a job she or he would love to have.

But what happens if you just don’t see relatable role models in your chosen field? What if systemic failings make the profession less attractive and harder to trace the path to success?

Unfortunately, systemic failings, the relative lack of homophily, and pervasive inequality were among the findings of Missing Elements – Racial and ethnic inequalities in the chemical sciences, a report released by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) in March.

The report highlighted the barriers facing Black chemists in the UK, and it certainly didn’t hold back. In the Foreword, Dr Helen Pain, RSC’s Chief Executive, said: ‘The data and evidence collected in this report are clear: we are failing to retain and nurture talented Black chemists at every stage of their career path after undergraduate studies.’

The report found that just 1.4% of postgraduate students, 1% of non-academic chemistry staff, and 0% of chemistry professors are Black. It added that Black chemists face barriers in industry too, and that people from minoritised communities are under-represented at senior levels across the workforce.

It proceeded to mention six themes that affect the retention and progression for Black chemists, including the impact of homophily, which it defined as ‘the tendency for people to form connections with people similar to themselves.’

The importance of mentors

When I read that, a little bell chimed in my head. When my colleague Muriel Cozier interviewed three eminent Black chemists last year – Cláudio Lourenço, Jeraime Griffith, and Dr George Okafo – each mentioned the need for relatable role models to increase the representation of Black chemists.

When she asked Cláudio about specific impediments that prevent young Black people from pursuing chemistry, he said: ‘I think one of the biggest barriers that prevent people from pursuing careers in science is the lack of role models. If we only show advertisements for chemistry degrees with White people, it’s not encouraging for Black students to pursue a career there.

‘The same goes for when we visit universities; role models are needed. No one wants to be the only Black person in the department. Universities need to embrace diversity at all levels.’

George made a similar point. He emphasised the need for young chemists to surround themselves with mentors. ‘I think it is important to look for role models from the same background to help inspire you.’ When Muriel asked him which steps could be taken to increase the number of Black people pursuing chemistry as a career, he added: ‘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!’

When asked about his message for Black people following in his footsteps, Jeraime said: ‘Seek out mentors, regardless of race, who can help you get there. Don’t be afraid to email them and briefly talk about your interest in the work they’ve done, what you have done, and are doing now.’

Jeraime also cited lack of representation as a barrier that prevents more young Black people from entering chemistry. ‘Lack of representation I think is the number one barrier,’ he said. ‘Impostor syndrome is bad at the best of times, but worse still if there’s no representation in the ivory tower.’

The issue of inequality in chemistry is large – far too large for a mere 752-word blog – but as we celebrate the achievements of Black chemists everywhere this week, it is clear just how much of a positive influence role models such as Cláudio, George, Jeraime, and countless others can have on the dreams and aspirations of young chemists.

>> Here are Cláudio’s, Jeraime’s, and George’s stories.

Written by Eoin Redahan and based on previous reporting by Muriel Cozier.

Careers

How do you go from a Chemistry degree to a business development specialism? We hear Mark Dodsworth’s story.

Tell us about your career path to date.

I graduated from the University of Sheffield with a degree in Chemistry, which included a one-year placement at GSK in Stevenage. Working in heterocyclic chemistry at GSK gave me valuable experience, which ultimately helped me secure my first role in industry.

I joined Vernalis Research in Cambridge as a Synthetic Chemist. After more than five years there, I moved to Manchester to work with the CRUK Drug Discovery team as a Medicinal Chemist.

I am now coming up to three years working for Teledyne ISCO – a US company that specialises in the supply of purification equipment to the scientific community. My job role is Business Development Specialist for the Midlands and Wales.

This job involves focusing on the business growth of Teledyne ISCO products throughout the region with new and existing customers. I also provide ongoing support to our growing customer base, whether that be technical or application related.

What is a typical day like in your job?

Day-to-day, my job role varies significantly, which makes it exciting and dynamic. No day or week is ever the same. It could involve anything from responding to customer enquiries by phone or email, discussions around how our equipment can help with the needs of a group or company, or travelling to a customer to run a demonstration of the equipment.

Installation and training new users is a part of the job that I particularly enjoy. We also do exhibitions, which is a great way to show new customers our equipment, and network with existing customers. Some exhibitions also give us the chance to present to an audience.

Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?

A job in business development is so much more than I realised. I’ve always really enjoyed helping people, and this job allows me to do that in so many ways, whether it’s providing equipment that makes the chemist’s life easier and helps them with a problem that they’ve been struggling with, or through application support. I love the networking, getting to know people, and hearing about their work too.

>> How do you forge a career in third-level teaching? See how Dr David Pugh goes about it?

SCIBlog - 8 August 2022 - portrait of Mark Dodsworth
Mark Dodsworth

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Currently the biggest challenge is being at home quite a lot. We can do a lot of support through Zoom, but I’ve missed not seeing our customers and having face-to-face interactions with them.

As part of a sales role, there is a degree of cold-calling required. This is a skill that I didn’t have as a chemist and so I did find it challenging. Ultimately, you are just looking to find those who are interested in your product. A ‘no, thank you’ isn’t anything to be afraid of – you just haven’t found the right customer for you.

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

There are many translational skills that you develop as a chemist and times when these skills come in handy. Presentation skills come in useful when presenting at conferences or to senior management.

Communication skills are important when you are transferring information. Not everyone interprets information the same way, so being clear with the meaning of your words is also important.

Time management and organisation are key to this role too. For example, making customer appointments and allowing time for travel. You also need to make the most of your own time, too, by being organised – for example, seeing multiple customers in one location.

As a result, my calendar is usually planned a month in advance, so organisation skills really help here in the planning of your work.

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

This was not a career path I’d ever considered, as I’d always been focused on synthetic chemistry throughout university. The main motivator for me was having the opportunity to work closer with CombiFlash systems, as I’d used these systems throughout my career at GSK, Vernalis and CRUK.

My advice would be to discuss [the roles you are interested in] with as many people currently working in that field as you can. I spent time discussing this kind of role with my friends and networking within the science community before deciding to make the move.

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

>> Read more about how Rachel Ellis began her career in drug development.


Science & Innovation

Image by Damien Walmsley.  

The Commonwealth Games has landed in Birmingham. Before the Games began, viewers were treated to an extraordinary opening ceremony (featuring a giant mechanical bull) and its artistic director, Iqbal Khan, was lauded for his ingenuity.

But such ingenuity shouldn’t surprise any of us, for Birmingham has long been a place of outsized invention. For more than 300 years, the inhabitants of this industrial powerhouse have churned out invention after invention; and its great pragmatists have turned patents into products.

Chemistry, too, owes a debt to the UK’s second city. Whether it’s the first synthesis of vitamin C, the invention of human-made plastic, adventures in mass spectrometry, or electroplated gold and silver trinkets, Birmingham has left a lasting legacy.

Here are five chemists whose innovations may have made an appearance in your life.


Alexander Parkes – man of plastic

Alexander Parkes Blue Plaque Birmingham
Plaque commemorating Alexander Parkes in Birmingham, England. Image by Oosoom

Look around you. Look at the computer screen, the mouse button you click, and the wire casings everywhere. Someone started it all. That man was Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first human-made plastic.

The son of a brass lock manufacturer from Suffolk Street, Birmingham, Parkes created 66 patents in his lifetime including a process for electroplating delicate works of art. However, none were as influential as the 1856 patent for Parkesine – the world’s first thermoplastic.

Parkes’ celluloid was based on nitrocellulose that had been treated by different solvents. In 1866, he set up the Parkesine Company at Hackney Wick, London, but it floundered due to high cost and quality issues. The spoils of his genius would be enjoyed by the rest of us instead.


Sir Norman Haworth – the vitamin seer

Sir Norman Haworth
Sir Norman Haworth

Sir Norman Haworth may have been born in Chorley, Lancashire, but his finest work arguably came after he became Director of the Department of Chemistry in the University of Birmingham in 1925. Haworth is famous for his groundbreaking carbohydrate investigations and for being the first to synthesise vitamin C.

By 1928, Haworth had confirmed the structures of maltose, cellobiose, lactose, and the glucoside ring structure of normal sugars, among other structures. Apparently, his method for determining the chain length in methylated polysaccharides also helped confirm the basic features of starch, cellulose, and glycogen molecules.

However, Haworth is most famous for determining the structure of vitamin C and for becoming the first to synthesise it in 1932. The synthesis of what he called ascorbic acid made the commercial production of vitamin C far cheaper – the benefits of which have been felt by millions of us.

For his achievements in carbohydrates and vitamin C, Haworth received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1937 (shared with Paul Karrer). He was the first British organic chemist from the UK to receive this honour. Haworth even had a link to SCI, having been a pupil of William Henry Perkin Junior in the University of Manchester’s Chemistry Department.


Francis William Aston – adventures in mass spectrometry

Francis William Aston Blue Plaque Birmingham
Blue plaque for Francis William Aston. Image from Tony Hisgett

Another Nobel Prize-winning chemist from Birmingham is Francis William Aston. The Harborne native won the 1922 prize for discovering isotopes in many non-radioactive elements (using his mass spectrograph) and for enunciating the whole number rule.

For a time, academia almost lost Aston, as he spent three years working as a chemist for a brewery. Thankfully, he returned to academic life and obtained concrete evidence for the existence of two isotopes of the inert gas neon before the first World War.

After working for the Royal Aircraft Establishment during the Great War (1914-18), he resumed his studies. The invention of the mass spectrograph proved pivotal to his discoveries thereafter. Using this apparatus, he identified 212 naturally occurring isotopes.


George Elkington and John Wright – all that glitters

G R ELkington Blue Plaque Birmingham
George Elkington patented the electroplating process developed by John Wright. Image from Spudgun67

It isn’t surprising that George Elkington should become an SCI favourite, as he blended both scientific ingenuity with business. The son of a spectacle manufacturer patented the first commercial electroplating process invented by Brummie surgeon John Wright in 1840.

Wright discovered that a solution of silver in potassium cyanide was useful for electroplating metals. Elkington and his cousin Henry purchased and patented Wright’s process before using it to improve gold and silver plating.

The Elkingtons opened an electroplating works in the city’s now famous Jewellery Quarter where they electroplated cutlery and jewellery. And they didn’t do too badly out of it. By 1880, the company employed 1,000 people in seven factories.


Alfred Bird – winging it

Bird's Custard advertisement
1906 advertisement for Birds Custard powder. Image from janwillemsen

In 1837, Alfred Bird was in a pickle. He wanted to serve his dinner party guests custard, but his wife was allergic to eggs and yeast, and egg was the main thickening agent of this delicious gloop.

Instead of serving something else, the chemist shop owner invented his own egg-free custard by substituting cornflour for eggs. His guests found it delicious and Bird’s Custard was born.

Not content with this innovation, Bird is also credited with being the father of modern baking powder. Once again, his wife’s allergies were said to be the inspiration, as he wanted to create a yeast-free bread for her. In bread and custard, true love always finds a way.


Careers

Paulina Quintanilla has developed a clever way to maximise the froth flotation technology used to extract more valuable minerals from rocks. The SCI Scholar and Poster Competition winner chatted to us about her process and how it could make mineral processing more efficient.


How would you describe your froth flotation technology in simple terms?

Froth flotation is the most widely used technology to separate valuable mineral particles from waste rock. The process is carried out in stirred tanks in which chemical reagents and air are added. Some of these reagents, called collectors, make the valuable mineral particles hydrophobic, which means that they repel water.

Consequently, the valuable mineral particles attach to the air bubbles, covering them and generating bubble-particle aggregates. The bubble-particle aggregates rise to the top of the tank, forming a froth that overflows as a mineral-rich concentrate, while the waste rock leaves from the bottom of the tank as tailings.

Froth flotation is also relevant in several other industrial applications, such as water treatment and paper de-inking.

Schematic of the froth flotation process
Schematic of the froth flotation process. Image by @AMPRG_Imperial.

How would you describe your froth flotation technology in simple terms?

This research focuses on optimising the froth flotation process using a control strategy called model predictive control. To this end, mathematical models were developed to represent the phenomena inside a flotation tank. These models are then used to ‘predict the future’ so that decisions can be taken now (we can control the process) to improve the froth flotation performance.

Model predictive control is a powerful optimisation strategy that has been widely used in other processes, including in the petrochemical industry, but it is still very new in the mineral processing industry.

One of the main advantages of this research is that the models are physics-based. This means that they were developed from the fundamental physics of the process rather than from data, which makes them useful under any operating conditions, for any flotation tank size. This is particularly interesting for application in the large flotation tanks used on an industrial scale.

How could this work benefit industry and make processing more efficient?

Building clean technologies for the transition to 100% green energy is creating a massive demand for a range of minerals. For example, copper mines would have to ramp up production considerably to satisfy the extra 7% predicted demand. Meeting that demand, however, is becoming more and more challenging as ores are becoming lower grade, deeper, and more complex.

This implies that there is an urgent need to optimise current processes to extract the necessary minerals and metals more sustainably and efficiently. As froth flotation is a large-scale process, even small improvements in the separation efficiency would translate into important increments in production.

Overflowing froth seen from the top of an industrial-scale tank
Overflowing froth seen from the top of an industrial-scale tank. Image by @AMPRG_Imperial.
What is the potential of this work in terms of copper recovery?

We demonstrated that improvements of between 8 to 22% in metal recovery were achieved by implementing a model predictive control strategy at the laboratory scale, revealing an untapped potential for implementation at an industrial scale. This research could serve as a promising next step for the mining industry to meet future metal and mineral demands by extracting more metal for the same amount of resources, such as water, energy, and chemicals.

>> Interested to find out more about SCI Scholarships?

Your flotation tanks are actually based in Chile. How do you operate them remotely?

I am currently implementing an online model predictive control strategy in a laboratory-scale flotation bank in Chile. I monitor and control this experimental rig from home, in the UK.

The experimental rig was automated in such a way that all the instruments (e.g. air flow meters, controllers, pumps, etc.) are connected to a module called ‘Programmable Logic Controller’. This module is then connected to a workstation computer, which I access from my laptop in the UK.

The Programmable Logic Controller allows me to obtain measurements in real-time and control the system. In this case, the measurements are used to update the mathematical models, while the system is controlled by changing the ‘revolutions per minute’ of the pumps (to change the pulp levels) and/or moving the air valves (to change the airflow rates).

Experimental campaign in 2018 – aerial view of a 300m³ froth flotation tank
Experimental campaign in 2018 – aerial view of a 300m³ froth flotation tank. Image by @AMPRG_Imperial.

Could this process be used to extract other materials? If so, which ones?

While froth flotation is widely used to separate sulphide minerals of copper, it is also used to separate other sulphides, such as those containing lead, zinc, and molybdenum.

You won an SCI Scholarship. How did you use the funds you received to develop your research?

I used the generous SCI scholarship to partially fund a two-month visit to the laboratory in Chile. I set up new connections for remote control by installing new instrumentation to make it even more automated, and I carried out preliminary online control experiments. Since then, all the control experiments have been carried out from my laptop at home.

I also used the scholarship to fund my participation in several conferences, including one in person in Athens, Greece, in 2021. I have participated in Scholar Days in 2020 and 2021, in which I presented advances in my PhD research to a wide audience. This year, I presented my PhD research results at SCI headquarters for the first time and participated in the Poster Showcase, where I won first place.

Paulina giving presentation
Paulina presenting at the SCI Scholars' Showcase in July 2022. Image: SCI/Andrew Lunn

What are your future plans for this innovative technology (and other potential research)?

I plan to keep up the momentum of researching froth flotation optimisation, as I believe that there is still a long way to go for improvement, particularly at an industrial scale. Model predictive control has not been widely explored within the mineral processing industry despite the fact that it has shown great potential. There is still a gap between academia and industry that should be bridged, sooner rather than later, to improve the performance of the process.

Apart from the model predictive control strategy using physics-based models (including the one I have investigated during my PhD research), many other control strategies show great potential to be tested and implemented at an industrial scale.

This is particularly applicable in mineral processing plants, as most of them collect a huge amount of data that could serve as valuable inputs for further improvement and optimisation, using novel engineering tools such as artificial intelligence and digital twins.


Paulina is part of the Advanced Mineral Processing Research Group at Imperial College London, whose research includes fluid dynamics of flotation tanks and multi-criteria decision-making for sustainable mining and mineral processing.


Science & Innovation

A range of greenhouse gas removal technologies may be necessary if we’re to reach Net Zero by 2050. In the second of our two-part geoengineering feature, Eoin Redahan looks to the sea, the sun, and mineral weathering, and at the ethical concerns such technologies raise. Missed Part One? Find it here.


Ocean 

‘Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.’

These famous words from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner aren’t the only famous part of his epic poem. The term albatross around one’s neck comes from it too.

After shooting a friendly albatross at sea, the poem’s narrator was forced by the ship’s crew to wear the dead creature around his neck – and grievous luck was to follow. Well, our blue planet has an albatross around its neck in the form of climate change.

Perhaps the solution to it lies all around us – water, water, everywhere…


An ocean of potential

In theory, we can use our oceans to pull CO2 from the air on an enormous scale. All it may take is clever intervention – potentially ruinous, albatross-shooting intervention.

Nevertheless, the World Economic Forum lays out the tantalising potential. ‘Ocean-based CO2 removal can help us achieve “net negative emissions” as the seas hold 50 times more carbon than the atmosphere,’ it says.

‘The ocean [is] a sink for nearly one third of anthropogenic carbon emissions and more than 90% of the resulting heat… If we are going to manage atmospheric CO2 levels to our advantage, we will need to leverage the ocean’s existing ability to govern the global carbon cycle.’

Frontier has targeted the development of scalable sources of alkalinity. The reasoning behind it is that with CO2 being an acidic molecule, rising CO2 concentrations could be neutralised through alkalinity. It has mentioned using mine tailings to remove up to 0.5 gigatonnes of CO2 from the air each year; but the major caveat here is that it needs to be done safely.

Planetary Technologies has ventured into this space armed, essentially, with a bicarbonate of baking soda that could draw in CO2 and sequester it for millenia.

The company explains its process: ‘We start by carefully extracting key parts of the mine tailings including recovering battery metals (like nickel and cobalt) and silica (sand) and then take the remaining purified metal salt solution into a special electrolyser. There, using clean, renewable electricity, the salt and water are split to make hydrogen (a clean, emissions-free fuel), and a pure alkaline hydroxide.

‘It’s from this point that we transport the bulk alkaline materials to our ocean outfalls site where the alkalinity is introduced to the surface ocean that then draws in CO2, sequestering it as already abundant bicarbonate and carbonate ions in seawater.’

So, by decreasing the acidity of the ocean, it would have a greater capacity to absorb CO2 from the air. The key, however, is to reduce this to a viable price point.

>> Want to read about iron fertilisation in our oceans? Rhiannon Garth Jones took a closer look here.


Mineral weathering, methane capture, and more

Mineral weathering is another contender in the CO2 removal mix. One technology that recently received $2.4m in funding is Seattle-based Lithos’ enhanced weathering process – a mineral weathering process that could capture CO2 at a gigatonne scale. According to Frontier, Lithos spreads basalt on croplands to increase dissolved organic carbon, before eventually being stored as ocean bicarbonate. The idea is to maximise CO2 removal while bolstering crop growth.

Closer to home, SAC Consulting in Edinburgh will receive £2.9m to capture the methane produced by cattle and cut emissions from the livestock farming sector; Synthetic Biology in San Francisco has received an R&D grant to synthesise a polymer within algae that is capable of sequestering atmospheric CO2 at a large scale; and Charm Industrial is converting plants into a carbon-rich liquid that is pumped underground.

To do the latter, Charm grows cellulosic biomass that captures CO2 from the atmosphere. It is then harvested, ground, and heated, before being turned into a bio-oil that is pumped underground.

Even the concrete beneath our feet could be used as a carbon sink. CarbonCure is injecting CO2 into its concrete mixes, which it says is not only comparable in cost to traditional concrete, but stronger.

And then, we have solar engineering – arguably the first technology that comes into many of our minds when we think of carbon removal. All sorts of geoengineering technologies exist in this sphere including cirrus cloud thinning, stratospheric aerosol scattering, and marine cloud brightening.


Ethical issues?

Interestingly, Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Programme referred to geoengineering as ‘a set of emerging technologies that could manipulate the environment and partially offset some of the impacts of climate change’.

Therein lies the problem for many. What are the consequences of ‘manipulating the environment’, especially if these technologies fall into unscrupulous hands?

In her excellent blog for SCI on geoengineering, Rhiannon Garth-Jones referred to the Haida Corporation Salmon trial. In this trial, 120 tonnes of iron compound were deposited in the migration routes of pink and sockeye salmon in the Pacific Ocean, which resulted in a several-month-long phytoplankton bloom.

It was seen by many as a success. The phytoplankton fed fish and increased biodiversity and the iron sequestered carbon; but Environment Canada believed the corporation violated national environmental laws by depositing iron without a permit.

History teaches us that profit vs. planet tussles don’t always go the way we would like, and the consequences of these technologies going into the wrong hands could be catastrophic.

On 29 June, The World Economic Forum called for a code of conduct for ocean-based CO2 removal; and the American Geophysical Union, a group of climate and planetary scientists, is leading the way in developing an ethical framework for climate intervention engagement.

We’re all feeling the effects of climate change. As I write this piece on 19 July, it is 39°C here in Greenford, London. 39°C in London! The earth is cracking, planes are circling (because the runways are melting), and grass fires are blazing in Croydon.

On days like today, it feels like we need all the innovation we can get.


Science & Innovation

From the Black Death to the Covid-19 pandemic, great adversity has also led to great advances. So, which inventions have emerged from times of hardship? Eoin Redahan finds out.

‘World events shape innovations. The World Wars shaped innovation, and the pandemic has shaped innovation,’ said Paul Booth OBE, in his outgoing speech as SCI President.

Paul Booth OBE

‘It is possible to accelerate innovation – we’ve demonstrated that.’ Paul Booth OBE, outgoing SCI President at SCI’s AGM, July 2022. Image: SCI/Andrew Lunn

The pandemic taught us a lot about ourselves. It taught me that eating my body weight in sweets was a great way to destroy my teeth, and it brought home to many the futility of the five-day commute. On a more abstract level, it taught governments and policy makers just how much can be achieved in a short space of time when necessity demands it. The vaccines that swam around our veins bore testament to this.

The pandemic has shaped innovation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in medicine. It isn’t the first awful event to provide a hotbed for change, and it won’t be the last. ‘It is possible to accelerate innovation,’ Paul said. ‘We’ve demonstrated that.’


Black Death and the bird mask

As bad as the Covid-19 pandemic was, the Black Death makes it look very tame indeed. It is estimated that the Plague, which was its worst from 1346-53, took up to 200 million lives in Eurasia and North Africa.

Amid the carnage, it is also said to have given us a system to mitigate infectious diseases with which we are familiar, including isolation periods. According to Britannica, ‘public officials created a system of sanitary control to combat contagious diseases, using observation stations, isolation hospitals, and disinfection procedures.’

Plague mask

The terrifying doctor will see you now.

The Plague also said to have inspired greater experimentation in pharmacology. In a sense, it also helped democratise medicine, with medical textbooks shifting from Latin to the vernacular. As John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, noted: ‘Both medical and religious practice now shifted toward the laity.’

But perhaps the most memorable advance from this time was the strange, beak-like masks worn by some doctors during the Plague. These masks were a crude (and frankly terrifying) way to protect the doctors from the disease in the air. The doctors even filled these masks with herbs in an effort to protect against pathogens.


Byproducts of the war effort

Of course, wars have also led to military innovation at breakneck speed. During the American Civil War, the Minié ball was created. It spun faster than other bullets and could travel half a mile – unlike pre-Civil War bullets, which went a mere 300 feet.

American Civil War ironclad ship

Officers of a monitor-class ironclad warship, photographed during the American Civil War.

This war also led to the ironclad warship, with plates riveted together to protect against cannonballs. However, it should also be noted that many of the most interesting war-borne inventions have ended up having little or nothing to do with military application.

Kotex sanitary pad advertisment

The ‘cotton-like-texture’ of cellucotton led to its brand name Kotex. According to this 1920 advertisement, this ‘wardrobe essential of Her Royal Daintiness’ was available at any shop that catered to women. Different times.

World War I gave us the blood bank, the Kleenex, the trench coat, and the sanitary pad. The sanitary pad has peculiar origins. In 1914, the war resulted in cotton shortages and substitutes were needed. Kimberly-Clark executives duly discovered a processed wood pulp material that was five times more absorbent than cotton, and cheaper to make. The material was used for bandages, and Red Cross nurses realised that this material could be used as makeshift sanitary pads. The company then developed a sanitary pad – branded Kotex – made from cellucotton and a fine gauze.


Synthetic rubber and Super Glue

Material substitution also led to ground-breaking innovation in World War II. According to the National WWII Museum New Orleans, in 1942 Japan cut off the US supply of natural rubber. With the demand for rubber high, US President Franklin Roosevelt invested $700m to make synthetic rubber from petrochemical byproducts at 51 new plants. By 1944, these synthetic rubber plants were producing 800,000 tonnes of the material a year.

