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.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.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 reconsidering those policies. We must move past equity, diversity, and inclusivity being a checkbox exercise. The issues faced by women in the workplace are intersectional and complex, and so require well considered, complex solutions.
According to WISE, women now make up 24% of the STEM workforce in the UK. It estimates that this number could rise to 29% by 2030. What do you think about these figures?
While the number of women in STEM is a common metric when considering equality, this does not accurately portray issues surrounding inclusion and belonging. How are women treated? Do they have the opportunity to advance? Are there equitable policies and measures in place? This is particularly true of women in STEM who identify with other protected characteristics around race, disability, sexual orientation, and class. Once you dig into the statistics (where available) further, it is clear that the numbers given are not sufficient to describe the current situation for all women in STEM.
Also, the ‘leaky pipeline’ model is often considered, that is, that the number of women in STEM fall as we follow the statistics from school, to university, and onto the workplace. However, what is not always considered is that, as with a leaky pipeline, when more women are added, rather than ‘fixing’ the pipeline, the cracks become more obvious. Eventually, we reach a point when the pipeline is fractured. We must focus on repairing these cracks, not just increasing a numerical metric.
Additionally, in this current climate, it is incredibly difficult to make predictions as to what the future holds for the number of women in the STEM workforce. A couple of years ago, we could not foresee the impact that a global pandemic would have on women. When we consider the possible effects of climate change over the next decade, can we predict the burden that will be placed on women, or how this will affect women’s choices?
What’s next for you? Are you involved in any exciting projects?
With Women of Science, we have three projects that will be launched towards the end of the year, including a new website, flashcard activities for young people, and a report on the impact of the pandemic on women in STEM. Further ahead, I would love to expand the reach of Women of Science further, working with podcasting and film, as well as reaching out to policy makers. Personally, I am excited to get my teeth stuck into a new research project and see where that leads, as well as doing more teaching, consulting, and any other opportunities that come my way!
>> Are you interested in getting involved in Women of Science? Visit: www.womenofsci.com
We are increasingly conscious of the need to recycle waste products, but it is never quite so easy as rinsing and sorting your waste into the appropriate bins, especially when it comes to plastic.
Despite our best intentions, only around 16% of plastic is recycled into new products — and, worse, plastics tend to be recycled into low quality materials because transformation into high-value chemicals requires substantial amounts of energy, meaning the choices are either downcycling or prohibitively difficult. The majority of single-use plastics end up in landfills or abandoned in the environment.
This is a particular problem when it comes to polyolefins such as polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), which use cheap and readily available raw materials. Approximately 380 million tonnes of plastics are generated annually around the world and it is estimated that, by 2050, that figure will be 1.1 billion tonnes. Currently, 57% of this total are polyolefins.
Why are polyolefins an issue? The strong sp3 carbon–carbon bonds (essentially long, straight chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms) that make them useful as a material also make them particularly difficult to degrade and reuse without intensive, high energy procedures or strong chemicals. More than most plastics, downcycling or landfill disposal tend to be the main end-of-life options for polyolefins.
Polyethylene is used to make plastic bags and packaging.
Now, however, a team of scientists from MIT, led by Yuriy Román-Leshkov, believe they may have made a significant step towards solving this problem.
Previous research has demonstrated that noble metals, such as zirconium, platinum, and ruthenium can help split apart short, simple hydrocarbon chains as well as more complicated, but plant-based lignin molecules, in processes with much lower temperatures and energy.
So the team looked at using the same approach for the long hydrocarbon chains in polyolefins, aiming to disintegrate the plastics into usable chemicals and natural gas. It worked.
First, they used ruthenium-carbon nanoparticles to convert more than 90% of the hydrocarbons into shorter compounds at 200 Celsius (previously, temperatures of 430–760 Celsius were required).
Next, they tested their new method on commercially available, more complex polyolefins without pre-treatment (an energy intensive requirement). Not only were the samples completely broken down into gaseous and liquid products, the end product could be selected by tuning the reaction, yielding either natural gas or a combination of natural gas and liquid alkanes (both highly desirable) as preferred.
Polypropylene is used in bottle caps, houseware, and other packaging and consumer products.
The researchers believe that an industrial scale use of their method could eventually help reduce the volume of post-consumer waste in landfills by recycling plastics to desirable, highly valuable alkanes — but, of course, it's not that simple. The team says that more research into the effects of moisture and contaminants in the process is required, as well as product removal strategies to decrease the formation of light alkanes which will be critical for the industrialisation of this reaction.
However, they believe the path they're on could lead to affordable upcycling technology that would better integrate polyolefins into the global economy and incentivise the removal of waste plastics from landfill and the environment.
More about the study can be read here:
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published its Science Technology and Innovation Outlook 2021: Time of Crises and Opportunity report.