Apollo 17 rover duct tape repair

Duct tape was developed by Johnson & Johnson during the Second World War, and by 1972 the ubiquitous tape had reached the moon. This makeshift wheel fender repair helped the Apollo 17 mission’s lunar rover to keep lunar dust at bay.

We use many other products invented during the Second World War, including duct tape, which was developed by Johnson & Johnson to keep moisture out of ammunition cases. A fellow called Harry Coover discovered cyanoacrylates – the active ingredient in Super Glue – while he tried to create a clear plastic for gun sights.

And the next time you reheat your dinner, spare a thought for Percy Spencer, the US physicist who noticed the candy bar melting in his pocket when he stood next to an active radar set. This moment of epiphany led to an invention you might know: the humble microwave.


Accelerating penicillin and vaccine rollout

Just as these trying times lead to extraordinary leaps in technology, they also lead to the large-scale rollout of said discoveries. A prime example of this is penicillin. It was first used to treat an eye infection in 1930, but it was only with the horrific fall-out of war that experiments with deep tank fermentation led to its widespread production.

Wartime penicillin advert

A soldier recuperates in hospital thanks to penicillin in this Second World War poster. Note the not-quite-so-life-saving hospital bed cigarette. Different times, again.

The Penicillin Production through Deep-tank Fermentation paper in ACS notes that: ‘During World War II, the governments of the United States and the UK approached the largest US chemical and pharmaceutical companies to enlist them in the race to mass produce penicillin […] One of these companies, Pfizer, succeeded in producing large quantities of penicillin using deep-tank fermentation.’

Covid vaccination

The speed of development and global-scale rollout of vaccines against Covid-19 was unprecedented. Science, business and governments worked together to get the world moving again.

And, as we all know, Pfizer was back at it again during the Covid-19 pandemic. Along with AstraZeneca, Moderna, and essentially the entire pharmaceutical industry, it created vaccines that saved countless lives. Governments and policymakers were also reminded just how quickly life-saving technologies can be pushed through when needed.

But the legacy of Covid-19 treatment will stretch further, be it in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, or other fields – who knows what else will come from it?

As Paul Booth said: ‘It is possible to accelerate innovation. We’ve demonstrated that.’


Science & Innovation

Many believe that greenhouse gas removal technologies will be necessary if we’re to reach net zero by 2050. In the first of our two-part geoengineering feature, we look at some of the difference-makers.

This week, a friend of mine played a tennis match just north of London. The game was due to take place at 18:00 but was deferred for an hour because it was 39°C. This came a day after Rishi Sunak, who may become the UK’s next Prime Minister, warned about going ‘too hard and too fast’ on net zero measures.

It’s looking increasingly likely that the implementation of environmental policies isn’t happening quickly enough; so, if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, we will need to develop technologies that pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Thermometer reading 40C

Mercury rising: the UK recorded record high temperatures this week.

Certainly, that’s the UK government’s perspective. ‘Greenhouse Gas Removal technology will be essential to meeting the UK’s climate change target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050,’ it said. ‘These technologies will be necessary to offset emissions from hard to decarbonise areas, such as parts of the agriculture and aviation sectors.’

Thankfully, work is underway to make this happen. And it is more than just the pang of the environmental conscience that has stirred the private sector into action. There is much money to be made from geoengineering. Indeed, a CNBC story has estimated that it could be a trillion dollar market by 2050.

The public investment has been relatively modest by some. The UK government recently pledged £54m in funding towards 15 different carbon removal technologies. But some in the private sector have dollar signs in their eyes.

A collaborative called Frontier – funded by Stripe, Alphabet, Shopify, Meta, McKinsey, and tens of thousands of businesses using Stripe Climate – has made an advance market commitment to spend an initial $925m on permanent carbon removal technologies between 2022 and 2030.

‘Models project that by 2050 we will need to permanently remove billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year,’ it states. ‘To date, fewer than 10,000 tons have been removed in total.’ The capital it has committed is designed to help companies developing carbon removal solutions to scale up.

The UK government has mentioned the need for a portfolio of carbon removal technologies to reach net zero. A cursory look reveals that there are many from which to choose, including direct air capture, the manipulation of the sea, advanced weathering, and solar engineering.

These methods are audacious, exciting, and controversial.


Direct air capture

The key, as ever, is to come up with low-carbon technologies that are both effective and economically viable. In that respect, direct air capture has emerged as a front runner. This technology often uses giant fans with filters, or chemical processes, to take CO2 from the air.

The difficulty is the amount of energy needed to power these processes and the source of this energy. The cost of removing each tonne of CO2 is also an impediment to growth – something that will need to fall for it to be implemented on a large scale.

Climeworks co-founders Jan Wurzbacher and Christoph Gebald at the Orca plant in Iceland.

Climeworks co-founders Jan Wurzbacher and Christoph Gebald at the Orca plant in Iceland. Image courtesy of Climeworks.

Nevertheless, significant strides have been made in recent times. Swiss company Climeworks raised US$650m in equity for its largest direct air capture plant, and last week it inked a 10-year deal with Microsoft to permanently remove 10,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere on its behalf.

The company’s machines capture CO2 from ambient air by drawing air into the collector with a fan. The CO2 is captured on the surface through a selected filter material that sits inside the collectors. Once the filter is filled with CO2, the collector is closed, and the temperature is increased to 80–100°C, whereupon the CO2 is released.

And what becomes of the CO2 after that? The CO2 at its Orca facility (50km outside Reykjavík, Iceland) will be mixed with water and pumped deep underground. The carbon dioxide will then react with the basalt rock through natural mineralisation and turn into stone.

Climeworks CO2 turned into stone via Carbfix technology.

Climeworks CO2 turned into stone via Carbfix technology. Image courtesy of Climeworks.

And Climeworks isn’t the only one operating in this space. As part of the UK Government’s aforementioned £54m funding, London-based Mission Zero Technologies will receive £2.9 million to build a low-energy, heat-free way to pull CO2 from the air.

Sydney-based AspiraDAC has been backed by the Stripe Climate Fund to remove 500 tonnes of CO2 using its modular, solar-powered system. According to Frontier: ‘Its MOF (metal-organic framework) sorbent has low-temperature heat requirements and cheap material inputs, increasing the likelihood that AspiraDAC can help accelerate the production of lower-cost metal-organic frameworks which, historically, have been expensive and difficult to synthesise.’

The Stripe Climate Fund has also backed 8 Rivers Capital, LLC, and Origen Carbon Solutions, Inc to remove CO2 from the air using its direct air capture (DAC) technology. Frontier said: ‘The DAC technology accelerates the natural process of carbon mineralisation by contacting highly reactive slaked lime with ambient air to capture CO2. The resulting carbonate minerals are calcined to create a concentrated CO2 stream for geologic storage.’

Of course, direct air capture is just one of many CO2 removal solutions. In part two, next week, we’ll look at other promising technologies.

Sustainability & Environment

In his winning essay in SCI Scotland’s Postgraduate Researcher competition, Angus McLuskie, Postgraduate Researcher at the University of St Andrews, explains his work in replacing non-renewable and toxic feedstocks with novel sustainable catalytic processes to produce useful chemicals.

Each year, SCI’s Scotland Regional Group runs the Scotland Postgraduate Researcher Competition to celebrate the work of research students working in scientific research in Scottish universities.

This year, four students produced outstanding essays in which they describe their research projects and the need for them. In the first of this year’s winning essays, Angus McLuskie outlines his work in improving the production of urea derivatives and polyureas.


Would you risk your life for plastics and agrochemicals? You might not have to…

Urea derivatives hold a substantial global market, which is dominated by their use as fertilisers in the agrochemical sector, in addition to smaller-scale technical applications as glues, resin precursors, dyes and pharmaceutical drugs. Furthermore, polyureas are important protective coatings, with a global market exceeding £800 million a year.

Currently, urea derivatives and polyureas are produced on an industrial scale using highly toxic chemicals such as phosgene, (di)isocyanates and carbon monoxide. These reagents are detrimental to human health, as evidenced by the release of methyl isocyanate gas from the Bhopal Union Carbide factory in 1984, which led to thousands of deaths and a global outcry.

Phosgene was itself used as a battlefield chemical weapon in World War I, and is sourced from fossil-fuel-derived carbon monoxide. The result is a process with significant health and environmental impacts.

As part of a global drive to tackle climate change and move towards a circular economy, the objective of our research is to replace non-renewable and toxic feedstocks with novel sustainable catalytic processes to produce useful chemicals and materials.

>> More information about the Scottish Postgraduate Researcher competition.

In pursuit of greener methods, we have recently discovered synthetic methodologies, using a catalyst of manganese, to couple dehydrogenatively (1) methanol and (di)amines and (2) formamides and amines to make symmetrical (poly)ureas and unsymmetrical urea derivatives respectively (ACS Catal., DOI:10.1021/acscatal.2c00850).

Angus McLuskie 

Angus with his poster on Mn-Catalysed Dehydrogenative Synthesis of Urea Derivatives and Polyureas.

The only process byproduct, molecular hydrogen, is valuable in itself, and the non-toxic reagents of methanol or formamide can be sourced from renewable feedstocks. For example, Carbon Recycling International, an Iceland-based company, has developed methods to generate methanol industrially through the direct hydrogenation of CO2 (ATZextra Worldw., DOI:10.1007/S40111-015-0517-0). Formamides can be made from formic acid, which may be produced from biomass or CO2.

Synthesis approach

The synthesis of urea derivatives using this approach has been reported previously using iron and ruthenium catalysts, but these present individual limitations. Iron catalysts result in poor yields and substrate scope, while ruthenium catalysts are expensive and raise sustainability concerns due to ruthenium’s low abundance in Earth’s crust (Chem. Sci. J., doi.org/10.1039/C8SC00775F and Org. Lett., doi.org/10.1021/acs.orglett.5b03328).

The synthesis of polyureas via this approach has only been achieved before using a ruthenium catalyst. With a manganese-based pincer catalyst, we succeeded in making a broad variety of symmetrical and unsymmetrical urea derivatives as well as polyureas at high yields and under a low catalytic loading of 0.5-1 mol%. As the third most abundant transition metal in Earth’s crust, manganese is much cheaper than ruthenium, which improves the economic viability of the process for industrial applications.

Breaking new ground?

This is the first example of the synthesis of polyureas from diamines and methanol using a catalyst of an Earth-abundant metal. We have demonstrated for the first time the synthesis of a potentially 100% renewable polyurea from methanol and a renewable diamine Priamine, which is commercialised by Croda. This could be of interest to emerging businesses for making bio/renewable plastics.

SCI Blog - 19 July 2022 - image of sprout growing out of soil

Angus hopes his research will help us develop urea-functionalised agrochemicals and pharmaceutical drugs in a more efficient, greener way.

This initial proof of concept is exciting, but there are challenges to overcome for commercialisation. Evidently, the cost is important, and since the catalyst is much more expensive than reactants, such as amines and methanol, the cost is directly linked to the catalyst’s activity; a homogeneous catalyst that is non-recyclable and offers a turnover number of 100-200 makes the process expensive.

We are now focusing our efforts on enhancing the efficiency of the catalyst to increase cost-effectiveness, which will also allow us to make commercially important urea-functionalised pharmaceutical drugs and agrochemicals with greater efficiency and reduced impact on the environment, human health, and economy.

>> Interested in joining the SCI Scotland Group?

Sustainability & Environment

What is the verdict on the 100% sustainable fuel Formula 1 plans to use in its cars, and is the new E10 fuel this season doing any good? We asked David Bott, SCI’s Head of Innovation.

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. This phrase comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, and it refers to the Greeks’ gift of a giant wooden horse to their enemies during the Trojan War. But this was no gift at all.

This warrior-filled, hollow wooden horse that the Trojans wheeled inside the gates of Troy was a ploy from the Greeks to get inside the city’s impenetrable city walls and ambush their enemy. It turned out things weren’t quite what they seemed.

Just as Trojans became wary of giant wooden horses, we should be wary of Net-Zero pledges. These promises seem impressive but, if you look inside, they might not be quite as beneficial to the environment as advertised – at worst, they could be hollow.

Whenever an organisation talks of carbon credits, makes a vague reference to biomass or a grand pledge with little detail, it is worth closer investigation.

Formula 1 recently made a sustainability pledge of its own. Following its decision to use E10 fuel in the cars this season (a mixture of 90% fossil fuel and 10% ethanol), it has announced plans to use a 100% sustainable drop-in fuel in its vehicles as part of its plans to reach Net-Zero by 2030.

On first reading, the terms Net-Zero and Formula 1 don’t sit easily together. Isn’t this the sport where 20 cars can burn more than 100kg of fuel each per race? The same travelling circus in which cars, teams, and drivers are flown and ferried all over the world for more than eight months of racing?

By its own calculation, in a November 2019 report, Formula 1 is responsible for 256,551 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year. To put that figure into perspective, you would need to drive for 6,000km in a diesel car to generate a single tonne of carbon emissions – multiply that by 256,000, and Net-Zero feels some distance away.


What about the E10 and proposed drop-in fuels?

Both Formula 1’s new fuel and pledges merit closer inspection. Regarding the move to the E10 fuel in Formula 1 cars, David Bott, SCI’s Head of Innovation, wasn’t exactly gushing.

‘E10 is an evolutionary backwater – adding just 10% ethanol does nothing for emissions,’ he said. ‘A quick enthalpy calculation shows the energy in the fuel has decreased, so you need more.’

The proposed move to a ‘100% sustainable drop-in fuel’ used in standard internal combustion engines is seen by many as a positive move. Formula 1 says the fuel will be made using components from either carbon capture, municipal waste, or non-food biomass.

Each of these ‘components’ on its own is worth exploration. For example, what types of municipal waste do they mean, which types of non-food biomass are they talking about, and what about the manufacturing process?

Biomass

Biomass fuel is controversial due to concerns over carbon sequestration and land use.

The passage of time will reveal more but, again, David has questioned the green credentials of the proposed fuel. He said: ‘What Formula 1 is proposing to do is analogous to sustainable aviation fuel – to make octane from a non-fossil source of carbon.’

‘[To do this], you can use biomass or “synthetic”, which basically means distillate plastic waste. It is effectively using fossil carbon that was used for something else; so, it doesn't make the situation any worse, but neither does it really contribute to lowering emissions. It’s just short-cycle carbon.’


Freight with difficulty

The mention of aviation is pertinent when it comes to Formula 1. The emissions generated by the 10 teams’ vehicles across 21 Grands Prix, including races and testing, account for just 0.7% of Formula 1’s total emissions. But by far the biggest contributor to its CO2 emissions are logistics – the movement of equipment from venue to venue by land, sea, and air.

Shipping

The equipment used in Formula One must be transported from continent to continent by sea, land, or air.

After that comes business travel at 27.7%, which includes the air and ground transportation of all individuals, as well as the hotel footprint from all Formula 1 teams’ employees and major event staff. So, it’s clear that the main environmental problem isn’t the fuel used during the races; it is all of the other transport emissions.

To be fair to Formula 1, the sport has made an effort to make operations greener, including powering its offices using 100% renewable energy and taking measures to make freight more efficient.

However, any claims that it is motoring to Net-Zero by 2030 need to be chased with a liberal swig of scepticism. A Net-Zero 2030 goal provides a nice headline, but how you get there is the story.

Sustainability & Environment

The wild weather fluctuations wrought by climate change are stressing out our plants. Our resident gardening expert, Professor Geoff Dixon, explains how.

Pests and diseases are familiar causes of plant damage and loss. Less familiar, but becoming more frequent, are stresses resulting from environmental causes.

These are termed abiotic stresses because no living organism is involved. This means there are no visible signs of pests or pathogens. Diagnosis and treatment are, therefore, less straightforward. These causes are a result of interactions between the plant genotype and the prevailing or changing environment.

Damage may only become apparent after harvesting and at the point of consumer use. A typical example of this is internal browning or breakdown of Brussels sprouts. Larger sprouts are more susceptible to stress, with dense leaf packing in the bud, particularly in early and midseason cultivars.

SCI Blog - 24 June 2022 - image of browning Brussel sprouts

The internal browning of Brussels sprouts is a consequence of plant stress.

A suggested cause is water condensing within the bud, which restricts calcium transport and leads to marginal leaf necrosis (death). This resembles the exudation, or perspiration, of water from leaf edges when growing plants absorb excessive water, flooding the vascular systems following very heavy rainfall and hot weather.


Moisture damage

Oedema is another moisture-induced disorder. Symptoms include unattractive wart-like swellings coalescing on leaves and stems, particularly on Brussels sprouts, cabbages, and cauliflowers. These may rupture, becoming corky with a yellowish or brownish appearance.

SCI Blog - 24 June 2022 - image of close up of damaged cabbage leaf

Moisture-induced damage to cabbage leaves.

These symptoms result from high soil moisture content and high relative humidity associated with hot days and cool nights. Both internal browning and oedema can be minimised by improving soil structure, encouraging rapid drainage by deep cultivation or growing plants on raised beds.

Improving soil structure is becoming an important way to control salt accumulation. Soil structure can be badly damaged by flooding that brings in polluted water. In subsequent vegetable and fruit crops, plant water uptake, nutrient use efficiency, and photosynthesis are all impaired. The effects are seen in poor germination, burnt leaf margin, stunting, and wilting. This damage will be particularly severe with highly organic soils.

SCI Blog - 24 June 2022 - image of white onions in soil surrounded by salt

Salt accumulation in onion crops. Improving soil structure is one way of addressing this problem.

Abiotic disorders are becoming more common in commercial crops and this is likely to be reflected in gardens and allotments. That is an effect of climatic change, with generally hotter and wetter conditions interspersed by droughts and freezing events.

As a result, plant growth is erratic and exhibits abiotic disorders. Plant breeders, especially in Asia, are actively seeking genetic solutions that will create crops capable of withstanding erratic environments. In parallel,the agro-chemical industry is producing environmentally sustainable compounds and biostimulants to help combat these problems.

>> How else has climate change changed the way our gardens grow, and what can be done to alleviate its effects? Geoff Dixon explored this issue further.

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

Sustainability & Environment

Fossil fuels don’t just keep our motors running. They don’t just heat our homes. They form the basis of many of our everyday products.

Problem is, fossil carbon is cheap and reliable. Nevertheless, bit by bit, many companies are weaning themselves off petrochemical feedstocks.

For Unilever, that means dishwasher liquids with cleaning agents made from fermented sugar. For Croda, it means using corn to create a bio-ethylene oxide that can replace some surfactants in its personal care products.

So, what other moves have organisations made lately to create greener feedstocks?

1. Castor seed building blocks

SCI Blog - 22 June 2022 - image of castor seeds

Arkema is using castor seed in a huge range of products.

Arkema has received certification for its castor seed-based materials in products that include cosmetics, fragrances, lubricants, and pharmaceuticals.

The Paris-based speciality materials company says it will use castor seed for 100% of its monomer, polymer, and oleochemical production in its plant in Singapore.

Part of the problem with developing green feedstocks is making them financially viable and resilient. Growing these feedstocks sustainably is also important. For example, palm oil contains many products that make it a useful feedstock for those in the chemicals industry, but the way it is farmed, and its effect on the soil, are routinely criticised.

To that end, Arkema says that 13,300 hectares used to grow its crops (primarily in Western India) are sustainably farmed under the Sustainable Castor Caring for Environmental and Social Standards code.


2. Nutrient recovery

SCI Blog - 22 June 2022 - image of small green leaf growing out of soil

Unused nutrients from agriculture could be turned into biofertiliser.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) is taking part in a project with Northwest Florida Water Management District and May Nursery that will demonstrate nutrient recovery technology.

According to the US EPA, the aforementioned parties will demonstrate how unused nutrients from agriculture can be captured and turned into a biofertiliser that will help farmers along the way to more circular agricultural processes.

>> How do we make a large-scale move to greener feedstocks? Several of SCI’s Corporate Partners weighed in on the issue.


3. An alternative to plastic wrapping

SCI Blog - 22 June 2022 - image of thyme oil in glass jar

Thyme oil’s antimicrobial properties could help extend the shelf life of fresh food.

Researchers at Rutgers and Harvard have created a plant-based spray coating for fresh food packaging, which they believe could reduce our reliance on petroleum-based packaging.

The researchers liken their technology to the webs that shoot from Spider-Man’s wrist. Their stringy material is spun from a hair-dryer-like heating device that is shrink-wrapped over foods as diverse as avocado and sirloin steak.

Their biopolymer contains natural antimicrobial agents – thyme oil, citric acid and nisin – to fight spoilage. The wrapping can also be easily rinsed off and degrades in the soil within three days.


4. Degraded by the light

SCI Blog - 22 June 2022 - image of rainbow light refracting off glass

North Dakota researchers have developed a plastic that degrades in a wavelength of light not contained in the spectrum of sunlight on earth.

Biodegradation is a prickly issue. Many are sceptical about the way biodegradable plastic bags interact with the natural environment, and others argue that we should focus on upcycling products rather than downcycling them.

That’s partly what makes a new bio-based vanillin plastic so interesting. A team of US researchers from the Center for Photochemical Sciences, Bowling Green State University, and North Dakota State University has created lignin-based polymers that degrade when exposed to light of a specific wavelength – a wavelength not contained in the spectrum of sunlight that reaches the earth.

The result of this, they claim, is that up to 60% of the monomers could be polymerised again with no loss of quality. So, in theory light-triggered degradation could make it much easier to re-use these materials.

>> Natural materials, such as hemp, are becoming ever more important. So, what makes it so special?

Careers

What does an academic’s day look like during term time and in the summer? And how do you get from being a student to teaching at university level? Dr David Pugh, MChem in Chemistry at the University of York, told us about his journey and the skills needed to do his job well.

 David Pugh

Dr David Pugh

Tell us about your career path to date.

I look after the delivery of practical chemistry teaching in our undergraduate teaching laboratories in the University of York’s Department of Chemistry. This includes both planning what we are going to teach and teaching students in the lab. I actually came to York for my undergraduate degree and have never left! I completed an MChem degree here, before carrying out a Ph.D here under the supervision of Professor Richard Taylor.

What is a typical day like in your job?

In-term and out-of-term days are like two different jobs. When students are here, the days mostly revolve around delivering teaching in the lab. There are lots of organisational aspects to ensure everything runs smoothly and that everyone (students, demonstrators, technicians etc) knows what’s going on, as well as the teaching.

Out of term time, my job is much more around planning for the future, both the logistics of who’s going to come into the lab when, and the actual teaching content. We’re regularly changing parts of the course, and looking for better approaches with the practical teaching to try to ensure we deliver practicals that are effective in the skills they teach, with the right level of complexity.

>> Interested in a career in chemistry publishing? Then see how Bryden Le Bailly, Senior Editor at Nature, went about it.

So, a day out of term time might see me trying to come up with timetables and planning what goes where, or I might be spending time in the lab trying to develop new practicals or refine existing ones.

Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?

Teaching students! This is the most enjoyable part of the job – interacting with the students and seeing them slowly develop their practical abilities. It’s especially nice when you see students you’ve taught from when they arrived at university to studying for a PhD and demonstrating in the labs.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

I find developing new practicals for teaching particularly challenging. When you’re a researcher, the outcome of the practical is the key reason for carrying out the lab work: whether it’s to synthesise a new compound or obtain some data to analyse.

With teaching, it’s different. We’re interested in practical processes and whether they are effective at teaching the students.

Teaching labs have many constraints, and practicals need to be designed to take these into consideration. For example, we think about: reaction times, safety of materials, reaction hazards, new skills introduced, practice at existing skills, costs of materials, equipment availability, how many people could carry out the practical, complexity of any analysis, how the labs relate to theory content, and how long it will take students etc.

Developing new practicals that suit the requirements can be really challenging – and you never know exactly how it will turn out until you run it with students for real.

Dr. David Pugh (in the blue coat) with Year 3 students.

Dr David Pugh (in the blue coat) with Year 3 students.

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

I think the use of the practical skills I learnt will be self-evident in this job, so I’ll focus on some of the other skills. Communication skills are essential, whether using oral skills to explain subjects to students (individually or in groups), giving presentations (e.g. practical briefings), or using written skills (through the lab scripts).

Troubleshooting instruments is a really valuable skill, as the loss of an instrument could really affect students’ progress on a lab day – so being able to quickly fault find and fix is really useful.

And, of course, the skill of being able to learn something you didn’t know how to do is crucial. Chemistry will keep changing, with new areas coming into existence. For example,. programming and computational chemistry are core components in our undergraduate degree programme now, but I had no previous experience in those areas.

Are there any other skills required in the work you do?

Good IT Skills and administrative skills have proved essential. So much of the successful running of the labs comes down to organisation. Being able to manipulate student lists, experiments, marks, attendance data etc is a crucial part of the role – I’d really struggle without effective database and spreadsheet skills that can quickly and efficiently generate the data I need.

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

If you do pursue this career path, make sure you network with others doing the same kind of role. Meeting and discussing teaching approaches with those who can really relate is so useful, and makes you really think about how you design and deliver your teaching.

This became even more useful at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, when we met regularly to work together to solve the challenges of practical teaching without labs.


>> Would you like to get involved in the SCI Young Chemists’ Panel? Find out more here.

>> Excited about a career in next generation drug development? Read how Rachel Ellis got involved

Agrifood

What is so special about rainbow chard pigments, and what does this tasty plant have in common with cacti? The SCI Horticulture Group explains all, ahead of their appearance at BBC Gardeners’ World Live in Birmingham from 16-19 June.

The origins of chard

Chard (Beta vulgaris, subspecies vulgaris) is a member of the beetroot family and is grown for its edible leaf blades and leaf stems. Chard, sugar beet, spinach and beetroot have all been domesticated from the same wild ancestor species – sea beet (Beta vulgaris, subspecies maritima). Another food crop from the same botanical family is quinoa.

SCI Blog - 15 June 2022 - image of rainbow chard growing in ground
The term chard comes from the 14th century French word carde, which means artichoke thistle.

Nutritional properties

Chard's leaves are a valuable source of mineral nutrients, with a normal serving of 100g containing: 24% of our daily magnesium needs, 17% of iron, 16% of manganese, and 12% of both potassium and sodium. The same portion can provide 22% of our daily vitamin C needs, 13% of vitamin E, and 100% of our vitamin K.

>> What gives chillis their heat? The SCI Horticulture group has explored the weird and wonderful world of chillis.

The edible petioles (leaf stems) of Swiss chard are typically white, yellow, or red. Lucullus and fordhook giant are cultivars with white petioles. Canary yellow has yellow petioles and red-ribbed forms include ruby chard and rhubarb chard. Rainbow chard is a mix of coloured varieties, often mistaken for a variety unto itself.

The pigments that produce these colours belong to a special group – known as the betalains. These pigments are found only in species of one small section of the plant kingdom called caryophyllales. The pigments in the rest of the plant kingdom have different chemical structures, made up of only carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, whereas the betalain chemical structures also contain nitrogen.

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Rainbow chard contains betalains, as do cacti, pokeweed, and (above) bougainvillea.

The many uses of chard pigments

The colourful pigments in plants not only contribute to the beauty of our gardens – they advertise the presence of flowers to pollinators or fruits to dispersal agents. Others deter herbivores by tasting bitter or act as a sunscreen to protect from strong ultraviolet light.

The vivid pigments found in chard are particularly useful. Betanin is the best-known pigment from this group and gives rise to the striking colour of beetroot. It is used commercially as a natural food dye, can help preserve food, and contains antioxidant properties.

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Betanin, the pigment that makes beetroot (and poop) red.

Some people are unable to metabolise betanin, which gives rise to a phenomenon known as beeturia – where human waste is coloured red by the betanin.

Cooking with chard

When cooking with chard, it can be treated as two separate vegetables – the leafy part and the crunchy petiole. Blitva is a traditional Croatian dish made from the leafy part, often cooked along with potatoes and served with fish.

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Blitva is made with chard, potato, olive oil, and garlic.

Chard stalks sautéed with lemon and garlic forms another popular side-dish, while lovers of Italian cuisine can turn rainbow chard into a pesto with pine nuts, parmesan and basil.

Find us at BBC Gardeners’ World Live

From 16-19 June, the SCI Horticulture Group will tell the public all about the hidden chemistry behind their favourite fruit and vegetable plants at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham for BBC Gardeners’ World Live. If you’re curious to learn all about rainbow chard, chillis, and strawberries, pop by and say hello!.

>> Written by the SCI Horticulture Group and edited by Eoin Redahan. Special thanks to Neal Price from Chillibobs, Martin Peacock of ZimmerPeacock, Hydroveg, and The University of Reading Soft Fruit Technology Group for supporting the work of the SCI Horticulture Committee at BBC Gardeners’ World Live.

>> The SCI Horticulture Group brings together those working on the wonderful world of plants.

Agrifood

Which molecules give strawberries their distinctive smell, how are experts using different types of light to grow them all year round, and just how many of them do we eat? The SCI Horticulture Group told us all about this beloved fruit ahead of their appearance at BBC Gardeners’ World Live in Birmingham from 16-19 June.

Where did strawberries originate?

The woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) was first cultivated in the 17th century, but the strawberry you know and love today (Fragaria x ananassa) is actually a hybrid species. It was first bred in Brittany, France, in the 1750s by cross-breeding the North American Fragaria virginiana with the Chilean Fragaria chiloensis.

The strawberry is a member of the rose family, as are many other popular edible fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, and plums. It is the most commonly consumed berry crop worldwide.

SCI Blog - 10 June 2022 - sketch of strawberries and cream on tennis racket
People in the UK consume an average 3kg of strawberries every year. Perhaps a certain sporting event has something to do with it…

How many do we eat?

A staggering 9 million tonnes of strawberries are produced globally each year, and their popularity certainly extends to UK shores, and not just during Wimbledon. In the UK alone, the average per capita consumption of strawberries is about 3kg a year!

Domestic strawberry production provides almost all the required fruit for the UK market from March to November; and in 2020, 123,000 tonnes of strawberries were produced within the UK.

This stands in stark contrast to the 50,000 tonnes produced in 1985, when UK strawberries were only produced during June and July. Researchers are currently trying to extend the UK growing season to all year round.

SCI Blog - 10 June 2022 - sketch of women about to eat strawberry
She certainly likes the smell of strawberries, but what gives them that distinctive aroma?

What about the chemistry of their distinctive smell?

The characteristic strawberry aroma consists of many different volatile organic chemicals – more than 360 have been observed in fresh strawberries. Which molecules are present, and in what concentrations, depends on the particular cultivar and how mature or ripe it is.

The most common kinds of chemical are furanones and esters. Esters (such as methyl butanoate) account for more than one third of the observed molecules and 25–90% of the volatiles from any one cultivar.

These molecules are responsible for the fruity and floral notes of the aroma. The most characteristic furanone that gives rise to the characteristic strawberry odour is DMHF.

SCI Blog - 10 June 2022 - image of strawberries turned into two santas
Pictures like this only increase demand for strawberries out of season.

How to produce strawberries all year...

To optimise strawberry growing conditions, researchers are investigating the influence of temperature, photo-period (response to daily, seasonal, or yearly changes in light and darkness), growth hormones, night-break lighting and CO2 enrichment on flowering and fruiting timing, yield, and quality.

Optimal chilling models are also being developed for both June-bearers and ever-bearers. Critically, a careful and detailed evaluation of the environmental and economic costs of producing winter UK strawberries compared to imports is being undertaken.

Extending the growing season in the UK would have a number of benefits, such as; meeting the increasing demand for out-of-season strawberries while increasing food security, reducing food miles, contributing to public health, providing continued employment, and supporting sustainable farming.

>> Are you a keen gardener? Our resident gardening expert, Geoff Dixon, provides plenty of gardening tips for you on the SCIBlog.

Improving the fruit's nutrient profile

The nutrient content of strawberries is dependent in part on the plant’s growing conditions. The interaction between light intensity and root-zone water deficit stress is being examined to improve berry nutrient content. Researchers are also investigating how to apply this to commercial strawberry production in total environment-controlled agriculture systems.

See how a college in Finland is harnessing LEDs to power a vertical strawberry farm!

LED light colour and strawberry growth

Light emitting diode (LED) lighting increases yields in out-of-season strawberry production. LEDs have a higher energy efficiency than traditional horticultural lighting and come in a range of single colours with varying efficiencies and effects on plant growth.

Red LEDs convert energy into light (and drive photosynthesis) most efficiently, followed by blue, green, and far-red, respectively. However, red light alone is not sufficient for optimum plant growth. Blue light controls flowering, promotes stomatal opening (pores found in various parts of the plant), inhibits stem elongation, and increases secondary metabolites (organic compounds produced by the plant), thereby improving flavour.

Additional green LEDs, which appear white, improve visibility for workers. These lights can also penetrate deeper into the plant canopy, improving photosynthesis. Far-red light produces shade avoidance responses such as canopy expansion and earlier flowering, which can be beneficial for increased light capture and earlier fruiting.

SCI Blog - 10 June 2022 - image of strawberry slice on petri dish>
Confirmed strawberry.

Who is carrying out strawberry research in the UK?

The Soft Fruit Technology Group at the University of Reading is just one of the institutions providing research to support the UK strawberry industry. The main areas of research are plant propagation, crop management, and production systems.

Find us at BBC Gardeners’ World Live

From 16-19 June, the SCI Horticulture Group will tell the public all about the hidden chemistry behind their favourite fruit and vegetable plants at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham for BBC Gardeners’ World Live. If you’re curious to learn all about strawberries, chillis, and chard, pop by and say hello!

>> Written by The SCI Horticulture Group. Special thanks to Neal Price from Chillibobs, Martin Peacock of ZimmerPeacock, Hydroveg, and The University of Reading Soft Fruit Technology Group for supporting the work of the SCI Horticulture Committee at BBC Gardeners’ World Live.

Science & Innovation

Is it dipping your finger into a glistening bowl of mercury? Is it symmetry? Is it the patterns of crystal growth or is it to be found in nature – in the neatness of evolution? In his thought-provoking SCItalk, Philip Ball explored the beauty of chemistry.

When you write fiction, you’re supposed to wake all the senses. So, don’t just tell readers what something looks like. Tell them how it feels. Tell them how it sounds. Tell them how it tastes. For beauty exists in the smell of perfume as someone walks by, just as it resides in the colours of bloom. One of the beauties of chemistry – like nice writing – is that it also evokes all of the senses.

That was what drew Philip Ball to chemistry: the profusions of colour, the explosions, the reek of sulphur, dipping his finger into a bowl of mercury as a lad and wondering how this dense, silvery liquid hadn’t made his hand wet.

And yet, chemists – and scientists in general – seem to have a complicated relationship with beauty. Part of this is down to what different groups see as beautiful. ‘When scientists talk about beauty,’ he said, ‘they think they’re talking about what artists are, but they really aren’t.’

Chemical garden

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

For a physicist, an equation might capture the essence of beauty. For a chemist, it might be the shape of a crystal growth formation. Ball argued that chemists tend to be Platonists – that they locate beauty in symmetry (for Plato, he added, art was too messy ever to be beautiful).

Chemistry’s reputation as a staid science isn’t helped by the fact that it has long hidden its light from the world. Much beauty is confined to those who view it under microscopes. It is only relatively recently – with the proliferation of high-resolution imagery – that the public has finally looked upon the beauty of chemical gardens, processes, and configurations in all their stunning detail.

Even so, despite the bewitching quality of seeing copper hydroxide billowing like a jellyfish, and the jagged architecture of lead formations, much of chemistry’s beauty lies in its dynamism, rather than the confines of the still frame.

The inspiration of nature

And yet, it wasn’t ever thus. Chemistry in bygone centuries was viewed slightly differently. ‘Of the chemistry of his day and generation, [the German philosopher] Kant declared it was a science, but not Science,’ Ball noted.

Similarly, in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley painted chemistry in a different light to how it is seen today. ‘Chemistry is that branch of natural philosophy in which the greatest improvements have been and may be made,’ her character, Professor Waldman, said.

Cyanotype

The sheer beauty in science has long been appreciated, as is seen in this cyanotype photogram made by Anna Atkins in her 1843 book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

So, why the small s? Why was it seen, not as a soft science, but one with a softer underbelly – like a stone-faced steel worker who secretly writes poetry? Perhaps it has to do with the link to creation. ‘Chemists display, arguably, the greatest creativity in the sciences,’ Ball said. ‘[They have] the urge to make stuff.’

This creativity is often guided by the beauty of the natural world. Ball argues that some scientists are guided by the sheer beauty of nature, by finding the unexpected in things we have seen so many times before.

On the screen, he put up a picture of what looked like the intricate component of a motor, which turned out to be the natural motor structure within bacteria driving its very survival. He mentioned the pigments within flower petals, so delicately tuned by evolution.

Bacteria motor 

An extraordinary bacteria motor (left). Image from paper on: Structural basis of assembly and torque transmission of the bacterial flagellar motor. Created by Zhejiang University researchers..

Simply put, the elegant solutions found by nature are inspiring. ‘It made me think about what Einstein said,’ he added. ‘The Theory of Relativity was so beautiful to him that he believed nature had to work this way.’

And some chemists are drawn by a different type of aesthetic: the beauty of the method. Just as a football fan might rhapsodise about the arc of a perfectly struck free-kick as it curves beyond the keeper’s reach, some chemists see something in the process. ‘For some chemists, there’s a beauty in the synthesis,’ Ball said; and other chemists, he added, will have their own aesthetic responses to an approach, be it elegant or otherwise.

Why shouldn’t the work of a chemist be driven, in part, by beauty? And why should the arbiters of the aesthetically pleasing be confided to the arts? For Philip Ball, the chemical world is one of artistry, dynamism, and beauty. For him, science provides a new lens, new tools for seeing, and new ways for looking at the world around us.

‘Science doesn’t de-enchant the world,’ he said. ‘On the contrary, it re-enchants it.’

Philip’s book, The Beauty of Chemistry, is published by MIT Press.

Agrifood

What makes chilli peppers so spicy and how do they help with pain relief? The SCI Horticulture Group explained all ahead of their appearance at BBC Gardeners’ World Live in Birmingham from 16-19 June.

This June, the SCI Horticulture Group will tell the public all about the hidden chemistry behind their favourite fruit and vegetable plants. One of the main plants they will feature at the National Exhibition Centre is the humble chilli pepper – and these famous fruit-berries conceal more secrets than you might think…


Where does the chilli originate?

The chilli pepper (Capsicum spp.) is a member of the Solanaceae, the plant family that includes edibles such as potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines, but also poisonous plants such as tobacco, mandrake, and deadly nightshade.


Who brought the chilli pepper to these shores?

The chilli was brought to Europe in the 15th century by Christopher Columbus and his crew. They became acquainted with it on their travels in South and Central America and, shortly thereafter, to India via the Portuguese spice trade.


How varied is the genus?

Of the 42 species in the capsicum genus, five have been domesticated for culinary use. Capsicum annuum includes many common varieties such as bell (sweet) peppers, cayenne and jalapenos. Capsicum frutescens includes tabasco. Capsicum chinense includes the hottest peppers such as Scotch bonnet. Capsicum pubescens includes the South American rocoto peppers, and capsicum baccatum includes the South American aji peppers.

From the five domesticated species, humans have bred more than 3,000 different cultivars with much variation in colour and taste. The chilli and bell peppers that we eat are the fruit – technically berries – that result from self-pollination of the flowers.

>> The SCI Horticulture Group brings together those working on the wonderful world of plants.


And we eat a lot of them?

Today, chilli peppers are a global commodity. In 2019, 38 million tonnes of green chilli peppers were produced worldwide, with China producing half of the total. Spain is the largest commercial grower of chillies in Europe.

Capsaicin molecule

Capsaicin helps give chilli peppers their heat

What makes chillies hot?

Capsaicin is the main substance in chilli peppers that provides the spicy heat. It binds to receptors that detect and regulate heat (as well as being involved in the transmission and modulation of pain), hence the burning sensation that it causes in the mouth.

In humans, these receptors are present in the gut as well as the mouth (in fact, throughout the peripheral and central nervous systems) – hence the after-effects of eating too much chilli. Capsaicin, however, is not equally distributed in all parts of pepper fruit. Its concentration is higher in the area surrounding the seeds.

>> Get tickets for Gardeners’ World Live 2022 and pop by our stand to say hello!


How do you measure chilli heat?

The Scoville Heat Unit Scale is used to classify the strength of chilli peppers. Scoville heat units (SHU) were named after American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville who devised a method for rating chilli heat in 1912.

SCIblog - 31 May 2022 - Chilli Chemistry - image of Dragon's Breath Chillies

The ludicrously hot Dragon’s Breath chilli

This method relied on a panel of tasters who diluted chilli extract with increasing amounts of sugar syrup until the heat became undetectable. The greater the dilution to render the sample’s heat undetectable, the higher the SHU rating. Pure capsaicin measures 16,000,000 SHU.

The capsaicin content of chilli peppers varies wildly, as is reflected in the SHUs of the peppers below:

  1. Bell (Sweet peppers) = 0 SHU
  2. Jalapeno = 5,000 SHU
  3. Scotch Bonnet = 100,000 SHU
  4. Naga Jolokia = 1,040,000 SHU
  5. Carolina Reaper = 1,641,183 SHU
  6. Dragon’s Breath = 2,480,000 SHU

Dispersal vs. protection – why do chillies contain capsaicin?

The seeds of chillies are dispersed in the wild by birds who do not have the same receptors as mammals and, therefore, are unaffected by capsaicin. Perhaps chillies have evolved to prevent mammals from dispersing their seeds?

Capsaicin has also been shown to protect the plant against fungal attack, thus helping the fruit to reach maturity and the seeds to be dispersed before succumbing to rot. This antifungal property can also be put to good use in helping to preserve foods for human consumption.


How did chilli help win a Nobel Prize?

Capsaicin was pivotal in the research that led to the award of the 2021 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.

The two US-based scientists received the accolade for describing the mechanics of how humans perceive hot, cold, touch, and pressure through nerve impulses. The research explained at a molecular level how these stimuli are converted into nerve signals, but the starting point for the study was work with capsaicin from the humble chilli pepper.


Capsaicin in medicine

Capsaicin is used as an analgesic (a pain reliever) in topical ointments, nasal sprays, and patches to relieve chronic and neuropathic pain. Clinical trials continue to investigate the potential of capsaicin for a wide range of additional pain indications and as both an anti-cancer and anti-infective agent.


>> Special thanks to Neal Price from Chillibobs, Martin Peacock of ZimmerPeacock, Hydroveg, and The University of Reading Soft Fruit Technology Group for supporting the work of the SCI Horticulture Committee at BBC Gardeners’ World Live.

>> Our resident gardening expert, Geoff Dixon, provides plenty of gardening tips on the SCIBlog.

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.

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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.

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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.

Agrifood

Crop rotation, seaweed extracts, lime, and a range of organic materials can all improve soil health and crop yields. Professor Geoff Dixon shows you several ways to improve your soil.

Rapidly rising costs of living are affecting all aspects of life. Increasing costs of fertilisers are affecting food production, both commercially and in gardens and allotments.

Wholesale prices of fertilisers have jumped four-fold from £250 to £1,000 per tonne within six months. All forms of garden fertilisers are now much more expensive. Crops, especially vegetables, only thrive if provided with adequate nutrition (see nitrogen-deficient lettuce below). Consequently, fertiliser use must become more efficient.

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Nitrogen deficiency in lettuce.

Healthy, fertile soils achieved through good management are key to this process. That ensures roots can take up the nutrients needed in quantities that result in balanced, healthy growth.

Soil pH is a major regulator of nutrient availability for roots. Between pH 6.5 to 7.5, the macro nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are fully available for root uptake. Below and above these values, nutrient absorption becomes less efficient.

>> How much soil cultivation do you need for your vegetables? Find out more in Prof Dixon's blog on cultivation.

As a result, soluble nutrients are wasted and washed by rainfall below the root zones. Acidic soils can be improved by liming in the autumn. Sources of lime derived from crushed limestone require up to six months to cause changes in soil pH values. Lime should be used in ornamental gardens with caution as it can result in micronutrient deficiencies.

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Iron deficiency in wisteria.

Soil health and fertility are greatly increased by adding organic materials such as farmyard manure and well-made composts. Increasing soil carbon content helps mitigate climate change while raising fertiliser use efficiencies.

Beneficial soil biological life such as earthworms, insects, benign bacteria and fungi are greatly encouraged when you increase soil humus content. Using crop rotations, which include legumes, raises natural levels of soil nitrogen. This is a result of legumes’ symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Leafy vegetables such as brassicas require large amounts of nitrogen and, hence, should follow legumes in a rotation. Avoiding soil compaction encourages adequate aeration, benefiting root respiration and providing oxygen for other organisms.

Organic materials are of great value in ornamental gardens when applied as top dressings in late autumn or early spring. This provides two benefits: a slow release of nutrients into the root zones as decomposition occurs, and prevention of weed growth.

Inorganic fertiliser use can be further minimised by using proprietary seaweed extracts. These contain macro- and micro-nutrients plus several natural biostimulant compounds that aid healthy ornamental plant growth and flowering (illustration no 3 rose Frűhlingsgold).

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Rose frűhlingsgold

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

Careers

In the first of our new Careers for Chemistry Postdocs series, Rachel Ellis, Senior Client Proposal Coordinator at drug development company Quotient Sciences, speaks about putting her chemistry skills to the test in a new setting and integrating scientific knowledge with people skills.

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Rachel Ellis, Senior Client Proposal Coordinator at Quotient Sciences

Tell us about your career path to date
In my current role as a Senior Client Proposal Coordinator, my primary responsibility is to support the Business Development team by collating technical information from the different business units at Quotient Sciences to prepare proposals that meet the prospective clients’ needs, spanning multiple disciplines of drug development.

I work with subject matter experts in Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API) synthesis and scale-up, carbon-14 isotope labelling, formulation development, analytical services and drug product manufacturing to generate complex written proposals for clients looking to accelerate their drug development programmes.

I started my career in chemistry with a Master’s degree from The University of York, which encompassed a year-long industrial placement with a speciality chemicals company in the Netherlands. This was a fantastic opportunity to put my chemistry skills to the test for the first time in an industrial setting and informed my decision to explore a career in chemistry outside of academia.

Following completion of my degree, I started working life as a Research Chemist within a global contract research organisation (CRO). The position was a perfect fit for my interests at the time; it was organic synthesis-focused, within the pharmaceutical sector and involved face-to-face interaction with clients.

After 18 months in the role, I identified my strengths in communication and relationship building so took the decision to pursue a career outside of the laboratory, moving into scientific recruitment where I could apply my scientific knowledge and soft skills in equal measure. I spent four years in scientific recruitment where I developed an array of new skills including networking, negotiating, influencing, account management, people management and performance evaluation.

Following a busy four years, I decided to take some personal time to focus on priorities outside of my career and embarked on a twelve-month career break. This was a fantastic opportunity to reassess my skills, interests and objectives, which ultimately brought me into my current role in proposal development. The position perfectly integrates my scientific knowledge and people skills and offers opportunities for continuous development in a dynamic sector.

What is a typical day like in your job?
A typical day as a Proposal Coordinator involves the evaluation of proposal requests from clients, technical discussions with subject matter experts to define project requirements, the preparation of comprehensive proposals including technical writing, pricing assessments and resource planning and any additional client engagement activities to support the proposal award.

Typically, I would lead the preparation of several proposals at any one given time which may include one or more drug development services.

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Rachel Ellis seeks to help deliver life-changing medicines in her current role.

Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?
I particularly enjoy engaging with new clients to discuss how we can support them to accelerate the delivery of life-changing medicines to the market with greater speed and efficiency. I also enjoy the diversity of tasks involved in my role (scientific discussions, technical writing, pricing activities and project planning) and the balance between working independently and collaboratively as a team.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
As my role involves supporting multiple proposals at any one given time, time management and prioritisation can be challenging to ensure both internal and external deadlines are met. Organisational skills and open communication are key to ensuring projects are delivered on time and client engagement is maintained.

>> Interested in joining SCI’s Young Chemists’ Panel? Find out more on the Young Chemists Panel's webpage.

How do you use the skills you obtained during your degree in your job?
The breadth of scientific knowledge gained from my degree has provided a robust foundation for my current role and enables my participation in technical discussions across multiple scientific disciplines. Report writing, time management and attention to detail are also key skills that I now apply on a day-to-day basis.

Which other skills are required in the work you do?
My current role requires collaboration between many individuals (both internally and externally) across a multitude of disciplines, including technical experts, project managers, business development teams and financial teams.

Strong interpersonal skills are key to ensuring all parties are engaged and aligned in decision making processes. Effective communication skills are also the foundation for a career within any client-facing environment.

Is there any advice you would give to others interested in pursuing a similar career path?
In general, I would strongly advise investing time to evaluate the variety of roles available within the science sector. Don’t be afraid to explore opportunities outside of the norm. Over the course of my career to date, my eyes have been opened to the breadth of roles available within science that are not necessarily laboratory-based, such as regulatory affairs, quality assurance, medical communications and commercial positions.

I would also advise regular self-evaluation to assess your strengths and areas of interest at any given time to assist in the building of a personalised career development plan. This will help to focus your attention on opportunities to develop the skills you need and seek out exposure to relevant activities either within your current organisation (i.e. attending client calls/visits or developing interpersonal skills through participation in cross-departmental activities) or through voluntary work and networking.

>> Interested in a career in science communication? Read Suze Kundu’s inspiring story.

Health & Wellbeing

We caught a tantalising glimpse of the next generation wearable technology at this year’s Bright SCIdea challenge final.

When we look at our FitBits or Apple Watches, we wonder what they could possibly monitor next. We know the fluctuations of our heartbeat, how a few glasses of wine affect our quality of sleep, and the calories burnt during that run in the park. But what’s next?

If the amazing wearable devices pitched by just three of our Bright SCIdea finalists are anything to go by, then we can look forward to not just next generation health monitoring but possible in-situ treatment too.

Measuring stress and managing diabetes

In recent times, medics have learnt far more about stress and its effect on our health. Indeed, stress was the focus of Happy BioPatch (from Oxford University and Manchester University) technology. The second place team has incorporated an IP-protected enzyme within a patch that measures your stress levels (by detecting the levels of cortisol in your sweat) throughout the day.

This information migrates from body to phone and notifies you if your stress levels are too high. One of many exciting aspects of this technology is that it could be used by physicians to check if patients need treatment for depression and prevent the serious consequences of stress. As one of the judges said, ‘I like it because it’s preventative.’

From mental health to physical health, two of the other finalists use wearable devices to address maladies in in-situ. BioTech Inov, from the University of Coimbra in Portugal, has developed plans for a subcutaneous biomedical device that tracks the blood sugar levels in diabetes patients. This technology would enable the wearer to track their blood sugar levels and let them know if trouble is lurking.

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The latest smart watches track your body temperature, sleep quality, and can even detect electrodermal activity on your skin to gauge stress levels. | Editorial image credit: Kanut Photo / Shutterstock
Releasing heat and magnetic fields

Another intriguing development was the in-device treatment developed by the Hatton Cross team (comprising students from the University of Warwick, Imperial College London and Queen Mary University of London). The team is developing wearable technology that can detect wrist pain from sport, or the types of repetitive stress injuries arising from typing or writing too much.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the technology is the potential for in-device treatment. On the preventative side, the device could use vibration to alert users that their wrists are under strain. They also mentioned using heat from the device, or the release of a 0.05 Tesla magnetic field, to relax the muscles.

Another really insightful comment on the technology came from one of the judges. Dr Sarah Skerratt suggested that this type of technology - which is subtly attuned to the movements of the hand and wrist - could theoretically be used in the early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease. That is not to say there aren’t regulatory issues with developing wearable technologies for medical purposes, as the judges pointed out, but the potential of such devices is huge.

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Wearable devices could be used to help diabetes sufferers, such as this Insulin Management System used by those with type 1 diabetes. | Editorial image credit: Maria Wan / Shutterstock

The staggering thing is that the technologies pitched by the Bright SCIdea finalists are just three of the myriad innovations being developed around the world at the moment.

Thirty years ago, few of us could have imagined that we would have a personal computer, music system, TV, watch, video, phone, camera, and games console all encapsulated within a single box that fits in our pockets. In 30 years’ time, we will scarcely be able to believe the health capabilities of the devices worn on our wrists and bodies.

Perhaps you will have heard of them first during the Bright SCIdea challenge?

Careers

What makes the Canada Awards so special, and which attributes do the winners share? We asked Bob Masterson, chair of SCI Canada’s Nominations Committee.

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Bob Masterson, Chair, SCI Canada Nominations Committee

Why are the Canada Awards special to you?

The chemistry industry in Canada is an important industry – Canada’s third largest manufacturing sector with shipments of more than $80 billion (£48m approx.) a year. Behind that economic impact, however, are people. And, among those people are leaders.

The SCI Canada awards identifies both the lifetime leaders, as well as emerging student leaders in the business of chemistry. This serves to celebrate the achievements and inspire others in their pursuit of innovative chemistries.

What is so unique about the Canada Medal and what attributes have the previous winners had? Similarly, is there anything that binds the winners of these other prestigious awards?

The Canada Medal is unique in part due to its prosperity. It has been awarded since 1939. Looking at past Medal winners in aggregate, one can associate these individuals with being builders. Many individuals do good work in safely and efficiently operating their facilities. The Medal winners, however, are the builders.

They have attracted and deployed significant capital to build out the chemistry industry to ensure future prosperity for all Canadians. This is no small task in an industry dominated by global multinationals and very few truly domestic companies in Canada.

>> Find out more about the group and their awards on our SCI Canada Group page.

Would you mind explaining how the nominations committee comes to a decision on the award winners?

The Committee is made up of individuals with strong connections to industry and academia. They use their own experiences and solicit input from colleagues and other organisations to develop a list of potential candidates.

Committee members wishing to propose a candidate must prepare a short testimonial of why they have identified the candidate. The committee considers those testimonials while also looking for balance and diversity across industry and academia, Canada’s many regions, different types of chemistry, as well as representation across Canada’s highly diverse population.

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The Canada Awards celebrate the best in Canadian chemistry.

Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to in the pre-awards seminar?

The seminar gives us an opportunity to step back and reflect on the role and opportunity of chemistry as Canada transitions to be more sustainable. I look forward to hearing experts and people’s views on the important question of how we get there and what chemistry can contribute.

Why will it be so important to stage the awards in person this year (if possible)?

This year looks to be a special year. It will have been four years since SCI Canada last held an in-person Awards program. We all need some real time with real people. It’s long overdue and, for many, will be the first in-person event of any kind in over two years. I am sure there will be a lot of emotions.

The SCI Canada Awards 2022 will be held on 5 May 2022, in Toronto. Register your attendance on our event page.

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

Science & Innovation

From learning what appeals to investors and increasing the public’s awareness of your products, there are huge benefits to be gained from winning competitions such as Bright SCIdea. So, how can you benefit from entering and what’s in store from this year’s shortlisted teams?

There was a fine article recently in Nature that crystallised the many benefits of entering science competitions, which extend far beyond the coveted prize money.

Winning the competition can take your product from obscurity into the eyes and minds of the public. Importantly, winning immediately gives your innovation credibility as your product (and your vision for it) will inevitably have been vetted by a team of expert judges.

You will also gain valuable publicity. Not only will the organisers promote these innovations, the new-found exposure will increase traffic to your own website and social channels.

Another really important facet of these competitions is that they help develop business sense in line with scientific innovation. In the aforementioned Nature piece, Ulrich Betz, Vice-president of Innovation at Merck, said: ‘Joining competitions can be a useful way for researcher-entrepreneurs to learn what appeals to investors and companies — training that many academic researchers lack… Participants have told me they’ve become more confident working in science and business after taking part.’

Indeed, this tallies with the experiences of last year’s BrightSCIdea winners, Metallogen. The team developed a novel nanoparticle spray that assists the natural process of phytoremediation to extract rare metals from mining. These metals can be sold on the market while decontaminating land next to mining sites at the same time.

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Last year’s Bright SCIdea winners used a novel approach to boost metal recovery on old mining sites and decontaminate the land.

However, having an ingenious idea is one thing. Bringing it to market is another. And this is where the training for all the shortlisted teams helped. Metallogen’s John O’Sullivan and Rafael Hunt-Stokes said: ‘The competition has also taught us how to carry out market research and put together a cogent business plan, with the pitching training giving us the ability to convey our business idea in a compelling manner to investors and other stakeholders.’

>> Inspired by Metallogen’s success at Bright SCIdea? Read more about them in our news article.

This year’s Bright SCIdeas

So, from network building to training and advice on key areas such as intellectual property, these competitions can sharpen your innovations and bring them to that all-important next stage. That’s exactly what the shortlisted teams for this year’s BrightSCIdea plan to do.

This year’s entrants have certainly taken it upon themselves to tackle some of society’s grandest challenges. The Eolic Wall team, hailing all the way from the National University of Engineering in Peru and Universidade Estadual Paulista in Brazil, has created a wind energy system to help in our low-carbon energy transition. The Unmasked team (from the University of Durham) is also seeking to address the UK energy crisis while tackling waste by producing insulation materials from disposable face masks.

In health, the BioTech Inov (University of Coimbra, Portugal) team has entered a ‘highly efficient and versatile nanotechnological subcutaneous biomedical device with a high lifespan’, and the Hatton Cross team (from University of Warwick, QMUL, and Imperial College, London) has also submitted a wearable device that aims to enhance the wearer’s quality of life.

In an effort to address mental wellbeing, the Happy BioPatch team (from Oxford University and Manchester University) has created ‘a wearable gadget which continuously monitors cortisol levels aiming to prevent serious consequences as a result of stress’. Finally, the CardiaTec team (from the University of Cambridge) is specialising in tackling cardiovascular disease.

There’s so much to be gained from being part of competitions such as BrightSCIdea. We can’t wait to hear from the leaders of tomorrow.

Who knows? Maybe this will be the first you hear from a future Nobel prize winner?

>> Keep an eye out on Twitter for all of the wonderful innovations in this year’s BrightSCIdea competition at: @SCIupdate.

Agrifood

How do flowers use fragrance to attract pollinators, and how do pollution and climate change hamper pollination? Professor Geoff Dixon tells us more.

‘Fragrance is the music of flowers’, said Eleanour Sophy Sinclair Rohde, an eminent mid 20th century horticulturist. But they are much more than that. Scents have fundamental biological purposes. Evolution has refined them as means for attracting pollinators and perpetuating the particular plant species emitting these scents.

There are complex biological networks connecting the scent producers and attracted pollinators within the prevailing environment. Plants flowering early in the year are generalist attractors. By late spring and early summer, scents attract more specialist pollinators as shown by studies of alpines growing in the USA Rocky Mountains. This is because there is a bigger diversity of pollinator activity as seasons advance. Scents are mixtures of volatile organic compounds with a prevalence of monoterpenes.

Environmental factors will affect scent emission. Natural drought, for example, changes flower development and reduces the volumes and intensity of scent production. The effectiveness of pollinating insects, such as bees, moths, hoverflies and butterflies is reduced by aerial pollution.

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Pheasant’s eye daffodils (Narcissus recurvus).

Studies showed there were 70% fewer pollinators in fields affected by diesel fumes, resulting in lower seed production. Pollinating insects do not find the flowers because nitrogenous oxides and ozone change the composition of scent molecules.

Extensive studies of changes in flowering dates show that climate change can severely damage scent–pollinator ecologies. Over the past 30 years, blooming of spring flowers has advanced by at least four weeks. Earlier flowering disrupts the evolved natural synchrony between scent emitters and insect activity and their breeding cycles. In turn that breaks the reproductive cycles of early flowering wild herbs, shrubs and trees, eventually leading to their extinction.

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The lilac bush, known for its evocative scent.

Heaven scent

Scents provide powerful mental and physical benefits for humankind. Pleasures are particularly valuable for those with disabilities especially those with impaired vision. Even modest gardens can provide scented pleasures.

Bulbs such as Pheasant’s eye daffodils (Narcissus recurvus) (illustration no 1), which flower in mid to late-spring, and lilacs (illustration no 2) are very rewarding scent sources.

Sweetly perfumed annuals such as mignonette, night-scented stocks, candytuft and sweet peas (illustration no 3) are easily grown from garden centre modules, providing pleasures until the first frosts.

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Sweet peas are easily grown from garden centre modules.

Roses are, of course, the doyenne of garden scents. Currently, Harlow Carr’s scented garden, near Harrogate, highlights the cultivars Gertrude Jekyll, Lady Emma Hamilton and Saint Cecilia as particularly effective sources of perfume. For larger gardens, lime or linden trees (Tilia spp) form profuse greenish-white blossoms in mid-season, laden with scents that bees adore.

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

Careers

Suze Kundu’s career has taken her from nanochemistry to science communication and even to presenting TV shows on the Discovery Channel. So, how did she go from academic to Head of Public Engagement at Digital Science, and what advice does she have for those looking to follow in her footsteps?

You’ve had a really varied career path. How did you get to where you are today?

Varied indeed! I categorise my career into two strands – doing science, and communicating science. And I’ve done both alongside one another for over a decade now. The former UK Chief Science Officer, Professor Sir Mark Wolport, once said that science isn’t finished until it is communicated. This is something that my alma mater, UCL (University College London) not only believes, but also supports.

Given that research is largely publicly funded, researchers owe it to the public to communicate progress and outputs. By creating opportunities for dialogue, this communication becomes a two-way process, which also benefits researchers who can conduct better-informed research that will help more of society.

As such, I was trained in being both a researcher as well as a public engagement practitioner during my undergraduate degree and during my PhD. I’ve been really lucky to have been able to keep both strands of my career running either concurrently or in combined roles. When I was an academic, I would do research, teaching and public engagement as part of my varied day job, and I also kept up with my science writing and TV presenting in my spare time. I now work at Digital Science, which is a research technology company that creates mostly software solutions for different aspects of the research cycle to help it be the best it can be.

At Digital Science, I headed up Engagement for three years, before recently moving on to a role that combines my engagement skills with my chemistry knowledge and my unashamed fangirling over our flagship platform, Dimensions, to support our newest addition to the family: Dimensions Life Science and Chemistry.

All of our software solutions are created with the research community in mind, and are often developed and refined in collaboration with actual users, so we know that our tools can help people overcome research challenges.

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

Thanks to my parents, my school and my university, I grew up fairly sheltered from a range of ‘-isms’ that may have resulted in my being put off a career in science. Being a woman, a woman of colour, and a woman who perhaps doesn’t conform to outdated stereotypes of what ‘scientists’ are like are all things I learnt can be hurdles to overcome in my career.

In many ways, I was glad that I had no idea that academia, for example, was such a challenging environment for underrepresented people, as I am not sure I would have pursued a career in it if I had known. Women in academia are often assigned teaching that covers the basics, and are frequently given tasks that require so-called ‘softer’ skills such as outreach, engagement and the admissions process. In a world where women have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition, this can often lead to burnout.

I did two things to overcome these challenges once I had identified them; firstly, I had some great allies that came to my aid. They helped me objectively highlight the inconsistencies in workload and expectations, and they were always on hand to offer advice to help me overcome hurdles. Secondly, I chose to leave academia for industry. I now work in an organisation where all the diverse facets that make up an individual are respected and welcomed.

My advice would be that, if you think a science career isn’t for you, you may not have found ‘your people’ yet. I assure you, though, that scientific careers are so much broader than just academia and traditional industry roles. Keep looking and use your networks to find your type of organisation, as I can guarantee that they’re out there somewhere.

Women in Chem - Suze Kundu

Suze Kundu

You’re very skilled at communicating complicated topics to non-specialist audiences. How do you do it?

I was lucky enough to attend UCL for my undergraduate and PhD. UCL has a long history of engagement with a range of communities. It is thanks to opportunities I had during my degrees there that I started to really hone my communication skills.

Strangely enough, I think my acting, drama, dance and musical theatre skills have also played a part in building my skills, as there is always an element of performance in everything that we do. You need to know your audience, and know what motivates them, to really engage with them.

I do believe that everyone can learn and develop communication skills though. I’m not saying everyone needs to present evidence in a parliamentary inquest. There are so many different ways to communicate research, whether it is through writing, drawing, even music and dance.

It could even be as simple as just engaging with your PR team to find support in sharing your research more broadly. It’s a really collaborative space though, so if you want to give it a go or learn more, find some people whose communications style you like and get in touch. If they’ve got the capacity I’m sure they will either be able to help, or at least point you in the right direction.

Which mentors have helped you along the way?

Firstly, my parents, who made me believe that I could pursue anything I wanted to and they’ve been nothing but supportive. My husband is also totally wonderful, even though he wishes I worked more sensible hours. Secondly, I have a set of amazing friends that remind me that I can do things, even when I doubt myself.

Finally, there are some amazing heroes-turned-allies out there that have supported me along the way. My top four would be my ever-supportive PhD supervisor Professor Ivan Parkin at UCL, my old chemistry teacher Mr Brian McVicar, my science communication hero Professor Mark Miodownik at UCL, and my academic role model Professor Mary Ryan at Imperial College London. Our CEO at Digital Science, Dr Daniel Hook, is also an inspiration and an example of having both a career in enterprise and leadership, AND a career in academia.

>> Read about Dr Anita Shukla’s groundbreaking work in treating infection and developing drug delivery systems in our interview with Dr Shukla.

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?

In academia, my experiences have not been great. We spend a lot of time, money and effort recruiting a more diverse range of people into science degrees but very little time retaining those people in the profession.

Though things are improving, changing an entire culture is slow going, and I think academia is still fundamentally built on a framework that rewards and promotes cultures and behaviours that do not allow for inclusion.

We have a long way to go to breaking down those barriers to inclusion. We’ve worked with a range of actors in the research industry through the Research on Research Institution (RoRI), but culture change takes time. It requires buy-in at all levels and globally across the profession, as well as a lot of resource to build a better framework of recognition and reward to encourage inclusion and retention within the academic profession.

In industry, I think we are in a much better place in terms of equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility, though there are of course still challenges that need to be overcome. Organisations have more control over how they nurture their employee communities, and I think it can therefore be easier to see changes in culture sooner than in academia.

There is still a long way to go to make things as inclusive as they can be, and to achieve real representation of society in industry, but by working with underrepresented communities we are able to co-create initiatives that will hopefully change things for the better.

Is there any advice you would give to young professionals looking to pursue a career path similar to yours, especially young women?

Do it! Science is such a rewarding profession, and so varied too. You’re able to combine your passion for science with your interest in a whole host of things. Do, however, be aware that you may not immediately find an environment that can support and nurture you in a way that works for you. They are out there though, so keep networking, keep looking, and be your truest self. You’ll find your people soon enough, and from there on in, it’s a great adventure.

Don’t be afraid to try things. You may well surprise yourself and start a career journey down a path you didn’t expect to find yourself on. And remember, no experience is wasted. Your skillset is always building up, and you’ll find yourself applying experiences and knowledge in ways you never expected you would.

Find a mentor or a range of mentors for different aspects of your career, and consider being a mentor for others too. You have a remarkable amount of knowledge and experience to share with others too.

>> In recent months, we’ve spoken to inspiring women who work in science. Read more about the stories of materials scientist Rhys Archer, EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellow and founder of Women of Science, and Jessica Jones, Applications Team Leader at Croda.

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

Sustainability & Environment

Why do we ignore climate change and what can we do about it? That’s what Toby Park, of The Behavioural Insights Team, explained in our latest SCItalk. Eoin Redahan reports.

Do any of these describe you?

A.I recycle whenever I can, but fly twice a year.
B.I switched to a renewable energy provider, but still drive to work twice a week.
C.I make sure all unnecessary lights are switched off in the house, but eat beef occasionally
D.I plan to live a greener lifestyle, but the real difference will be made at government level.

When it comes to climate change, most of us are full of good intentions. We want to do the right thing but when change becomes too difficult or inconvenient, people (like me) lapse into old habits. In his excellent talk, why we ignore climate change and what we can do about it, Toby Park explained these contradictions and outlined how ‘nudge’ behaviour can be used to tweak our habits.

Fundamentally, Park argued that most people mean well. After surveying a couple of thousand people in the lead-up to COP26, the Behavioural Insights Team found that 67% of respondents planned to take at least five new actions to tackle climate change and 99% said they would take at least one.

So, why then do we ignore climate change en masse? ‘We are like swimmers in a stream,’ Park said. ‘We have the opportunity to swim in one direction or another but we are in a stream that has a current.’

Hands holding up recyclable plastic and paper

We’re good at recycling but not as resolute when it comes to taking fewer flights.

Life is hard enough. We tend to do what is easy and affordable, but there are other reasons why we’re not falling over each other to buy electric vehicles or driving to the south of Spain for our holidays instead of flying.

The first is psychological distance. For many people, the prospect of climate change is too distant to take seriously. Unless you have woken up to find your kitchen submerged by flooding, its effects may seem far away; yet, the changes we must make are in the present.

The problem is, it’s sometimes hard to act when you cannot feel the urgency. So, people find it hard to frontload the hardship, as they see it. Park likened it to being told that you must have the hangover before you go drinking – and how many of us would choose that?

Second, we are experts at fooling ourselves. As Park noted, we’re all natural storytellers when it comes to crafting positive images of ourselves. We are the masters of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand we feel virtuous when we recycle paper, plastic, and food scraps, yet we’ll hop on a plane for that wedding in Dublin. 

‘We all have the tension of what’s in our own self interest and what’s altruistic or pro-social,’ Park said, adding a Robert Heinlein quote that encapsulates the human condition. ‘Man is not a rational animal,’ he said. Man is a rationalising animal.’

A third reason why we ignore climate change, according to Park, is that our actions rarely benefit us personally. If you buy an electric vehicle, the price of that new Tesla will sting and you’re not going to benefit from the carbon emissions saved. However, if there is collective action, everyone would benefit from cheaper electric vehicles to less filthy air.

So, what can we do about climate change?

Nudge behaviour

As was mentioned above, one of the foci of the Behavioural Insights Team is encouraging ‘nudge’ behaviour – what Park described as softly encouraging a certain type of behaviour without restricting choice. And it turns out, there are lots of ways to nudge us well-intentioned, self-centred creatures into healthier habit.

Examples of nudge behaviour are everywhere. In Switzerland, energy companies made green energy the default choice and people – out of either convenience or conscience – tended to stick with this option. Park mentioned how one canteen reduced food waste by up to 40% through the introduction of a small friction: removing the plastic trays (Thiagarajah and Getty 2013). In a similar sphere, he said Sainsbury’s Cafe increased orders of its plant-based meal options by calling items ‘field-grown’ rather than ‘meat-free’ or ‘plant-based’.

Park mentioned that we can motivate different behaviour by introducing a social element. He noted that solar panels were found to be socially contagious in California and parts of Europe, while the same has happened in the UK with the introduction of green number plates for electric vehicles.  

Comparing people to their peers is another useful way of changing habits for the better.  Benchmarking people’s behaviour against the norm – such as telling someone they use more energy than most customers – is one way of doing it. Publishing environmental performance league tables for organisations is another to encourage a climate-friendly approach.

If you don’t think these sorts of nudge behaviours don’t work, think of the humble plastic bag tax. When you take your own bags for your weekly shop, you might save just 30p on a £30 shop. But have you done it? And are you doing it still?

Unfortunately, there is no dancing around the fact that 60% of emissions reduction requires behaviour change, according to Park. So, nudge behaviour will help but we’ll be needing more power behind that elbow.

Vegan sausages in pan

What’s in a name? Language can have a profound effect on our choices. Now, who’s for a field-grown breakfast?

‘Small nudges aren’t enough,’ he said. ‘We also need to apply this lens to systemic, transformative change. That means finding smart ways to tilt the functioning of markets.

He said that consistent, long-term decision making is not only important for individuals but for businesses too.

‘Incentives are massively important for corporations,’ he added. ‘That would generally be my first port of call. That’s where the bigger impacts can be found.’

At the end of the talk, a member of the audience asked Park, simply, if there was hope? To answer that, he offered the example of plant-based food.

Not so long ago, many plant-based meat alternatives were the preserve of the few. However, consumer interest in plant-based foods has ‘mushroomed’ in recent years and retailers have responded with a swath of new food products.

‘Change can be runaway and self accelerating, Park said, ‘and we shouldn’t forget that solutions can scale exponentially… New norms can, all of a sudden, spread very quickly.’

>> To listen to Toby’s talk, go to YouTube

Health & Wellbeing

The clichés we use become so downtrodden that we often say them without thinking. How many times, for example, have you said you went with your gut on a certain decision?

As with many of these aphorisms, there appears to be genuine wisdom behind it. Scientists are learning all the time about the links between our guts and our brains, and recent findings from a California Institute of Technology-led (Caltech) study have added to our understanding of what’s going on behind our belly buttons.

This research contends that a particular molecule, produced by our gut bacteria, has contributed to anxious behaviour in mice. The Caltech researchers say that a small-molecule metabolite that lives in the mouse’s gut can travel up to the brain and alter the function of its cells. This adds further grist to the belief that there is a link between our microbiome, brain function, and mood.

The researchers behind the Nature paper say previous studies found that people with certain neurological conditions have different gut bacteria communities. Furthermore, studies in mice revealed that manipulating these communities can alter neurological states.

>> Curious about which herbs could boost your wellbeing and how they work in your body? Then read our recent blog on this topic.

Their study investigated the bacterial metabolite 4-ethylphenyl sulphate (4EPS) that is produced in the intestines of humans and mice and circulates throughout the body. In particular, they focused on the effect of 4EPS on mouse anxiety. For the sake of the study, mouse anxiety measured the creature’s behaviour in a new space - whether it hid in a new space as if from a predator or whether it was willing to sniff around and explore it.

The researchers compared two groups of lab mice: those colonised with pairs of bacteria that were genetically engineered to produce 4EPS, and a second group that was colonised with similar bacteria that couldn’t produce 4EPS. They then observed the rodents’ behaviour after being introduced to a new area.

SCIblog - 24 February 2022 - Mouse has gut feeling - image of a mouse running into a hole in the wall (outside)

Some mice become anxious when introduced to new spaces, and this is reflected both in the gut and the brain.

The results were very interesting indeed. The researchers observed that the group of mice with 4EPS spent far less time exploring this new place and more time hiding compared to the second group of non-4EPS mice. They also found that brain regions associated with fear and anxiety were more activated within this first group.

>> Interested in drug discovery? Why not attend our upcoming event at the Francis Crick Institute, London, UK.

When the mice were treated with a drug that could overpower the negative effects of 4EPS, their behaviour became less anxious. A similar study in Nature Medicine also found that mice were less anxious when treated with an oral drug that soaked up and removed 4EPS from their bodies.

SCIblog - 24 February 2022 - Mouse has gut feeling - image of a young women, stressed with her head in her hands

The Caltech-led research could inform our understanding of anxiety and mood conditions.

‘It’s an exciting proof-of-concept finding that a specific microbial metabolite alters the activity of brain cells and complex behaviours in mice, but how this is happening remains unknown,’ says researcher Sarkis Mazmanian, in whose laboratory much of the research took place.

‘The basic framework for brain function includes integration of sensory and molecular cues from the periphery and even the environment. What we show here is similar in principle but with the discovery that the neuroactive molecule is of microbial origin. I believe this work has implications for human anxiety or other mood conditions.’

So, our predecessors were right: there’s a lot more to those gut feelings than you think.

>> Read the Nature paper on the Nature magazine website.

Sustainability & Environment

How well equipped is the UK’s battery supply chain to meet the growing demand for electric vehicles? We took a closer look to mark National Battery Day.

Main image editorial credit: Phaustov/Shutterstock

For many of us, it’s exciting to see the growth of the electric vehicle industry. Our personal transport will be cleaner. Our roads will be quieter. Indeed, from 2030 the UK government will ban the sale of pure internal combustion engine cars, and the widening role of ultra-low emission zones will hit many motorists in the pocket. Whether we like it or not, change is coming.

That does not mean we are prepared for it. As demand for electric and hybrid vehicles accelerates, and more stringent trade rules put pressure on having a local battery supply chain (stricter Rules of Origin for trade will come into force by 2027), the UK must get its complete supply chain up to speed.

Battery supply chain challenges

For this to happen, chemists, suppliers, manufacturers, innovators, government representatives, and others need to make strides in several areas. Over the past year, a group of more than 50 participants at SCI’s Energising the UK Battery Supply Chain workshops have identified next generation technology, the scale-up of innovative technologies, the skills and knowledge base, and standards for materials testing as areas for improvement.

SCIblog - 17 February 2022 - Improving the UK battery supply chain - image of lithium mining

Brine pools for lithium mining. There is a global clamour for raw materials including lithium.

The UK also needs a consistent stream of key battery materials. It needs technologies that reduce the dependence on some of the current materials for hybrid and electric vehicles. It must integrate efficient battery recycling and manufacturing approaches to reduce its dependence on long-distance imports and much coveted raw materials such as lithium, nickel and cobalt.

It is a big challenge. As David Bott, SCI’s Head of Innovation (who helped run SCI’s five Energising the UK Battery Supply Chain workshops) said, there isn’t enough of a UK electric battery supply chain at the moment.

>> Find out what the experts thought about improving the UK battery supply chain in our Energising the UK Battery Supply Chain Part 5 video.

David did note that the UK Government (through UK Research and Innovation) has been investing in the scale-up of cell assembly through the Energy Innovation Centre at WMG (from 2012/3) and the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (through UKRI and the Automotive Propulsion Centre). It will also support the construction of Britishvolt’s electric battery ‘gigafactory’ in Blyth, Northumberland.

However, he added that: ‘All of them, however, are talking about the assembly of the cells and 60% of the value is in the materials. We need a battery materials supply chain in the UK – not all the way back to mining, of course, but as much as we can.’

SCIblog - 17 February 2022 - Improving the UK battery supply chain - image of an electric vehicle battery

Recent developments in the UK have been heartening, but many more will be needed to create a viable battery supply chain.

Smoother collaboration is also required. ‘We need recognition that the UK needs more support for the chemistry part of the supply chain,’ he said. ‘We need a lot more collaboration – engineers need to understand that chemistry companies would engage more if they understood the size of the opportunity. The main thing we need at the moment is awareness of the opportunities.’

Promising developments

Despite the difficulties, green shoots have appeared recently. In late January, the government announced that it has backed Britishvolt’s aforementioned plans to build large volumes of electric vehicle batteries (through the Automotive Transformation Fund). According to the government, the factory will produce enough batteries for more than 300,000 vehicles a year and create 3,000 direct, highly-skilled skilled jobs. Britishvolt have also announced a partnership with Glencore to recycle battery materials.

>> Sign up for our next Energising the UK’s Battery Supply Chain workshop.

Oxford-based chemical products manufacturer Nexeon has secured US$80 million (about £59 million) in funding to scale up the production of its silicon anode materials. Finally, Sheffield-based sodium-ion battery technology company Faradion has been acquired by Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries for £100 million. A further £25 million will be invested as growth capital to accelerate the commercial rollout of its sodium-ion battery technology.

Faradion says that its sodium-ion technology provides ‘significant advantages compared to lithium-ion technology, including greater sustainability, a patented zero-volt safe transport and storage capability’.

So, there is some good news to celebrate as you gather around with your families to celebrate National Battery Day. The battery supply chain, unfortunately, must wait for another day.

What is the future of electric cars? Find out more in this Autotrader article.

Sustainability & Environment

Machine-made snow has made this Winter Olympics happen in Beijing, but at what cost?

If you take a look at the weather in Beijing right now, you’ll notice that it isn’t really that cold. You can enjoy daily highs of about 8°C in early February, which we’d be happy enough here in London.

These mild conditions have been a problem for the organisers of the Winter Olympics, which are currently taking place in Beijing and environs. Indeed, the distinct dearth of snow has meant that the Beijing Games have become the first to be run largely on artificial snow.

SCIblog - 08 February 2022 - Artificial Snow - image of a number of yellow snow cannons / snow making machines

Snowmaking machines spray artificial snow on a ski slope during the FIS Ski Cross World Cup, a test event for the 2022 Winter Olympics

For some, the presence of 130 fan-driven snow generators and 300 snow-making guns spewing out machine-made snow represents a waste of resources, even if these machines are powered entirely by renewable energy.

In all, 49 million gallons of water will reportedly be used to make the Games possible. So, to say they are water-intensive is something of an understatement. However, the issues don’t end there. There is also an issue with the type of snow produced.

>> What can you do about climate change? Register for this free talk to find out more.

SCIblog - 08 February 2022 - Artificial Snow - image of a skier on a slope

Some claim artificial snow creates more dangerous conditions for athletes.

According to the recent Slippery Slopes report written by the Sport Ecology Group (in conjunction with Loughborough University UK and Protect Our Winters UK), the composition of artificial snow can create dangerous conditions for the athletes. Basically, it creates a faster, harder surface that could result in more severe injuries.

The reason given for this is that artificial snow is almost 30% ice and 70% air, compared to natural snow, which is closer to 10% ice and 90% air. This ‘grittier ice-pack’ creates tougher conditions for athletes, many of whom travel at great speeds down steep slopes.

In the same report, former Winter Olympian Laura Donaldson explains why these machines create suboptimal snow. ‘The artificial snowflakes they generate have cylindrical structures (unlike the far more intricate structure of natural flakes),’ she said, ‘which mould together to form bulletproof ice conditions.’

Furthermore, this less permeable layer of ice may hinder the growth of vegetation, and the noise of the machines disrupts wildlife. In some resorts, chemicals are also added to create longer lasting snow.

At Beijing, the organisers claim not to have used chemicals in the snow-making process. However, others rely on machines and chemical-kind for a helping hand. According to the Sport Ecology Group report, a pesticide was used at the 2010 Games in Vancouver to allow the water to freeze at higher temperatures; and snow hardeners such as salt and fertiliser have been used to improve snow quality on cross-country skiing trails.

If hosting the Winter Olympics in an area without much snow seems crazy to you, it might not be quite as daft as you think. The bleak reality is that global warming is reducing the number of venues that can host this enormous event without artificial help.

According to an academic paper by Scott et. al. in 2014, only six of the last 19 Winter Olympics host cities will still have the climatic conditions to do so by the 2080s. Of course, that doesn’t take artificial snow into account.

So, when you see Qatar being awarded the 2050 Winter Games, don’t tell me you haven’t been warned.

Science & Innovation

How do you create an investor-ready intellectual property (IP) approach to help you secure that all-important funding? We asked Charlotte Crowhurst, patent attorney at leading European IP firm, Potter Clarkson.

As businesses focus on growth in the post-pandemic world, innovation is vital. Being able to turn good ideas into a commercial success – at scale – can have a transformational impact on the wider economy. Scientists and engineers have been front and centre in providing solutions to the health crisis, but they will also play an essential role in the economic recovery.

Of course, even the most ground-breaking invention requires investment to become a viable market proposition. Yet, the road to securing funding is not always straightforward or clear, with various hurdles to overcome before winning the trust and backing of investors. Securing funding is fiercely competitive territory, as investors apply a forensic approach to identifying the risks and opportunities with each investment target.

Intellectual property alone will not likely secure funding, but a weak IP position could significantly impact on valuation – by as much as 70% – or even see an investor walk away altogether. What’s more, for return-hungry investors, new research shows that SMEs with intellectual property rights generate 68% higher revenues per employee than those who don’t.

For ambitious, high growth SMEs to put themselves in the strongest position to attract and secure funding, there are five key ingredients that make up an investor-ready IP approach:

  1. Clear ownership

This is the number one deal breaker. Make sure there are no grey areas on ownership of IP. Any grey areas surrounding who ‘owns’ IP will signal alarm bells for a potential investor.

  1. Effective innovation capture

Understanding what IP your business may have and what you might be able to protect is not always obvious. It is always worth seeking professional advice early on to determine which IP rights you might be able to secure.

Robust processes and procedures are also important. Create an IP register and keep it up to date monthly so that opportunities are not overlooked. Do not underestimate the importance of robust processes and procedures.

SCIblog - 01 February 2022 - graphic of set person stealing an idea (metaphor)

Understanding what IP you need to protect isn’t always obvious.
  1. Sound strategy

Put yourself in an investor’s shoes – they are focused on whether you can provide a return on their investment. They are looking for clarity in your approach – a strategically sound business plan, where it is easy to see how the IP rights will help to achieve the commercial objectives.

>> Need more information on filing a chemistry patent. Read our blog on chemistry patent filing.

  1. Market awareness

A growing business can be all-consuming, but a sound IP approach takes into consideration the wider marketplace in which your business is operating and any potential third-party rights.

  1. Good timing

Knowing when to act is critical to a sound IP approach. Knowing which steps to take and when to take them can have a critical impact on the strength of your IP position.

The end goal

Ultimately, the end goal with IP due diligence is to instil confidence and build trust with a potential investor. While investors are prepared to take on varying degrees of risk, SMEs will always need to show an IP approach that doesn’t signal alarm bells.

Put simply, those SMEs who are clear on these five areas will reduce the chances of IP being the reason an investor walks away.

>> To read more on ensuring your IP is investor-ready, visit the Potter Clarkson website here.

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

Agrifood

The plant-based meat alternative market is growing rapidly, and cell-cultured meats could be coming soon to your dinner plate once they receive regulatory approval. Gavin Dundas, Patent Attorney at Reddie & Grose, provides his expert perspective on the state of the meat alternative market.

Which is receiving more emphasis based on patent activity: lab-grown meat or plant-based meat alternatives?

Comparing cultivated meat to plant-based meat is a bit like comparing apples and oranges.
Plant-based meat is here - it’s in shops, and it’s in growing numbers of restaurants and fast-food outlets. Even McDonald’s – arguably the world’s most well-known hamburger outlet – released its first plant-based burger in the UK on 13 October 2021: the aptly-named McPlant. The McPlant has been accredited as vegan by the Vegetarian Society, and includes vegan sauce, vegan cheese and a plant-based burger co-developed with Beyond Meat.

Cell-cultured meat is a very different prospect, as cellular agriculture is more high-tech, so companies entering that sector require a higher degree of specialised technical expertise. Companies delving into cultivated meat also require a fair bit of funding, as cultivated meat has not been approved for sale in any country other than Singapore, so it is not yet possible to sell their products to consumers.

The reality at the moment is that plant-based meat alternatives have a huge head-start in the marketplace, while cultivated meat is not yet on sale in most countries. So, for most new companies looking to make money in the alternative protein market, plant-based products are likely to be the easier way to start.

On the other hand, this means that the plant-based meat market is more crowded already, while cultivated meat companies are investing in the hope of getting a bigger share of that market once it matures.

In which food types have you seen a particular surge in patent applications, for example plant-based meat alternatives or lab-grown meat?

Based on searches using patent classification codes commonly used for plant-based meats and lab-grown meat (known as ‘cell-cultured meat’ or ‘cultivated meat’), it appears that there are significantly more patent applications in the field of plant-based meats, but that patent filings relating to cultivated meat are growing more quickly.

Of all the patent publications relating to plant-based meats, 15.2% were published since the start of 2020. Of the patent publications relating to cultivated meats, 27.6% were published since the start of 2020.

This outcome is probably not surprising. Plant-based meats have been around much longer and are now widely established in the market, so many more companies have had time and opportunity to file patent applications for innovations in this area. Cultivated meats are at an earlier stage in their development, but with a large number of new companies having been formed in this area in the last few years, it is not surprising that this has resulted in a high growth rate of patent applications as cultivated meat gets closer to commercial reality.

SCIblog - 27 January 2022 - The Alternative Meat Market - image of Beyond Meat brand

Beyond Meat’s plant-based meat substitutes have reached the mainstream. | Jonathan Weiss/Shutterstock

How much movement has there been on the equipment and other innovations that will facilitate large-scale meal alternative manufacturing?

There is a huge difference between small-scale production of cultivated meat in a laboratory, and the large-scale manufacturing that would be needed to supply supermarkets and restaurants throughout whole countries and - eventually - the whole world.

Growing meat using cellular agriculture involves the use of animal cell lines to grow animal products in bioreactors, where the cells are immersed in a growth medium that feeds nutrients to the cells as they develop. Over the last decade there have been huge advances in these processes, but as demand for cultivated meat grows there will definitely be continued innovation to improve efficiency and scale-up manufacturing capacity.

Commercial growth medium is currently costly, so the development of more cost-effective growth media is likely to be an area of much research. Another ongoing challenge is the development of high-quality cell lines and scaffold materials that are suitable for high-quality, large-scale production.

Bioreactor design is also expected to be a big area of innovation - up until now, bench-top bioreactors have in most cases been sufficient to meet the demands of cultivated meat R&D, but as demand increases bigger and better bioreactors will be needed. A particular challenge will be to design bioreactors capable of growing thick tissue layers on a commercially viable scale.

While there is scope for innovation in all of these areas, some companies are already ready to manufacture their cultivated meat products on a large scale. Future Meat Technologies, for example, opened its first industrial cultivated meat production facility in June 2021 in Rehovot, Israel - that facility is reportedly capable of producing 500kg of cultivated meat products every day. In November 2021, Upside Foods opened its first large-scale cultivated meat production plant in Emeryville, California, with the capacity to produce 22,680kg of cultured meat annually.

At the moment, however, a lack of regulatory approval is holding back cultivated meat production. While there are a number of companies that apparently have products ready for market, many will be unwilling to plough huge amounts of money into large-scale manufacturing facilities until they have regulatory approval that lets them actually sell their products.

Thinking of filing a chemistry patent in 2022? Here’s what you need to know.

SCIblog - 27 January 2022 - The Alternative Meat Market - image of cultivated meat

The UK has cutting-edge companies in the cultivated meat field.

Have any innovations or areas of innovation struck you as particularly exciting? If so, could you tell us more about them?

I am a meat-eater trying to cut down on my consumption of meat, due to a mixture of environmental and ethical motivations. So, as a consumer I’ve been very excited to see the arrival of plant-based meat into the mainstream.

I am particularly excited to try cultivated meat once it is approved for sale. Not long ago ‘lab-grown’ meat seemed like science-fiction, so to get to a point where you can go out and buy it will be incredible. So many people are unwilling to cut down on meat because they like the taste, and because their favourite meals are meat-based, so cultivated meat might hopefully give that same experience with fewer of the drawbacks of animal meat.

I am also excited to see the diversity of cultivated meat products. Cultivated meat chicken nuggets and beef burgers are the products that spring to mind when cell-cultured meat is mentioned, but there are companies out there developing cultivated bacon, pork belly, salmon and tuna, to name a few.

What are the chemistry challenges for those creating plant-based meat alternatives? Find out here.

Given what you know about the patent landscape, where do you think the meat alternative industry is heading, and at what sort of pace do you foresee significant change?

I think the meat alternative industry is only going to continue to grow, as concern over the environmental impact of our eating habits is growing, and the quality and availability of meat alternatives is getting better.

The plant-based meat industry is already doing well, and I expect it to continue on its upward trajectory. I expect companies in this field to continue to file patent applications for their innovations, and eventually we might see some of those patents being enforced to safeguard valuable market shares for the patent owners.

Cultivated meat is the sector that seems to be poised for the most significant change. At the moment, the lack of regulatory approval seems to be the thing holding it back, but if that hurdle is removed there are UK companies aiming to get cultivated meats into shops by 2023. The UK is lucky enough to be home to a number of cutting-edge companies in the field, and a recent report by Oxford Economics researchers forecast that cultivated meat could be worth £2.1 billion to the UK economy by 2030.

The idea of cultivated meat is unlikely to appeal to everyone, so I imagine that it will start out as something of a novelty, but I’d expect to see the availability and range of cultivated meat products grow significantly over the next decade.

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

Agrifood

How much soil cultivation do you need for your vegetables? Professor Geoff Dixon explains all.

Cultivating soil is as old as horticulture itself. Basically, three processes have evolved over time. Primary cultivation involves inversion which buries weeds, adds organic matter and breaks up the soil profile, encouraging aeration and avoiding waterlogging.

Secondary cultivation prepares a fine tilth as a bed for sowing small seeded crops such as carrots or beetroot. In the growing season, tertiary cultivation maintains weed control, preventing competition for resources (illustration no. 1) such as light, nutrients and water while discouraging pest and disease damage.

SCIblog - Professor Geoff Dixon - Soil Cultivation - image of Lettuce and seed competition

Lettuce and seed competition

The onset of rapid climate change encouraged by industrialisation has focused attention on preventing the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Ploughing disturbs the soil profile and accelerates the loss of carbon dioxide from soil.

It is also an energy intensive process. Consequently, many broad acre agricultural crops such as cereals, oilseed rape and sugar beet are now drilled directly without previous primary cultivation. An added advantage is that stubble from previous crops remains in situ over winter, offering food sources for birds. The disadvantages of direct drilling are: increased likelihood of soil waterlogging and reduced opportunities for building organic fertility by adding farmyard manure or well-made composts.

Overall, primary and secondary cultivation benefit vegetable growing. The areas of land involved are far smaller and the crops are grown very intensively. Vegetables require high fertility, weed-free soil, good drainage and minimal accumulation of soil-borne pests and diseases.

SCIblog - Professor Geoff Dixon - Soil Cultivation - image of Frost action breaking down soil clods

Frost action breaking down soil clods

Digging increases each of these benefits and provides healthy physical exercise and mental stimulation. Frost action on well-dug soil breaks down the clods (illustration no. 2). Ultimately, fine seed beds are produced by secondary cultivation (illustration no. 3), which encourage rapid germination and even growth of root and salad crops.

Tertiary cultivation to prevent weed competition is also of paramount importance for vegetable crops. Competition in their early growth stages weakens the quality of root and leafy vegetables, destroying much of their dietary value. Regular hoeing and hand removal of weeds are necessities in the vegetable garden.

SCIblog - Professor Geoff Dixon - Soil Cultivation - image of Raking down soil producing a fine tilth

Raking down soil producing a fine tilth

Ornamental and fruit gardens similarly benefit from tertiary cultivation. Weeds not only provide competition but are also unsightly, destroying the visual image and psychological satisfaction of these areas.

Lightly forking over these areas in spring and autumn encourages water percolation and root aeration. Once established, ornamental herbaceous perennials and soft and top fruit areas benefit greatly from the addition of organic top dressings. Over several seasons these will augment fertility and nutrient availability.

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

Health & Wellbeing

A sprig of thyme to fight that cold… Turmeric tea after exercising… An infusion of chamomile to ease the mind… As we move with fresh resolution through January, Dr Vivien Rolfe, of Pukka Herbs, explains how a few readily available herbs could boost your health and wellbeing.

The New Year is a time when many of us become more health conscious. Our bodies have been through so much over the last few years with Covid, and some of us may need help to combat the January blues. So, can herbs and spices give us added support and help us get the new year off to a flying start?

SCIblog - 17 January 2022 - Herbs and Spices - image of Chamomile

The oils in chamomile have nerve calming effects.

Chamomile and lavender

We may wish to ease ourselves into the year and look for herbs to help us relax. The flowers from these herbs contain aromatic essential oils such as linalool from lavender (Lavandula) and chamazulene from German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) that soothe us when we inhale them (López et al 2017). Chamomile also contains flavonoids that are helpful when ingested (McKay & Blumberg 2006).

If you have a spot to grow chamomile in your garden, you can collect and dry the flowers for winter use. Lavender is also a staple in every garden and the flowers can be dried and stored. Fresh or dry, these herbs can be steeped in hot water to make an infusion or tea and enjoyed. As López suggests, the oils exert nerve calming effects. Maybe combine a tea with some breathing exercises to relax yourselves before bed or during stressful moments in the day.

SCIblog - 17 January 2022 - Herbs and Spices - image of Green Lemon Thyme

Thyme is a handy herbal remedy. Generally, the term herb refers to the stem, leaf and flower parts, and spice refers to roots and seeds.

>> The plant burgers are coming. Read here about the massive growth of meat alternatives.

Andrographis, green tea and thyme

Many people may experience seasonal colds throughout the winter months and there are different herbal approaches to fighting infection. Andrographis paniculata is used in Indian and traditional Chinese medicine and contains bitter-tasting andrographolides, and in a systematic review of products, the herb was shown to relieve cough and sore throats symptoms in upper respiratory tract infection (Hu et al 2017).

Gargling with herbal teas is another way to relieve a sore throat, and the benefits of green tea (Camellia sinensis) have been explored (Ide et al 2016). I’m an advocate of garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) which contains the essential oil thymol and is used traditionally to loosen mucus alongside its other cold-fighting properties.

You could experiment by combining thyme with honey to make a winter brew. I usually take a herbal preparation at the sign of the very first sneeze that hopefully then stops the infection progressing.

SCIblog - 17 January 2022 - Herbs and Spices - image of Shatavari

Shatavari (pictured) is said to improve strength, and ashwagandha can help recovery.

Shatavari and ashwagandha

We may start the new year with more of a spring in our step and wishing to get a little fitter. As we get older, we may lose muscle tissue which weakens our bones and reduces our exercise capability. Human studies have found that daily supplementation with shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) can improve strength in older women, and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) can enhance muscle strength and recovery in younger males (O’Leary et al 2021; Wankhede et al 2015).

These herbs are known as adaptogens and traditionally they are used in tonics or to support fertility. The research to fully understand their adaptogenic activity or effects on muscle function is at an early stage. Other herbs such as turmeric may help muscle recovery after exercise. I brew a turmeric tea and put it in my water bottle when I go to the gym.

>> How is climate change affecting your garden? Find out here.

SCIblog - 17 January 2022 - Herbs and Spices - image of Lemon Balm

Lemon balm is easy to grow but might want to take over your garden.

Easy on the body. Easing the mind

Depending on your resolutions, you could use herbs and spices to add lovely flavours to food to try and reduce your sugar and salt intake. Liquorice is a natural sweetener, and black pepper and other herbs and spices can replace salt.

You could also bring joy to January by growing herbs from seed on a windowsill or in a garden or community space. Mint, lemon balm, lavender, thyme, and sage are all easy to grow, although mint and balm may take over!

All make lovely teas or can be dried and stored for use, and research is also showing that connecting with nature – even plants in our homes – is good for us.

You can read more about medicinal and culinary properties of herbs at https://www.jekkas.com/.

If you wish to learn more about the practice of herbal medicine and the supporting science, go to https://www.herbalreality.com/.

>> Dr Viv Rolfe is head of herbal research at Pukka Herbs Ltd. You can find out more about Pukka’s research at https://www.pukkaherbs.com/us/en/wellbeing-articles/introducing-pukkas-herbal-research.html, and you can follow her and Pukka on Twitter @vivienrolfe, @PukkaHerbs.

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

Sustainability & Environment

Johnson Matthey has launched a technology to help create a green hydrogen-based aviation fuel, while the European Commission has approved a €900 million scheme (£750 million approximately) to support renewable hydrogen investments.

SCI Corporate Partner Johnson Matthey has developed HyCOgen to convert CO2 and green hydrogen into a scalable and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The speciality chemicals company says it has combined this Reverse Water Gas Shift technology with FT CANS Fischer Tropsch technology through a catalysed process. With this approach, the green hydrogen and CO2 are converted into carbon monoxide, which is combined with additional hydrogen to form syngas.

Integration with the FT CANS technology is used to turn 95% of the CO2 into a high quality synthetic crude oil. This synthetic crude oil can then be upgraded into sustainable, drop-in fuel products for aviation transport – a sector responsible for 12% of transport-related CO2 emissions, according to the Air Transport Action Group.

SCIblog - 11 January 2022 - H2go – Johnson Matthey and EU lead hydrogen fuel initiatives - image of a wind turbine and a plane in the background

Green hydrogen fuel, produced using renewable energy, could help decarbonise the aviation industry.

Jane Toogood, Sector Chief Executive at Johnson Matthey, said: “Given the challenges associated with new propulsion technologies and airport infrastructure, plus the long asset life of aircraft, there are significant hurdles in moving from hydrocarbon-based aviation fuel to alternatives such as battery electric or hydrogen.

“By combining HyCOgen with FT CANS, we can now deliver customers a cost-efficient, reliable and scalable technology to help increase SAF production, backed by our track record of successful technology development and commercialisation.”

>> Concerned about climate change? Find out what you can do in this free webinar: https://www.soci.org/events/hq-events/2022/why-we-ignore-climate-change-and-what-we-can-do-about-it

€900 million fund for non-EU countries

In other hydrogen-related news, the global hydrogen industry has received a boost with the European Commission approving a €900 million German scheme to support investments in renewable hydrogen production in non-EU countries.

The aim of the H2Global project is to meet the growing EU demand for renewable hydrogen production, which is expected to increase significantly as EU countries reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. Even though the initiative will benefit EU countries, UK-based organisations concerned with hydrogen power could benefit from this investment.

>> Young chemists are getting creative in the fight against climate change. Read more in our COP26 review blog.

Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition who is in charge of competition policy, said: “This €900 million German scheme will support projects leading to substantial reductions in greenhouse emissions, in line with the EU’s environmental and climate objectives set out in the Green Deal.

“It will contribute to addressing the increasing demand for renewable hydrogen in the Union, by supporting the development of this important energy source in areas of the world where it is currently not exploited with a view to importing it and selling it in the EU. The design of the scheme will enable only the most cost effective projects to be supported, reducing costs for taxpayers and minimising possible distortions of competition.”

Agrifood

Greenhouse gas emissions statistics can be misleading. At a recent SCI webinar on the Future of Agriculture, the Agrisciences Committee put its finger on some glaring gaps in the figures.

If all of the cows in the world came together to form a country, that nation state would be the second highest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

McKinsey Sustainability’s statistic was certainly startling. However, Agrisciences Group Chair Jeraime Griffith mentioned other equally striking figures in his wrapup of the social media discussion generated at COP26.
In his talk as part of the Agrisciences Committee’s COP26 – What does it mean for the future of agriculture? webinar on 7 December, Griffith also noted that:

  1. farming accounts for more than 70% of the freshwater used worldwide, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
  2. and 31% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from agrifood systems, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

On the face of it, these figures are sobering; yet, like many agriculture-related figures, they don’t tell the full story.

Insane in the methane

Kathryn Knight felt that agriculture received negative press at COP26 in relation to greenhouse gas emissions. ‘It doesn't seem to take into account carbon sequestration (capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide),’ said the Research & Technology Manager of Crop Care at Croda. ‘Why isn’t that being brought into the equation when we’re talking about carbon and agriculture?’
Martin Collison expanded on this point. He emphasised the need to separate carbon emissions by system – such as extensively grazed livestock animals and those fed on grain – and to account for systems that sequester carbon in the soil. The co-founder of agricultural consultancy Collison & Associates also pointed out the problem with bundling all our greenhouse gases as one.

Two cows in field, one laying down

Greenhouse gas emissions are sometimes unhelpfully bundled together, instead of being separated by gas and agricultural system.

‘We count methane in the same way we emit carbon,’ he said. ‘When we emit carbon, it’s in the atmosphere for 1,000 years, but with methane it’s 12 years. The methane cycle is a lot, lot shorter.’

And the difficulties with the statistics don’t end there. For example, countries often announce impressive emission reductions without taking trade into account. This, of course, gives the figures a greener gloss.

‘To me, there's a need to be more up front with a lot of the data because agriculture and food are traded around the world,’ he added. ‘A lot of the emissions data ignore what we trade.

‘In the UK, we make big claims about how fast we’ve progressed with carbon emissions, but if you look at what we consume, the progress is much much slower. The things we produce less of, we import.’

>> SCI was at COP26 too! Read about the role of chemistry in creating a greener future.

Full of hot air?

Emissions trading also serves to blur the picture. For Jeraime Griffith it is an unsatisfactory solution. ‘In terms of carbon trading, we have cases where the higher emitters continue producing in the way they’ve always been producing,’ he said.

‘It doesn't bring in any restrictions on the amount of carbon they emit; it just shifts the problem somewhere else. I don't know how carbon trading benefits us getting to Net Zero. It just seems to be kicking the ball farther down the road.’

Industrial chimneys with smoke sunset

Is emissions trading part of the solution or part of the problem?

So, when you take into account 1. emissions trading, 2. the absence of food imports in data sets, 3. the bundling together of different greenhouse gases in emissions figures, and 4. the failure to take carbon sequestration into account, it’s clear that many of the statistics we receive are incomplete.

‘There’s lots of complexity behind the numbers and we tend to lump all of it together,’ Collison said. ‘There’s a need to go much much further.’

>> SCI’s Agrisciences Group is a unique multidisciplinary network covering the production, protection and utilisation of crops for food and non-food products. It has 250 members including academic and industry leaders, researchers, consultants, students, and retired members. If you’re interested in joining the group, go to: www.soci.org/interest-groups/agrisciences

Science & Innovation

Are you thinking of filing a chemical industry patent in 2022? Anthony Ball, Senior Associate at patent attorney Abel + Imray, gave us the lowdown about what you need to know about the process, cost, and filing your patents in different countries.

SCIblog - 13 December 2021 - Chemistry patent filing in 2022 - Abel and Imray Brand image

I’ve developed a novel technology. How do I patent it, how long does it take, and how much could it cost?
The first step in patenting a novel technology is to file a patent application. The patent application must contain a description of the technology that you have developed in enough detail for others to work the invention. It also needs to contain some claims that define the protection you think you are entitled to. Before the application is filed, it is also important to sort out who the inventors are and who owns the invention.

The application is then examined, during which the Patent Office and you come to an agreement regarding the extent of protection that you are entitled to. Once the extent of protection is agreed, the patent will proceed to grant.

The application will be published around 18 months from filing. This allows competitors to see what you intend to protect. It usually takes longer for the patent to be granted (and so be enforceable) - usually from four to 10 years. For a UK patent which protects a chemical invention, the total cost might be around £10,000.

A separate patent is required for each country that you are likely to want to stop competitors using your technology. Obtaining patents in the most important markets might cost in excess of £50,000 for a chemical invention. Although this might sound like a lot of money, not all of this needs to be paid at the start of the process. Instead, it is spread out over a few years, with the biggest investment usually coming three years into the process.

You mentioned that you can obtain a patent for a compound, a formulation, or a process for synthesising compounds. Does the patent process and cost vary according to the type of product or the branch of chemistry?
The overall process – filing a patent application, the patent application being examined and then the patent being granted – is the same for all technologies. However, there are some issues faced in certain branches of chemistry (such as pharmaceuticals) which can be quite difficult to overcome, and are not faced as commonly in other branches of chemistry. Because of this, it can sometimes take longer for patents in these fields to be granted than in other fields of chemistry, and the costs can be higher.

In which scientific areas has there been a recent rise in patent applications and are any fields relatively under-represented by comparison?
Focusing on European Patent Applications, the chemical industry has been fairly strong recently. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology in particular saw relatively large increases in the number of European patent applications filed in 2020, although the number of patents in the organic fine chemical field slightly decreased.

I want to file my patent in several countries. What do I do, and how much do the costs vary, depending on the country? For example, how would the cost of a patent in the UK compare to one in the US?
If you wish to have a patent in several countries, the start of the process is the same as the one described earlier; a patent application is filed in one country. Then, the most cost effective way to extend the protection to other countries is usually to file a “PCT application” within a year of filing the original application. After a further 18 months, you can turn this PCT application into applications for most countries around the world, including Europe, the US, China and India.

Costs do vary between different countries. To use the example above, it might cost 50-100% more to obtain a patent in the US than in the UK alone. It is worth noting that a patent for the same technology from the European Patent Office might cost around the same as a patent in the US, but the patent from the European Patent Office can then be converted into a patent in each country in the EU, plus some others (including the UK, Norway and Switzerland). Unfortunately, it is difficult to be precise about costs, because they depend very much on the number and type of objections raised by the patent office examiners.

One other consideration is translations. For long applications (which can be quite common in some branches of chemistry), these can be expensive, adding thousands of pounds to the cost for obtaining a patent. One country in particular where a translation might be required, and is of growing importance in the chemical area, is China.

SCIblog - 13 December 2021 - Chemistry patent filing in 2022 - image of the European Patent Office in Munich, Germany

Patents from the European Patent Office are valid across the EU and in several other countries. | Editorial credit: nitpicker / Shutterstock.com

>> From patents to green chemistry and agrifood, we have some great events coming up. Find out more on our event page.

Is there anything chemists and chemistry industry professionals should be particularly mindful of when submitting patent applications in 2022?
Patent law is underpinned by a number of international agreements, which are hard to renegotiate. As a result, the law is actually very stable over time, and so the considerations in 2022 will broadly be the same as they have been in the past. Having said that, one important thing to bear in mind at the moment is the amount of data to include in the patent application.

There is a balance between filing as soon as possible (to prevent a competitor getting there first, and to minimise the chance of a disclosure of something that would make your technology unpatentable), and making sure that the application has enough data to show that the extent of protection that you are asking for is justified. In some cases, it is possible to present data to justify the scope of protection after the application has been filed, but recently many patent offices have made that more and more difficult.

As such, filing too early, and with only a small amount of data to support your claims, could result in a very narrow patent, which might potentially be easy to work around. It is very important to include enough evidence to show that at least the parts of your invention which have the most commercial interest (e.g. the most active compounds) show the technical effect which is mentioned in the patent application.

How much have the law and process around patents changed in recent years?
The law around patents and patent applications is always evolving, albeit slowly. The basics – that the technology must be new, not be obvious in view of publicly available knowledge, and have an industrial application – have remained the same for many years. Likewise, the basic process to obtain a patent, as described above, has not changed recently, but the minor details of that process are constantly being updated, for example to incorporate new technology (such as online filing of the application and supporting documents, and online publication of the application) and to improve cooperation between the patent systems of different countries.

An example of improved cooperation between countries is the Unified Patent Court (UPC), which is likely to begin hearing cases in 2022. Currently, patents have to be enforced in each EU country separately using the national court systems. The UPC will establish a common court system and allow a patent to be enforced in one court case, with the result being valid for the whole of the EU.

I have made a further development to my technology after filing my patent application. How can I protect my new development?
Once it has been filed, nothing can be added to a patent application. Because of this, if you want to protect a new development to the technology that is the subject of a patent application, then another patent application must be filed directed to the new development. The two applications will be treated separately, and so in order for a patent to be granted which protects the new development, the new development must satisfy all the criteria for patentability described above.

To read more from Abel + Imray on patents, visit: https://www.abelimray.com/

Agrifood

Gardens in December should, provided the weather allows, be hives of activity and interest. Many trees and shrubs, especially Roseaceous types, offer food supplies especially for migrating birds.

Cotoneaster (see image below) provides copious fruit for migrating redwings and waxwings as well as resident blackbirds. This is a widely spread genus, coming from Asia, Europe and northern Africa.

Cultivated as a hedge, it forms thick, dense, semi-evergreen growth that soaks up air pollution. In late spring, its white flowers are nectar plants for brimstone and red admiral butterflies and larval food for moths. Children and pets, however, should be guided away from the attractive red berries.

SCIblog - 7 December 2021 - The December Garden by Prof Geoff Dixon - Caption 1 image of Cotonester franchetti fruit

Cotonester franchetti | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Medlars (Mespilus germanica) offer the last fruit harvest of the season (see image below). These small trees produce hard, round, brownish fruit that require frosting to encourage softening (bletting).

Its soft fruit can be scooped out and eaten raw and the taste is not dissimilar to dates. Alternatively, medlar fruit can be baked or roasted and, when turned into jams and jellies, they are delicious, especially spread on warm scones.

Like most rosaceous fruit, medlars are nutritionally very rich in amino acids, tannins, carotene, vitamins C and B and several beneficial minerals. As rich sources of antioxidants medlars also help reduce the risks of atherosclerosis and diabetes.

SCIblog - 7 December 2021 - The December Garden by Prof Geoff Dixon - Caption 2 image of Medlar fruit (Mespilus germanica)

Medlar fruit (Mespilus germanica) can be turned into jams and jellies | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Garden work continues through December. It is a time for removing dead leaves and stems from herbaceous perennials, lightly forking through the top soil and adding granular fertilisers with high potassium and phosphate content.

Top fruit trees gain from winter pruning, which opens out their structure, allowing air circulation when fully laden with leaves, flowers and fruit. Fertiliser will feed and encourage fresh root formation as spring progresses.

The vegetable garden is best served by digging and incorporating farm yard manure or well-rotted compost, which adds fertility and encourages worm populations. The process of digging is also a highly beneficial exercise for the gardener (see illustration no 3).

SCIblog - 7 December 2021 - The December Garden by Prof Geoff Dixon - Caption 3 image of turning the soil

Turning the soil isn’t only good for your garden - it boosts your wellbeing | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Developing a rhythm with this task supports healthy blood circulation and, psychologically, provides huge mental satisfaction in seeing a weedy plot transformed into rows of well-turned bare earth.

When the weather turns wet, windy and wintery it provides opportunities for cleaning, oiling and sharpening tools, inspecting stored fruit and the roots of dahlias kept in frost-proof conditions.

Finally, there is always the very relaxing and pleasant task of reading through seed and plant catalogues and planning what may be grown in the coming seasons.

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

Sustainability & Environment

At COP26, Nikita Patel co-hosted the Next-Gen debate, where an inspiring group of young people discussed how chemistry is tackling climate change. The PhD student at Queen Mary University of London shares her experience.

While the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) may be over, there is still plenty to be done in the fight against climate change. We’ve seen what can be achieved when we work together and no doubt science will play a key role.

On Thursday 4 November, I had the privilege of co-hosting the Countdown to Planet Zero Next-Gen debate organised by SCI to showcase the work being carried out by our young and innovative scientists to tackle climate change. It was a real pleasure to share the stage and hear from some great scientists, exploring the themes Fuels of the Future, Turning Waste into Gold and Engineering Nature. The event gave the audience the opportunity to question and challenge the panel members on their climate change solutions.

SCIblog - 2 December 2021 - COP26: A host’s perspective - image of the SCI COP26 panel

Panel L-R: Dominic Smith, Natasha Boulding, Clare Rodseth, Jake Coole, Nikita Patel, Oliver Ring (Brett Parkinson joined virtually).

While I was feeling nervous about my hosting duties, I was very excited at the same time as I knew how important it was to educate the audience, whether they were members of the public or aspiring scientists, on how science is crucial in battling the climate emergency.

An important part of my role as a host was to ensure the incoming questions and comments were understood by all, given the mixed audience attending. This highlighted how essential good science communication is to prevent misunderstandings and the spread of misinformation.

It was brilliant to see how engaged the audience were from the flurry of questions that came in during the session, so much so that we didn’t manage to get through all of them! There were a wide variety of questions aimed at particular panellists but also towards the panel as a whole. It was thought-provoking to hear how scientists from different backgrounds offered their own perspectives on the same topic.

4 November was also Energy Day at COP26 and the atmosphere was buzzing! I learnt a lot from attending the Green Zone, not only from our panellists but from all the exhibitors present too. I appreciate the small, individual actions we can each take that will make a difference but also the need to work together to achieve the common goal of fighting climate change. It was clear to see how science and business go hand in hand to provide solutions to society and how interdisciplinary collaboration is key.

The result of our poll question: ‘Do you think that science is pivotal in providing climate change solutions?’ spoke for itself, with a resounding yes from 100% of the audience participants! This was a very positive outcome and showed that it is not all doom and gloom when it comes to discussing the climate crisis.

On a personal level, I'm going to continue implementing some simple changes like using public transport more, eating more vegan food and flying less and aim to keep the discussion going with my peers as the climate emergency is far from over.

SCIblog - 2 December 2021 - COP26: A host’s perspective - image of the SCI COP26 team, panellists and hosts

SCI team, panellists and hosts.

I hope the youth panel event has inspired the next generation of scientists and showcased some of the exciting work that is going on behind the scenes which people may not realise and ultimately, that there is hope in science.

>> To rewatch the event, the recording is available on the COP26 YouTube channel: Countdown to Planet Zero Combating climate change with chemistry | #COP26, and on our Climate Change Solutions hub.

>> Want to read more about the technologies discussed by our panel? Read our event review: https://www.soci.org/blog/2021/11/2021-11-05-cop26-review.

Sustainability & Environment

‘This is a fragile win. We have kept 1.5 alive. That was our overarching objective when we set off on this journey two years ago, taking the role of the COP presidency-designate. But I would say the pulse of 1.5 is weak’ – Alok Sharma, President for COP26.

If scientists, politicians and activists were hoping that COP26, delayed by one year because of the pandemic, would yield concrete plans for progress on climate change, perhaps the overall conclusion might be ‘at least we haven’t gone backwards’.

The Glasgow Climate Pact, signed by 197 countries, required an extra day of negotiations. In his summing up, the UN Secretary General António Guterres said: ‘The approved texts are a compromise. They reflect the interests, the contradictions, and the state of political will in the world today.’

In his video statement Guterres said that the agreement ‘takes important steps but unfortunately the collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions. We must accelerate action to keep the 1.5 (degrees °C) goal alive…it’s time to go into emergency mode or our chance of reaching net-zero will indeed be zero.’

Guterres added that it was his conviction that it was time to phase out coal, end fossil fuel subsidies and build resilience in vulnerable communities. He also addressed the many young people and indigenous communities, saying: ‘I know you are disappointed. But the path to progress is not always a straight line…but I know we will get there. We are in the fight of our lives, and this fight must be won.’

SCIblog - 25 November 2021 - COP26 climate pact keeps hope alive - image of COP26 President Alok Sharma

COP26 President Alok Sharma believes that the measures agreed at COP26 are a ‘fragile win’ in the fight against catastrophic climate change. | Editorial credit: Paul Adepoju / Shutterstock.com

The Glasgow Climate Pact calls on signatories to report their progress towards more climate ambition in time for COP27, which will be hosted by Egypt. Welcoming the agreement, Alok Sharma, COP26 President, said: ‘This is a fragile win. We have kept 1.5 alive. That was our overarching objective when we set off on this journey two years ago, taking the role of the COP presidency-designate. But I would say the pulse of 1.5 is weak.’

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: ‘We have made progress on three of the objectives we set at the start of COP26. First, to get commitments to cut emissions to keep within reach the global warming limit of 1.5 degrees. Second, to reach the target of $100 billion per year of climate finance to developing and vulnerable countries. And third, to get agreement on the Paris rulebook. This gives us confidence that we can provide a safe and prosperous space for humanity on this planet.’

The NGO Greenpeace said in a statement: ‘While the COP26 deal doesn’t put the 1.5C goal completely out of reach, the governments and companies that obstructed bold action on climate change are knowingly endangering whole communities and cultures for their own short-term profits or political convenience. History won’t judge them kindly for this.’

While the final Pact has not reflected the hopes of many, it can be said that COP26 wasn’t short of a desire to see change. Perhaps the surprise package of the two-week event was the declaration between China and US which states that the countries ‘…recognise the seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis. They are committed to tackling it through their respective accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s, as well as through cooperation in multilateral processes, including the UNFCCC process to avoid catastrophic impacts.’ The declaration from the two countries was widely welcomed.

Methane emissions and ocean protection

Other notable developments from COP26 included: The formal launch of the Global Methane Pledge led by the US and the European Union. The Pledge, which seeks to reduce overall methane emissions by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030, saw 100 countries, representing 70% of the global economy and nearly half the global methane emissions, sign up.

In agriculture, the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4Climate) was launched. Initiated by the US and United Arab Emirates, with endorsement from the COP26 Presidency, the goal of the initiative is to increase and accelerate global innovative research and development on agriculture and food systems in support of climate action.

SCIblog - 25 November 2021 - COP26 climate pact keeps hope alive - image of environmental activist Greta Thunberg

For some, including environmental activist Greta Thunberg, the resolutions agreed by governments at COP26 are insufficient. | Editorial credit: Mauro Ujetto / Shutterstock.com

The initiative has the backing of 32 countries. In addition, ocean protection received a boost with the UK Government using the COP26 Ocean Action Day to announce a wave of investment including at least £20 million in commitments made at the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Roundtable to drive the health and resilience of the oceans and climate vulnerable communities.

The Science and Innovation day at COP26 saw the launch of four initiatives, backed by global coalitions of nations, businesses and scientists. In what was said to be a global first, the Adaptation and Research Alliance was launched. The network of more than 90 organisations will collaborate to increase the resilience of vulnerable communities most impacted by climate change.

In further developments the UK, along with several countries including Canada and India, will collaborate to develop new markets for low carbon steel and concrete. The work is being carried out under the Industrial Deep Decarbonisation Initiative.

The need for innovation

Commenting on this, George Freeman, the UK Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, said: ‘Real change to combat climate change cannot happen without new scientific ideas, innovation and research, and it is clear no country or company acting in isolation can deliver the change that is needed at the pace that is needed.’

While the final COP26 Glasgow Climate Pact has disappointed many, there is no doubt that there is a will to make positive change, keep global temperatures in check and see humanity reap benefits.

Science & Innovation

How do you get large audiences to read about your work? Roger Highfield, Science Director of the Science Museum, and Steve Scott, Public Engagement Lead of UK Research and Innovation, shared their insights at a recent webinar organised by SCI.

‘When I talk to people about science writing – when I’m talking about the introduction – I ask them to practise on a long-suffering friend and read a couple of paragraphs of what they’ve written. If they reach for their phone, you’ve done something wrong.’

Some people’s observations should be taken with a liberal fistful of salt, but Roger Highfield is certainly worth listening to when it comes to connecting with the public. As Science Director of the Science Museum Group, he helped engage with more than five million visitors in 2019/20 alone and has written and edited thousands of articles as Science Editor of the Daily Telegraph and Editor of New Scientist.

SCIblog - 22 November 2021 - SCItalk: How to engage with millions of people - image of Roger Highfield

Roger Highfield, Science Director of the Science Museum

So, how can you reach large audiences with scientific content? First of all, salience is important. How does what you’re talking about have a material effect on people’s lives? As Roger Highfield noted dryly: ‘People will be very interested in asteroids when one’s bearing down on the Earth.’

Citizen science and the long form Q&A

Similarly, the public has been voracious in its consumption of Covid-19-related content despite the complicated nature of the virus and vaccine development. During lockdown, Roger Highfield’s long form Q&A blogs about Covid-19 were hugely popular because, as he said, ‘there was a public appetite for a deeper dive into the science’.

Aside from writing in a way that decongests heavy, complicated subjects, it also helps to get your research in front of the right people, namely communications specialists. ‘One lesson for mass engagement is to work with media organisations,’ he added. ‘It’s more than a platform – you’re dealing with experts in public engagement.’

For larger organisations, citizen science is an excellent way to engage people by making them part of a project. The Great Backyard Bird Count is a fine example of citizen science at its simple, effective best, with thousands of bird-watchers helping provide a real-time snapshot of bird populations around the world.

Highfield has engaged with the public in all manner of citizen science initiatives, from recent online cognition tests in which 110,000 people took part, all the way back to an experiment asking people about the catchiest song in the world. ‘At the time, it was The Spice Girls’ Wannabe,’ he said. ‘People recognised it in 2.5 seconds.’

At its best, citizen science doesn’t just help you to engage people in your work; it can be used as a valuable way to gather information and provide unique perspectives. ‘Citizen science is not just a flash in the pan. The role is changing,’ said Steve Scott, Public Engagement Lead at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). ‘It’s an effective way of gaining knowledge… bringing different forms of knowledge and expertise into research.’

SCIblog - 22 November 2021 - SCItalk: How to engage with millions of people - image of Steve Scott

Steve Scott, Public Engagement Lead of UK Research and Innovation

Scott used the University of West London-led Homes Under the Microscope project to illustrate his point. As part of this project, people in Bristol and Bradford will detect and monitor airborne microplastic sources in their homes and feed this information back to the project organisers to help assess the prevalence of these substances.

A cultural shift

If you’d like more people to read about your research or product, it’s also worth thinking about the way people consume media. According to Scott, the general public tends to consume science through televisions and museums (for example, a visit to the zoo), and people are most likely to follow up on scientific matters having seen them on the news.

Many people learn about science through social media and YouTube, but other vehicles are worth considering too if you want to raise awareness. The UKRI views gaming as a significantly untapped area of public engagement and is investing in this area. Another intriguing way to raise awareness of innovative research is through awards, with the recent, well publicised Earthshot Awards providing a case in point. ‘They’ve taken research grants,’ Scott said, ‘and made them into the Oscars.’

Encouragingly, as the means of communication are changing, so too is the readiness of researchers to share their work. Both Highfield and Scott have seen a large shift over the past 15 years or so, with more and more scientists communicating their research. ‘It’s recognised as being an important part of being a researcher now,’ Scott said. ‘You’re excited about [your research]… Why would you not talk to the public about it?

The big takeaway

So, what is the most important takeaway from the talks, apart from that all-important Spice Girls fact? Fundamentally, when you are communicating your research or peddling your company’s wares, it helps to narrow your focus.

Indeed, Scott reminded us that the public is not a homogeneous group. ‘If we want to engage with millions of people, we need to think of audiences as more than just the general public,’ he said.

He said that 75 per cent of the potential UK audience – roughly 49 million people – falls into one of two groups: they don’t think science is for them, or they’re inactive. So, it’s worth taking an in-depth look at your target demographic and the places it goes to for news before sharing your work.

Earlier, Roger Highfield emphasised the same thing. He said: ‘If there’s one thing I want you to take from this talk, it’s to think about the audience.’

>> Watch How to engage with millions of people in full on our YouTube channel at: https://youtu.be/HSOMQd958EQ

Science & Innovation

Continuing our profiles of Black scientists, Dr Jeraime Griffith, Chair of SCI’s Agrisciences Group, shares how a simple classroom experiment set him on the journey that has led to him analysing complex data to safeguard UK food security.

Jeraime GriffithWould you mind giving us a brief outline of your current role:
I am a Data Scientist building tools that maintain, forecast and predict threats to the UK’s food security.

Right: Dr Jeraime Griffith

What was it that led you to study chemistry/science and ultimately develop a career in this field? Was this your first choice?
At about age 10, in primary school, I had a teacher who explained to us how the human digestive system and saliva break down starch into sugars. To demonstrate this, he got some bread from the school kitchen and asked us to chew it until we started noticing a slight sweet taste. I decided then to be a scientist. This wasn’t my first choice however. Prior to that moment, I wanted to be a pilot.

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?
My parents were super supportive. After announcing that I wanted to be a scientist, I got a science dictionary for my birthday. I also had great teachers, both at primary and secondary school. At 13, we were doing hands-on chemistry experiments and helping to tidy the lab at the end of the school year.

Could you outline the route that you took to get to where you are now, and how you were supported?
Following a BSc and a PhD, both in chemistry, I worked for ChemOvation, Argenta Discovery (now part of Charles River Laboratories) and briefly at Novartis. I then went off to New Zealand for a two-year postdoc at Massey University in early 2009 to work with my former PhD supervisor who had relocated there.

On returning to the UK, I worked at Imperial College London, first at the Centre for Synthetic Biology, then over in Chemistry with Professor Tom Welton. It was towards the end of my time with Professor Welton that I began learning the programming language Python, which led me to data science. I’m now a Data Scientist at Cognizant, working with the Food Standards Agency.

I was fully supported, both in industry and academia, but it was in academia that I was afforded the freedom to explore my interests – particularly to use 20% of my time to do whatever I wanted.

Aerial tractor spraying oil seed rape crop

Jeraime helps safeguard UK food security and Chairs SCI’s Agrisciences group
Considering your own career route, what message do you have for Black people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Allow some flexibility in pursuing your career. When I was questioning myself and my goals, I came across ‘Obliquity’, a book by John Kay. Sometimes diversions are the best way to get to your goals.

Seek out mentors, and I would say regardless of race, who can help you get there. Don’t be afraid to email them and briefly talk about your interest in the work they’ve done, what you have done and are doing now. I’ve found people are genuinely interested in helping you. This is how I learned about the Agrisciences group at the Society for Chemical Industry, which I joined and now Chair.

As for getting into data science, I did a 13-week intensive bootcamp. These are not for everyone as they are expensive and have a high demand on your time. However, there are a lot of free courses available. With this availability, it can be hard to find the good ones. The knowledge of the crowd can help. I’ve found Twitter to be our modern day equivalent to Ask Jeeves.*

What do you think are the specific barriers that might be preventing young Black people from pursuing chemistry/science? 
Lack of representation I think is the number one barrier. Impostor syndrome is bad at the best of times, but worse still if there’s no representation in the ivory tower.

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?
Recruit people of colour with less experience to positions of responsibility. Trust us to perform and have the support in place when we falter.

Business coach rearview man gesturing

The experience that most defined Jeraime’s career path… a great teacher

Science is at the centre of addressing many of the big global issues. Do you hope that this will lead to more young Black people wanting to get involved in science and develop solutions? 
Yes. A low entry point is data science. Most of the tools we use are open source. Data for your area of interest are, for the most part, freely available and the data science community is helpful and engaging.

Could you share one experience which has helped to define your career path? 
Where I am now began in that class in primary school when I first learned about the human digestive system. So, my defining experience would be having a great teacher.       

*Note from the editor: Some youngsters may need to look up what Ask Jeeves is!

Edited by Muriel Cozier. You can read more of her work here.

Agrifood

How has climate change changed the way our gardens grow and what can be done to alleviate its effects? Professor Geoff Dixon tells us more.

Climate has changed on Earth ever since it solidified and organic life first emerged. Indeed, the first photosynthesising microbes changed the atmosphere from carbon dioxide rich to oxygen rich over millions of years. What we now face is very rapid changes brought about by a single organism, mankind, through industrialisation.

The effects of change are very evident in gardens. Over a generation, leaf bud breaking and flowering by early spring bulbs, herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees has advanced by at least four weeks (see main image of Cyclamen hederifolium).

Latter spring displays have advanced by at least two weeks. This is caused by milder, wetter winter weather, encouraging growth. The danger lies in the increasing frequency of short sharp spells of severe frost and snow. These kill off precocious flowers and leaves which trees especially cannot replace.

desiccated cracked soil

Desiccated, cracked soil.

Increasingly, the summer climate is becoming hotter and drier. Since the Millennium there has been a succession of hot droughts. These seriously limit scope for growing vegetables, fruit and ornamentals unless irrigation is regularly available. Drought also damages soil structure especially where there is a high clay content by causing cracking and the loss of plant cover (see image of desiccated, cracked soil above).

Cracking disrupts and destroys the root systems of trees and shrubs in particular. The effects of root damage may not become evident until these plants die in the following years. 

Climate change is apparently advantageous for microbes. Detailed surveys show that fungal life cycles are speeding up, increasing the opportunities for diseases to cause damage. Even normally quite resilient crops such as quince are being invaded during milder, damper autumns (See image of brown rot on quince fruit below). Throughout gardens, the range and aggressiveness of pests and disease is increasing.

Brown rot on quince fruit

Brown rot (Monilia laxa) on quince fruit.

However, each individual garden or allotment, no matter its size, can contribute to reducing the rate of climate change. Simple actions include the removal of hard landscaping, and planting trees and shrubs reduces carbon emissions.

Using electric-powered tools and machinery in place of petrol or diesel has similar advantages. Tumbling down parts of a garden into native flora, and perhaps encouraging rarer plants such as wild orchids or fritillarias, mitigates climate change. Such areas may also form habitats for hedgehogs or slow worms, increase populations of bees, butterflies and moths and encourage bird life. 

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

All images from Professor Geoff Dixon.

Careers

As we build up to the 3rd SCI-RSC symposium on antimicrobial drug discovery, we spoke to Dr Anita Shukla, Associate Professor of Engineering at Brown University, about designing drug delivery systems to treat infection, creating a positive atmosphere in her lab, the challenges facing professionals in her industry, and much more.

SCIblog - 9 November 2021 - Women in Chem: Anita Shukla - Image of Anita Shukla, Associate Professor of Engineering at Brown University

Anita Shukla, Associate Professor of Engineering at Brown University

Tell us a bit more about the work being done in your lab.
All of what my lab works on is very biomedically orientated. The major thing we focus on is treating bacterial and fungal infections. We have a lot of interest in designing drug delivery systems to treat all sorts of bacterial and fungal infections, from localised infections to more systemic infections. We design nanoparticles, polymeric nanoparticles, self-assembled structures, surface coatings and larger-scale materials such as hydrogels that can be used as bandages.

We work on the material design for delivering antimicrobial therapeutics – antibiotics, antifungals and other antimicrobial components – and we study a lot about the properties of these materials. What sets us apart is that we’re trying to make materials that are smart, that are in some way targeted or responsive to the presence of bacteria or fungi.

So, to give you an example, we are working on making hydrogel wound dressings. These wound dressings are smart and can respond to the presence of bacteria and fungus. They know when bacteria and fungi are present, based on the enzymes that are there in the localised local environment of the hydrogel. They actually degrade only in the presence of those enzymes and release encapsulated nanotherapeutics.

And that’s really important because of antimicrobial resistance. So, we are trying very hard to provide effective therapies but limit exposure to antimicrobial therapeutics only to times that they’re needed. That’s the kind of work we’ve been doing over the past five or six years.

You’ve done some really interesting work on pregnancy care too. Tell us more about that.
So, that work was inspired by a graduate student who was very interested in women’s health and prenatal health. What we noted was that a lot of pharmaceutical agents that you must use when you’re pregnant don’t have enough information associated with their potential toxic side effects on a growing fetus. A lot of that testing is very difficult to do, so we thought: ‘Can we come up with model systems that could be used for the testing of pharmaceutical agents, toxins, and toxicants?’

The placenta really is the interface between the fetus and the mother and a lot of the nutrient and waste exchange happens through this organ. We wanted to come up with a model system that represents a placenta that was cell free and didn’t involve using an animal. So, what we did was we first studied cells taken from a placenta and the lipid composition of these cells, and then we made lipid bilayers out of synthetic lipids that mimicked the composition of placental cells at different trimesters during the pregnancy. And then we looked at how different small molecules (some of them were actually antimicrobial therapeutics) interact with these synthetic lipid bilayer models.

We noted the differences between the different trimesters and compositions of the placental cells in terms of the lipid content and how these toxicants, small molecules and pharmaceutical agents interacted. It’s early stage work but that same technology could be adapted for the purpose of high throughput testing in a cell-free environment for a range of applications.

What you do in your lab has a real-world effect. How important is that?
We’re very real-world application driven. I think the science is great, and we do a lot of fundamental science in the lab too, but the purpose is to solve real-world problems. Right now, with the pandemic, the work we’re doing on antimicrobial drug delivery is very relevant. The data show that bacteria and fungal co-infections for patients that have Covid-19 are increasing greatly and that’s heavily problematic. The antimicrobial resistance issue is just going to be exacerbated because these patients can also receive antibiotics and antifungals at the same time.

SCIblog - 9 November 2021 - Women in Chem: Anita Shukla - Image of Anita Shukla finding solutions to real-life problems at the Shukla Lab

Finding solutions to real-life problems at the Shukla Lab. Image courtesy of Brown University School of Engineering

How did you get to this point in your career?
The one big factor in where I ended up is my family. My family has always supported me tremendously and I’ve had a very positive role model of an academic and researcher in my father. That definitely got me early exposure, which exemplifies and solidifies the fact that early exposure is really important, which can come from your family, friends, teachers, and other role models.

When I started my undergraduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University, I thought I wanted to go into medicine at first, but then when I got there. I really enjoyed designing solutions that physicians would use. As an undergrad, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do in terms of the exact field of research; so, every summer I did a different research experience. In the first summer, I worked at the University of Rhode Island in a Mechanical Engineering lab. For the second summer, I worked at MIT in a materials science lab. And for my third summer, I worked in Columbia University in applied physics and mathematics. I also did research at Carnegie Mellon University with a faculty member in chemical engineering and just tried to get mentors and different experiences under my belt so I could get better informed in what I wanted to do. I then went to MIT to study chemical engineering for my graduate degrees.

Did any specific people help you along the way?
I worked with a faculty member at MIT, Paula Hammond, who’s now the department Head in Chemical Engineering at MIT. She was really an amazing influence for me. I definitely had strong female role models as an undergrad, but my graduate supervisor at MIT happened to be a strong black female scientist and that was hugely influential to me – to see that you can be a minority in STEM, really successful, and do it all. At the same time, she was very open about challenges for women in chemical engineering and not afraid to talk about it at all. She did a great job in promoting us and making sure we had the right mentoring during the five years of my PhD. So, I’m very grateful to her.

I did my postdoc at Rice University in the bioengineering department, and I worked with another really strong female mentor there. My postdoctoral advisor, Jennifer West – who is now the Dean of Engineering at the University of Virginia – was really amazing. I learnt a whole new set of things from her. In all of this, I can pinpoint that I’ve had many mentors. I would highly advise that regardless of what you are interested in doing in life, find those people who are out there to support you.

How did you end up at Brown?
I ended up at Brown in the School of Engineering as a tenure track assistant professor in the summer of 2013. Since then, all the time has gone into setting up my lab and advancing our science. It’s pretty much flown by. I’ve been extremely lucky. I’ve had amazing students and postdocs in my lab. They really produce everything that comes out of it. I’m just the spokesperson.

I love working with them. We have a very inclusive environment. We talk about a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion-related concerns. I think that’s really important. We try to self-educate and educate each other on these topics. We have a welcoming environment and genuinely care that everyone in the lab feels respected. Because you can only do good science and good work if you work in a place where you are happy and respected and can be yourself.

What does a given working day look like?
It varies. A given day is chaotic due to work and having two small kids. My husband is also a professor at Brown so we both have similar demands on our time but a lot of my time goes into research and proposal writing. We need to raise funds to run a lab so we definitely spend a lot of time on that. Paper writing to get out work out is also super important.

My favourite things are meeting with my grad students and postdocs about research. I love meeting with them and talking with them about their data and generating new ideas together. This semester I am also teaching a class about advances in biomedical engineering over the past couple of years. Preparing those classes and making sure I am devoting time to them is important to me.

SCIblog - 9 November 2021 - Women in Chem: Anita Shukla - Image of Anita Shukla and a colleague at Brown University

‘One thing I always tell students is don’t doubt yourself. Go ahead and try.’ Image courtesy of Brown University School of Engineering

What challenges have you had to overcome in your career?
I've been extremely lucky, but there has been the two-body situation. It’s essentially having a working spouse and trying to figure out how to make it work so that you both have the careers you want in the same location. That took me and my husband five years to figure out.

My husband was in Texas and I was in Rhode Island and I had two babies with me while doing this academic career on my own. That’s incredibly challenging, but it’s extremely common. In general, I think industry and academia need to work harder to make it easier for individuals to figure out this situation and smoothen the transition.

There are other little things that come up that are challenging. I do often feel that I have to prove myself to my older male colleagues at times when I shouldn't have to. If I get into an elevator with a male colleague who’s exactly the same age as me, a senior male colleague might ask that colleague about his research, and I might be asked about my kids. I often think it’s not intentional – and I try to give people the benefit of the doubt – but I think there’s a lot of education that still needs to be done.

>> Interested in the latest on antimicrobial drug discovery? Register to attend the 3rd SCI-RSC symposium on antimicrobial drug discovery on 15 and 16 November.

What’s the current state of play in your sector with respect to diversity, equality, and inclusion?
There's a lot to do but there’s a lot more awareness now. We’re far from where we need to be in terms of representation of all sorts of individuals in academia. Really, it’s ridiculously appalling if we look at numbers of black individuals, women in STEM academics, or the grant funding that goes to these individuals. But I have seen over the past two years or so that there’s just been more people talking about it. In biomedical engineering, a group of around 100 faculty or so academics around the US gets together periodically over Zoom to talk about these topics, and there’s more awareness and content in our scientific forums.

What’s the greatest challenge for people developing antimicrobial materials or in biomedical areas?
With therapeutics, it’s the FDA approval timeline. It’s years later by the time they’re used. A lot of the time people shy away from working in therapeutics because they know how hard it is going to be to commercialise something in that area.

On an academic level for me as an engineer, it’s critical to figure out what the important challenges and problems are. We’re very lucky at Brown that we have a great medical school so we can talk to clinicians, but cross-talk between disciplines is super important right now.

What advice would you give to young professionals in your area?
One thing I always tell students is don’t doubt yourself. Go ahead and try. You can’t win a game if you don’t play it. I constantly run into individuals who say: ‘I didn’t apply for that because I didn’t think I was qualified’. Basically, I just tell them to apply – you have nothing to lose.

What are you and your students working on that you’re most excited about at the moment?
I really love everything we are doing! I love the fact that we are designing materials that are smart, so they respond to the presence of microbes. I think that could be groundbreaking in terms of prolonging the lifetime of our existing antimicrobial drugs. We also have some really great work going on in treating biofilms, which are incredibly problematic in terms of infections. It’s very hard to answer. I’m proud of everything we do.

>> In recent months, we’ve spoken to inspiring women who work in science. Read more about the stories of materials scientist Rhys Archer and Jessica Jones, Applications Team Leader at Croda.

Careers

Our careers often take us in unforeseen directions. Dr Jessica Jones, Applications Team Leader at Croda, chatted to us about moving from research into management, the benefit of developing softer skills, and her unexpected mentor.

Tell me about your career to date.
I came through university in what is probably seen as the ‘traditional’ way. I did a Master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Liverpool, with a year working in industry, which I really enjoyed. And then after I finished my Master’s, I did a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Nottingham. I always wanted to work in industry, but I really enjoyed research, so I decided to do the PhD as I thought the skills would be useful for either career path.

SCIblog - 8 November 2021 - Women in Chem – Jessica Jones - Image of Jessica Jones in the laboratory

Jessica Jones in the lab

Were you tempted by a career in academia?
No, I never felt like I was the kind of person who had what it takes to succeed in academia. I never felt like I could ever come up with the nucleus of a new idea. I always felt like someone could give me the slimmest thread of a thought and I could turn it into something, but I could never have that thread myself. From my perspective, academia can be a lonely career and I enjoy and benefit from working in a team with other people.

So, after I finished my PhD, I joined Croda in 2013 as a Research Scientist in our synthesis division, in a synthetic chemistry R&D role. Over seven years, I progressed from Research Scientist to Lead Research Scientist and then Team Leader. During that time, I moved around a bit. I worked at different manufacturing sites, in different research areas and did lots of different projects across multiple sectors.

In February 2020, I was asked if I wanted to go on secondment, as a Team Leader, to one of our applications teams in Energy Technologies. Energy Technologies focuses on lubricants, oil and gas, and batteries. I really enjoyed the secondment and after it came to an end, I chose to take it on as a permanent position rather than return to my old role.

What does this role entail?
My role entails managing a team of application and lead application scientists who work on a range of projects, from designing new products to supporting customers with specific problems and working with universities on more theoretical, developmental ideas.

At the moment, we’re working on a lot of what we call EV (electric vehicle)-friendly fluids. When you move from traditional combustion engines to electric vehicles, there’s quite a change in the properties needed for the fluids within the engine. We make the speciality additives that go into the base oils that support functions such as reduced engine wear and improved fuel efficiency.

The EV market is very different to the traditional car market, which is dominated by big lubricant manufacturers. EVs are so new that Croda has been at conception discussions with world leading EV companies. The whole sector is very data driven and, coming from a research scientist background, that appeals to me very much. It’s very exciting to be at the cutting-edge of innovation with what we’re doing within electrification and renewable energy.

Which projects are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got two long-term new development projects that are both progressing to the final stages of manufacturing. These are products that I designed the chemistry for when working in the synthesis team. It can take four or five years to get a new project through the development process, and I’ve continued to manage them throughout their timeline, even though I have moved into different roles. They are both speciality additives for crude oil to reduce the temperature at which impurities develop, to allow the more difficult oil fractions to be brought out of the ground without it solidifying in pipes when they transport it.

SCIblog - 8 November 2021 - Women in Chem – Jessica Jones - Quote of Jessica Jones 

What does a general working day involve?
There are eight people in our team, and I am responsible for managing six of them. There are two other senior technical specialists I work alongside. They have lots of experience in the industry and working with academia, and the three of us coordinate the projects across the team.

My role is to translate the pipeline and the strategy from our senior leaders into what we do in the lab every day. I have three projects that I'm running, which are new product launches. Alongside that, I coordinate the project pipeline and make sure everyone is able to manage their projects and progress them. I do a small amount of lab work, but I would say it makes up 5% of my time.

I always thought I would be a specialist when I joined Croda because of my PhD and lab experience. However, over the time I’ve worked here, I started to really enjoy working with other people; and I think I probably realised I had better skills at motivating other people, building up teams, and networking. So that became a lot more important, and I chose to move into the management side of things but still within a technical function.

Interpersonal skills are sometimes underrated in management. How do you approach this side of the job?
I think I am quite at ease around other people as I am very extroverted. I think that makes me different from a lot of people in my team. For example, my boss and I are the total opposite of each other, but it works really well because it means that we complement each other perfectly. He’s very strategic and he likes to take his time to make decisions. He likes to review all the data very methodically and is good at using detail to evaluate a project’s true value, whereas I’m much more about talking to people, bringing everyone together and acting quickly to get things done. But I think the balance of both works incredibly well for us as a team.

During lockdown we received a webinar on personal resilience, and the session was about your outward projection to other people. About 70% of how you are perceived by others is made up of how people see you and your ‘brand’. Your technical expertise and actual ability to do your job only makes up about 20% of how people view you and how successful you are. And I think as a scientist, you get a bit focused on delivering the project successfully, thinking that you need to be really amazing at delivering data, but people forget about the need to work on themselves to develop as well.

What part of your job motivates you most?
It’s a combination. The science we’re working on is very exciting, and I really enjoy getting all the projects together, making sure everything fits together and that everyone’s doing the right thing. But emotionally, it’s the team that gets me up in the morning – coming in, seeing what they do, how they have been. I’ve been really lucky over the past 12 months, being able to see some of my colleagues really develop. I’ve taken a lot of pride in realising the impact you can have on other people and allowing yourself to take credit for that.

>> What is life like as a materials scientist? Take a look at our thought-provoking conversation with Rhys Archer, founder of Women of Science.

Which mentors have helped you along the way?
There’s one person who stands out. I was asked to take on this extra role to become a European technical rep in one of our business areas. I’d never done anything like that before so the idea that I was going to be put out there, in front of customers, as the technical expert for the business was quite terrifying.

I was to work with the European Sales Manager of the business, and we ended up traveling a lot together. He was the opposite to me. He’s very experienced but had a reputation as a bit of a loud, burly Yorkshireman and I wasn’t sure how we would fit together, but we got on like an absolute house on fire. He was so helpful to me, not just in giving feedback on what I was doing in the role, but general conversations about career and life outside of work and personal support. Having that kind of professional relationship develop has made a massive difference. Just meeting someone like that and having a person to go to when I needed help, someone who I really trust to have my best interests at heart. It was very beneficial for the number of years that we worked together. Since then, we have moved on to different roles, but we still stay in touch, and it has taught me the value in reaching out to different people to help me to develop.

SCIblog - 8 November 2021 - Women in Chem – Jessica Jones - Image of Jessica with the first product she developed at Croda

Jessica with the first product she developed at Croda.

In terms of equality and diversity, do you think enough is being done in your sector?
I think there is always more that can be done but I’ve never felt my gender has hindered me in my career and I’ve always felt very supported at Croda. Sometimes people are in a rush to see change immediately, especially when the senior management at Croda and many other STEM organisations is still made up of a majority of white males.

I like to think that the support myself and others have been given will mean that, as we progress, there will be more representation in senior positions. I would always want to achieve something on merit rather than to tick a box for equality. If that means it will take time for the generation I am in now to get to those positions, then I can wait. Importantly, I genuinely think everything that’s being put in place at Croda, and more broadly across the STEM sector, will pave the way for more diverse representation in senior roles in the future.

Do you have any advice you’d give to someone starting out?
Having a mentor is very important. I never thought I needed one until accidently developing that relationship. Since moving into different roles, I’ve set out to deliberately engage with people for that purpose. I would encourage people to seek out those who are different from themselves and engage with them.

I also think it’s important not to be afraid to ask for things you want. If you want to get a promotion or seek out further development, it’s often tempting to ask permission. If you can demonstrate to people that you are ready, it is more effective.

Generally, I think people, especially women, really underestimate the value of self-promotion as they worry it can be perceived as arrogance. A lot of people think that if you simply do a good job, then you’ll be recognised for that. That would be amazing if it were true, but people will judge you on how you’re perceived and how you present yourself, as well as what you do.

I think you need to put yourself out there. Whether it’s getting involved in something outside of your day job or taking the lead in a particular task, it’s a great way to get recognised. Sometimes it won’t work out and it can be hard to take the criticism when that happens, but you always learn from the outcome. I always prefer to have given something a go, even if I fail, than never to try.

Finally, I think people should always be themselves because everyone has unique skills to offer. I don’t think people would look at me and think that I look like the manager of a technical team, but I’m comfortable with my own style and that makes other people comfortable with it too.

>> We’re always interested in hearing about different people’s diverse career paths into chemistry. If you’d like to share yours, get in touch with us at: eoin.redahan@soci.org

Sustainability & Environment

A group of inspiring young scientists took centre stage at COP26 on 4 November to show how the next generation of chemists is finding tangible climate change solutions.

In a day dominated by what countries pledged to stop doing at COP26, such as pursuing coal power and financing fossil fuel projects overseas, it was refreshing to learn about low-carbon technologies and the young people driving their development. At the Next Gen forum, we heard from an array of young chemists, all associated with SCI, who are at the sharp edge of this change.

We heard from Brett Parkinson, Senior Engineer of Low Carbon Fuels and Energy Technologist at C-Zero, who is working on commercialising a way to decarbonise natural gas. The California-based company’s technology converts the natural gas into hydrogen and solid carbon to provide a clean energy source while sequestering the carbon; and the aim is to have this process up and running next year.

Natasha Boulding is building towards Net Zero a different way – with a greener concrete. The CEO and Co-founder of Sphera has developed a lightweight carbon negative additive using waste plastics that aren’t currently being recycled. She says the company’s blocks are the same strength and price as existing concrete blocks, but with 30% more thermal insulation. There is also the added benefit of reusing waste materials that would otherwise have gone to landfill or been incinerated.

Another solution discussed by Dominic Smith, Process Development Engineer at GSK, reduces energy consumption through green chemistry. He is trying to find greener ways to make medicines using enzymes. These enzymes, which can be found in plants and soil, replace chemical synthesis steps to cut energy consumption during processing and reduce hazardous waste.

SCIblog - 5 November 2021 - COP 26: Young scientists combat climate change with chemistry - Caption 1 image of the panel

Panel (left to right): Dominic Smith, Natasha Boulding, Clare Rodseth, Jake Coole, Nikita Patel, and Oliver Ring (Brett Parkinson spoke via video link).

It was apparent from the discussion that many solutions will be needed for us to reach our climate change targets. On the one hand, Jake Coole, Senior Chemist in Johnson Matthey’s Fuel Cells team, is working on membrane electrode assembly for hydrogen fuel cells to help us transition to hydrogen-powered buses and trucks.

At the same time, Clare Rodseth, an Environmental Sustainability Scientist at Unilever, has been using lifecycle assessments to reduce the environmental impact of some of the 400 Unilever brands people use all over the world every day. For example, this work has helped the company move away from petrochemical ingredients in its home care products. ‘Even small changes,’ she said, ‘have the potential to bring about large-scale change.’

Incremental change

However, for each of the technologies discussed, barriers remain. For Coole and co., having a readily available supply of hydrogen and charging infrastructure will be key. And for Dominic Smith and his colleagues, the use of enzymes in green chemistry is still in its infancy; and getting enzymes that are fast enough, stable enough, and produce the right yield is difficult. Nevertheless, he noted that manufacturers are now using enzymes to produce the drug amoxicillin, reducing the carbon footprint by about 25%

And some things will take time to change. Natasha Boulding noted that concrete is the second most used material in the world after drinking water, and we simply can’t create many green technologies, such as wind turbines, without concrete foundations.

She said the construction industry is quite traditional but also pointed to perceptible change, with the green concrete market growing and companies becoming increasingly aware of their carbon footprints.

SCIblog - 5 November 2021 - COP 26: Young scientists combat climate change with chemistry - Caption 2 image of the panel

Collaboration was seen as crucial in producing climate change solutions.

The reality is that global action on climate change is recent. As Brett Parkinson said: ‘the main reason we’re talking about it now is that there’s a driver to do it. Until the last decade, the world hadn’t cared about CO2 emissions. They just talked about caring about it.’

How pivotal is science in all of this?

So, what could be done to make climate action more effective? For Parkinson, effective policy is key. He argued that if the market isn’t led by policies that encourage low-carbon innovations, then it won’t work as needed. ‘It all starts with effective decarbonisation policy,’ he said. ‘Legacy industries are very resistant to change. If you don’t have strong and consistent policies… then they’re not going to adapt.’

Another key to our low-carbon evolution is collaboration, and the SCI provides a confluence point for those in industry and academia to work together to produce innovative, low-carbon products. As Clare Rodseth said: ‘Collaboration is really important – linking up people who can actually come together and address these problems.’

As the discussion came to a close, you had the impression that the debate could have gone on for much longer. ‘Hopefully, we’ve demonstrated that there is action, and it’s being driven by young people like our panellists today,’ summarised Oliver Ring, the event’s co-Chair, before asking for the result of the audience poll.

The question: How many of those watching believed that science is pivotal in providing climate change solutions? 

The answer: Just the 100%.

>> Thank you to Johnson Matthey for sponsoring the event, to the speakers for sharing their time and expertise, and to co-chairs Nikita Patel and Oliver Ring for doing such an excellent job.

Sustainability & Environment

This Thursday at COP26, an inspiring panel of young scientists will discuss innovations that will help us mitigate climate change. So, what can we expect?

Millions of young people are frustrated by climate change inaction. Indeed, according to a University of Bath study, 60% of the next generation feel overwhelmed by climate anxiety. Often, the proposed solutions seem vague and intangible – well-intentioned ideas that drift away when the political winds shift.

And yet, when you see the ingenuity of young scientists, business people, and activists, it’s hard not to be excited. Undoubtedly, politics and our legal system will play a huge role in the drive to reach Net Zero, but arguably science will play the biggest role in transforming the way we live. Just think of the falling cost of generating solar power, improvements in battery chemistry for electric vehicles, the development of sustainable construction materials, and the rapid rollout of Covid-19 vaccines.

Tangible solutions

This Thursday at COP26, SCI will host the Next Gen youth forum event where the panellists discuss the climate change solutions they are working on right now and how they are being applied by industry. In the Countdown to Planet Zero roundtable, these scientists – drawn from within SCI’s innovation community – will explain their work to a global audience and the impact it will have on climate change.

They will discuss innovation in three key areas: topics of fuels of the future, turning waste into gold, and engineering nature.

SCIblog - 2 November 2021 - COP26: Young scientists will save us - Caption image of a protesters climate change protesting sign

The next generation has mobilised and is creating solutions to help avoid climate change disaster.

The panel will be chaired by two very capable young scientists. Oliver Ring is Senior Scientist at AstraZeneca’s large-scale synthesis team and Chair of SCI’s Young Chemists’ Panel, and passionate climate advocate Nikita Patel is a PhD student at Queen Mary University of London’s Centre of Translational Medicine and Therapeutics and STEM Ambassador for schools.

The other panel members include Clare Rodseth, of Unilever’s Environmental Sustainability Science team, who brings lifecycle analysis to product innovation to make products more sustainable.

Jake Coole, Senior Chemist in Johnson Matthey’s Fuel Cells team, is involved in the scale-up of new processes and next generation manufacturing, and Dominic Smith, Process Development Engineer at GSK, who is interested in engineering biology to create sustainable manufacturing processes.

Also present will be Dr Brett Parkinson, Senior Engineer of Low Carbon Fuels and Energy Technologist at C-Zero – a California-based startup that works on the decarbonisation of natural gas. In 2019, Brett was awarded an SCI scholarship for his research.

The lineup also includes Dr Natasha Boulding, CEO and Co-founder of Sphera Limited, a speciality materials company that has created carbon negative concrete blocks made from aggregate including waste plastic. According to Natasha, whose company also won SCI’s Bright SCIdea challenge in 2019: “In terms of combating climate change, interdisciplinary collaboration is the key. No one discipline has the answer to solve our biggest challenges – but together diverse minds can.’

>> Would you like to take part in BrightSCIdea and be in with the chance of winning £5,000? Be part of it.

Watch the event online

SCI is proud to be associated with these enterprising young scientists and the imaginative solutions they are developing to mitigate the effects of climate change.

‘As a global innovation hub, SCI wants to show how the next generation of scientists is actively developing solutions,’ said Sharon Todd, SCI CEO.

Sharon Todd

Sharon Todd, SCI CEO

‘Our COP26 youth forum debate will profile the work of young scientists and entrepreneurs addressing climate change in their work. This next generation of innovators has the power to change our world’s tomorrow.’

If you’d like to see the climate change solutions of tomorrow, register to watch the virtual event here.

Science & Innovation

Continuing our series on Black pioneering scientists and inventors, we profile Garrett Augustus Morgan. His observations led him to upgrade the sewing machine, invent and upgrade life saving devices and develop personal care products for Black people, while championing civil rights and fighting for his own recognition.

SCIblog - 29 October 2021 - Black History Month: Garrett Augustus Morgan - image of Garrett A Morgan

Garrett Augustus Morgan | Image credit: Public domain image courtesy of: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1165661

Garrett Augustus Morgan was born in 1877, in Kentucky, US. Like many Black students he left school at a young age to find work. However, while working as a handyman in Cincinnati, he was able to hire a tutor and continue his studies.

During 1895, Morgan moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and it is said that Morgan’s interest in how things worked was sparked while repairing sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer. It was during this time that Morgan’s first inventions were developed: a belt fastener for sewing machines and the attachment used for creating zigzag stitching. By 1905, Morgan had opened a sewing machine shop and then a shop making clothes, ultimately providing employment for more than 30 people.

It was also during this time that Morgan became involved in the establishment of the Cleveland Association of Coloured Men. In addition to his interest in ‘gadgets’, Morgan also patented hair care products for Black people.

The life-saving Safety Hood

Morgan is credited with several inventions that have been responsible for saving many lives. In 1912 he filed a patent for the Safety Hood, which was developed after he had seen fire fighters struggling from the smoke encountered while tackling blazes. On the back of his invention, Morgan was able to establish the National Safety Device Company, in 1914, to market the product. While Morgan was able to sell his safety device across the US, it is said that on some occasions he hired a White actor to take credit for the device, rather than revealing himself as the inventor.

Morgan’s Safety Hood was soon in use in various settings including hospitals and ammonia factories. Indeed, the Safety Hood was used to save many lives and by the start of World War I, the breathing device had been refined to carry its own air supply. The Safety Hood was awarded a gold medal by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 4 Garrett Morgan fact

>> Read more about trailblazing Black scientists here.

Morgan’s device reached national prominence when it was used in the rescue of survivors and victims of a tunnel explosion under Lake Erie in 1916. The accounts tell of Morgan being woken early in the morning of 24 July 1916, after two rescuers lost their lives following the explosion.

Morgan is said to have arrived on the scene in his pyjamas, with his brother and a number of Safety Hoods. To allay the fears of the sceptics about his Safety Hood, Morgan went into the tunnel and retrieved two victims. Others joined and several people were rescued. Morgan is reported to have made four trips, but this heroism affected his health for years after as a result of the fumes he encountered.

Sadly, Morgan’s bravery and the impact of his Safety Hood were not initially recognised by the local press or city officials. It was some time later that Morgan’s role was acknowledged; and in 1917 a group of citizens presented him with the gold medal.

SCIblog - 29 October 2021 - Black History Month: Garrett Augustus Morgan - image of Garrett A Morgan during the Lake Erie rescue 1916

Garrett A. Morgan rescues a man at the 1917 Lake Erie Crib Disaster | Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 Image in the Public Domain

While orders for Morgan’s device increased following the incident, it is said that when his picture appeared in the national press, crediting him as the Safety Hood inventor, officials in a number of southern cities cancelled their orders. Morgan is quoted as saying; ‘I had but a little schooling, but I am a graduate from the school of hard knocks and cruel treatment. I have personally saved nine lives.’

Safety seemed to be an important area for Morgan, as he became alarmed about the number of accidents that were occurring as cars became more prevalent in America. Along with the cars, bicycles, animal-drawn carts and people were sharing ever more crowded roads.

After witnessing an accident at a junction, Morgan filed a patent for a traffic light device which incorporated a third warning position. The idea for the ‘all hold’ position or what is now known as the amber light was patented in 1923. Morgan sold the idea to General Electric for $40,000 the same year. It should be noted, however, that a three signal system had been invented in 1920.

Morgan is credited with establishing a newspaper, building a country club open to Black people, and running for a seat on the Cleveland City Council, among many notable achievements. Morgan died in July 1963. He has been recognised in Cleveland Ohio, with the Garrett A. Morgan Cleveland School of Science, and the Garrett A. Morgan Water Treatment Plant being named in his honour. In addition, a number of elementary schools and streets carry his name.

Science & Innovation

Sharon ToddInnovation and close collaboration provided the platform for discussions at CIEX 2021. SCI CEO Sharon Todd gives her perspective on the two-day event.

Sharon Todd, SCI CEO

It’s always great to meet new – and old – contacts at events. For so many months, crossing borders wasn’t possible, physically at least, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Thankfully, the Chemical Innovation Conference (CIEX) provided a welcome change.

On 6 and 7 October, we came together in Frankfurt to discuss the challenges and opportunities in our sector. It was an honour for me to give the opening address – in the same year as SCI’s 140th anniversary.

Indeed, this year’s event included a well-paced mixture of talks and panel events that addressed post-pandemic difficulties, the challenges of climate change, the need to innovate and much more.

The chemical using industries face an array of challenges besides the practical fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. Brexit, new regulations, supply chain issues, climate change, sustainability, and geo-political unrest pose significant problems

As an innovation hub, SCI connects industry, academia, patent lawyers, consultants, entrepreneurs and government, and other organisations. And I like to think of CIEX as an innovation hub too.

We have no choice but to innovate, but we must do so in a collaborative, sustainable way. The climate change emergency, for example, means society is looking to chemistry to help find long-term innovative solutions. That’s what made CIEX such an apt time for those in the industry to come together and navigate these challenges.

Innovating beyond barriers

The theme of this year’s event was ‘Game-Changing through Collaboration’. But I also thought of it as Crossing Borders – not just physical borders, but getting through the barriers that block innovation. These barriers hold back the translation of scientific solutions from the laboratory into business and, ultimately, into society.

Our sector is in the spotlight as never before and we can shape a better future. The debates at this year’s CIEX, and the exchange of ideas that took place, will help move us all forward. And what an exchange of ideas it proved to be.

We heard from an amazing line-up of speakers, addressing some of the industry’s most salient issues. BASF’s Christian Beil spoke about how best to leverage lean experimentation and rapid prototyping to improve customer centricity in product design, while Iris AI’s Anita Schjoll Brede described how we can reimagine the R&D work environment.

SCIblog - 26 October 2021 - Game-changing collaboration at CIEX 2021 - image of styrofoam

Ineos Styrolution plans to recycle polystyrene using thermal decomposition or by washing and remelting waste.

Furthermore, Johnson & Johnson’s Luis Allo spoke about the rise of consumer awareness as a driver for innovation. He provided interesting insights on accessing information on real customer trends and needs. Dupont’s Fred Godbille also described several tried and tested methods to assess the voice of the customer.

Elsewhere, Croda’s Nick Challoner assessed how we can unlock innovation through collaboration and partnerships. He also provided an overview of how Croda interacts with universities. On a more technical note, Roman Honeker of Ineos Styrolution outlined the company’s plans to recycle polystyrene using thermal decomposition or by washing and remelting waste.

The discussion on ‘how SMEs interact with corporates’ provided another of the event highlights, with contributions from Clariant, BASF, Chemstars, and SCI’s David Bott. Delegates discussed how SMEs sometimes oversell the potential of their products (without necessarily having much real-world experience) and the allegedly slow-moving, risk-averse nature of some corporates.

Cross-border innovation

Throughout the event, attendees examined what we can do better, how this can be achieved, and the resources needed to make this happen. After all, we must be nimble and flexible in these times of political and social uncertainty.

We can cross borders together – physically and virtually – via close collaboration. And we can cross the borders of what’s possible innovation-wise, removing barriers and journeying into new territory for us all.

Science & Innovation

To celebrate Black History Month, we take a look back at some of the great Black scientists and innovators. From laser eye surgery to the gas mask, here are some of the seminal contributions made by these ingenious inventors.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - timeline infographic

[1] Lewis Howard Latimer – Image credit: Unknown author Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
[2] Leonidas Berry - Image credit: Adundi, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
[3] Betty Harris – Image credit: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/harris-betty-wright-1940/ - Fair use image
[4] Patricia Bath - Image credit: National Library of Medicine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
[5] Philip Emeagwali - Image credit: SakaMese, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 1 Johnson Powell fact

1880 – Johnson Powell
Have you ever used eye protectors to protect yourself against the glare of intense light? For those working in extreme environments such as fires and furnaces, Johnson Powell’s eye protectors will have been a sight for sore eyes.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 2 James Wormley fact

1881 – James Wormley
James Wormley invented a life-saving apparatus for boats. His contraption included a string of floats that extended from a ship’s side via a sliding rod with projecting arms. The famous hotelier was also said to be at President Abraham Lincoln’s bedside when he died.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 3 Lewis Howard Latimer fact
Image Credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1882 – Lewis Howard Latimer
Lewis Howard Latimer is probably best known for inventing a durable carbon filament that was key to the success of the electric light bulb. Latimer also invented an evaporative air conditioner and even drafted the drawings to secure the patent for Alexander Graham Bell’s little known invention… the telephone.

>> Click here for more on Lewis Howard Latimer’s extraordinary contribution to science.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 4 Garrett Morgan fact

1912 – Garrett Morgan
Imagine using your own invention to save people’s lives? That’s exactly what Garrett Morgan did when he donned his patented smoke hood to rescue trapped men from a smoke-filled tunnel beneath Lake Erie. Morgan’s device later evolved into a gas mask, and he also invented a three-position traffic signal, hair straightening cream, and a self-extinguishing cigarette for good measure.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 5 Madeline M Turner fact

1916 – Madeline M. Turner
Madeline M. Turner’s ingenious invention was the fruit of her own frustration. Turner grew tired of squeezing oranges for her glass of juice, so she created the fruit press machine to solve the problem.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 6 Richard Spikes fact

1932 – Richard Spikes
It’s safe to say Richard Spikes was a polymath. The American inventor created an automatic gear shift device for cars, a pressurised beer tap, and a horizontally swinging barber’s chair – all while working as a teacher and barber and being a capable pianist and violinist.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 7 Leonidas Berry fact
Image Credit: Adundi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1966 – Leonidas Berry
This doctor and civil rights advocate invented the Eder-Berry gastroscopy endoscope in 1955, which helped doctors to biopsy the inside of the stomach without surgery. According to the US National Library of Medicine, ‘the Eder-Berry biopsy attachment made the gastroscope the first direct-vision suction instrument used for taking tissue samples during gastroscopic examination’.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 8 Betty Harris fact
Image Credit: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/harris-betty-wright-1940/ - fair use image

1984 – Betty Harris
Perhaps the most explosive discovery of all belongs to Betty Harris. Harris’ spot test for detecting 1,3,5-triamino-2,4,6-trinitrobenzene in the field is used by US Homeland Security today to check for nitroaromatic explosives. In her spare time, Harris has even found the time to work with the Girl Scouts to develop a badge based on Chemistry.


>> SCI is proud to support #BlackinChem. Take a look at some of our recent work.


SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 9 Patricia Bath fact
Image Credit: National Library of Medicine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1988 – Patricia Bath
Patricia Bath has helped return the gift of sight to thousands of people. The US ophthalmologist invented a quick and painless device that dissolves cataracts with a laser and cleans the eye, enabling the simple insertion of a new lens. Her laserphaco probe is still in use today.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 10 Philip Emeagwali fact
Image Credit: Philip Emeagwali - SakaMese, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1989 – Philip Emeagwali
Nigerian computer scientist Philip Emeagwali won the prestigious1989 Gordon Bell Prize in Price Performance for a high-performance computer application that used computational fluid dynamics in oil-reservoir modelling. In the same year, Emeagwali also claimed to perform the world’s fastest computation – 3.1 billion calculations per second – using just the power of the internet.

SCIblog - 25 October 2021 - Trailblazing Black Scientists - Image 11 Donald K Jones fact

2002 – Donald K. Jones
Donald K Jones made a notable contribution to medicine with his invention of a detachable balloon embolisation device that reduces the size of aneurysms (bulges in blood vessels). The endovascular occlusion device is implanted into the body, whereupon its clever balloon system and adhesive materials reduce the size of aneurysms.

>> Which barriers still block the way for Black chemists? Read Claudio Lourenco’s story.

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.

SCIblog - 12 October 2021 - Making science and technology more accessible - image of Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser

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.

SCIblog - 12 October 2021 - Making science and technology more accessible - image of a wind turbine

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.

SCIblog - 11 October 2021 - Celebrating Black scientists – Dr George Okafo - image of pipette and vials

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.

SCIblog - 4 October 2021 - Black History Month: Lewis Howard Latimer - image of Lewis Howard Latimer

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.

SCIblog - 4 October 2021 - Black History Month: Lewis Howard Latimer - image of Alexander Graham Bell

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.

SCIblog - 4 October 2021 - Black History Month: Lewis Howard Latimer - image of light bulbs with carbon filaments

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.

SCIblog - 21 September 2021 - Looking after your lilies - image of Lilium longiflorum / Easter Lily

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.

SCIblog - 21 September 2021 - Looking after your lilies - image of lily buds

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.

SCIblog - 21 September 2021 - Looking after your lilies - image of lily bulbil comparison

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.

SCIblog - 16 September 2021 - Don’t forget your (carbon neutral) toothbrush - Caption 1 image of Morrisons' recycling scheme

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.

SCIblog - 16 September 2021 - Don’t forget your (carbon neutral) toothbrush - Caption 2 image of cotton buds

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.

Careers

Life is busy for Rhys Archer. Outside of her work as EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellow in Biomedical Materials at the University of Manchester, she founded Women of Science to share stories about real women working in science. She has championed STEM in schools in her spare time and received the Robert Perrin Medal from the Institute of Materials, Minerals, and Mining – all before her 30th birthday.

Rhys is also refreshingly forthright in her views. She took the time to speak to us about everything from attitudes towards disability in academia, the problem with STEM statistics, and finding that sense of belonging in science.

SCIblog - 9 September 2021 - Women of science: Rhys Archer - Profile photo of Rhys Archer

Would you mind telling me about your work at the University of Manchester and the research areas that interest you most?
My research interests have always been interdisciplinary – I am a bit of a magpie when it comes to research and I get excited by projects in different areas. Luckily, being a researcher in materials science means that I can apply my knowledge and skills in a wide array of areas and industries. I have recently finished my doctoral studies looking at how carbon fibre composites are damaged during impacts, and how to toughen them while keeping composites light weight, which is particularly useful in the aerospace industry. However, I have since moved over to research in biomedical materials, specifically within tissue engineering, where I am researching biocompatible composite scaffolds for tissue regeneration.

You set up Women of Science in 2016 to share stories about real people in science. How has this been?
When I set up Women of Science, I first looked at it as a personal project that could be of use in schools to young people. However, it became apparent fairly quickly that access to relatable role-models in STEM was needed, not just in schools but also for women across the STEM industry.

Since then, we have been fortunate to be awarded funding to grow the work we do and expand our audiences. One of the most important actions I have taken with Women of Science is to set up an advisory board (which includes a diverse range of women) to share ideas and to influence the direction and activities of Women of Science.

As well as the impact on others, Women of Science has had a huge impact on me personally. When I set up Women of Science I was going through a difficult period of feeling isolated, and found it difficult to feel a sense of belonging in science and in research. By reaching out and hearing other women’s stories – not just their achievements, but also their doubts, worries, and difficulties – I found that I did belong in STEM. I just had to search for it.

SCIblog - 9 September 2021 - Women of science: Rhys Archer - Group photo of Rhys Archer

Would you mind sharing some of the successes and challenges you’ve experienced in your own career?
At 29, towards the end of my PhD, I was diagnosed as autistic. Looking back, I can see that the challenges I faced, particularly because of depression, anxiety, and isolation, were due to my needs not being considered or met. Being disabled in academia is an ongoing challenge. It is still a fight to gain equitable working arrangements, opportunities, and acceptance.

However, I can also see how the successes I have had, such as setting up Women of Science, and being a part of other projects are a result of ‘being different’. My strongest quality is a diversity of perspective and experience and an eagerness to be a part of a range of different projects.

>> We’re keen to hear diverse perspectives from people working in the chemical industry. Get in touch with us at: eoin.redahan@soci.org

You have championed inclusivity in STEM. Do you think academic institutions and other workplaces could be more inclusive?
Yes. I think there is a huge amount of awareness and conversation about inclusivity in academia and industry, but not nearly as much action and intervention. Often I see workplaces with inclusive policies, but with little consideration of monitoring, evaluating, or re