Published at the beginning of 2021, the report focuses on the ‘unparalleled mobilisation of the scientific and innovation community’ in response to the covid-19 pandemic. The report indicates that newly funded research initiatives have been established by public research agencies and organisations, private foundations and charities, while the health sector has similarly invested in an array of research programmes worth billions of dollars in record time.
The pandemic has led an unprecedented mobilisation of the scientific and innovation community
However, the report also exposes gaps in overall system resilience to future crises. ‘It’s a wake-up call that highlights the need to recalibrate science, technology and innovation (STI) policies, so that they better orient research and innovation efforts towards sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency goals,’ the report asserts.
Highlighting the rapid response by governments around the world, the report indicates that in the first few months of the pandemic, national research funding bodies spent around $5 billion on emergency financial support. This includes $300 million in Asia-Pacific, excluding China, over $850 million in Europe and more than $3.5 billion in North America. At the same time, research efforts led to around 75,000 scientific publications on covid-19 being released between January and November 2020, the report says. The largest share came from the US, followed by China and the UK. Research databases and scientific publishers removed paywalls so that covid-19 related information could be quickly shared.
Research efforts led to around 75,000 scientific publications on covid-19 being released between January and November 2020
‘These developments mark important changes that could accelerate the transition to a more open science in the longer run,’ the report says. It is also noted that not only have researchers continued their work with more than three quarters of scientists indicating that they had shifted to working from home at some point in 2020, but almost two thirds experienced, or expected to see, an increase in the use of digital tools for research as a consequence of the crisis. The report also mentions the contribution of the general public, with so called ‘frugal innovations’ in response to shortages of medical equipment and emergency supplies.
Looking to the future of the research community, the report says that postgraduate training regimes require reform to support a diversity of career paths. ‘The crisis has shown that the need for STI expertise is not limited to the public laboratory; it is also important for business, government and NGOs […] Reforming PhD and post-doctoral training to support a diversity of career paths is essential for improving societies’ ability to react to crises like covid-19 and to deal with long-term challenges like climate change that demand science-based responses […] There has been a 25% increase in the number of people with PhDs in OECD countries over the past decade with no corresponding increase in academic posts. The pandemic is expected to make matters worse, more than half of the scientists participating in the OECD Science Flash Survey expect the crisis to negatively affect their job security and career opportunities,’ the report says.
Post-graduate training regimes require reform to support a diversity of career paths
While still in the midst of the pandemic, the report stresses that STI policies now need to be reoriented to tackle the challenges of sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency. ‘In the short-term governments should continue their support for science and innovation activities that aim to develop solutions to the pandemic and mitigate its negative impacts, while paying attention to its uneven distributional effects. Science for policy will remain in the spotlight as governments seek to strike the right balance in their response to covid-19. This will effect public perceptions of science that could have long term implications for science-society relations.’
The report concludes that governments now have the task of developing public sector capabilities to deliver more ambitious STI policy. This will require engagement from stakeholders and citizens in order to capture a diversity of knowledge and values.
The eighth in its series, the Kinase 2018: towards new frontiers 8th RSC/SCI symposium on kinase design took place at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge – a world-leading biomedical science research hub.
The focus of the event was to provide a space for the discussion of the ever-evolving kinase inhibitor landscape, including current challenges, opportunities and the road ahead.
A kinase is an enzyme that transfers phosphate groups to other proteins (phosphorylation). Typically, kinase activity is perturbed in many diseases, resulting in abnormal phosphorylation, thus driving disease. Kinases inhibitors are a class of drug that act to inhibit aberrant kinases activity.
Cell signalling: kinases & phosphorylation. Image: Phospho Biomedical Animation
Over 100 delegates from across the world working in both academia and industry attended the event, including delegates from GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Genentech, and Eli Lilly and Co.
The event boasted world-class speakers working on groundbreaking therapeutics involving kinase inhibitors, including designing drugs for the treatment of triple negative breast cancer, complications associated with diabetes, African sleeping sickness and more.
How can kinase inhibitors revolutionise cancer treatment?
Tsetse flies carry African sleeping sickness. Image: Oregon State University/Flickr
The keynote speaker, Prof Klaus Okkenhaug from Cambridge University, spoke about how the immune system can be manipulated to target and kill cancer cells by using kinase inhibitors.
Klaus is working on trying to better understand the effects of specific kinase inhibitors on the immune system in patients with blood cancer.
He also explored how his work can benefit those with APDS, a rare immunodeficiency disorder, which he helped to elucidate on a molecular level.
Solving graft rejection, one kinase at a time
Organ grafts are a surgical procedure where tissue is moved from one site in the body to another. Image: US Navy
Improving tolerance to organ grafts is at the forefront of transplantation medicine. James Reuberson from UCB Pharma UK, highlighted how kinase inhibitors can be utilised to improve graft tolerance.
James took the delegates on a journey, describing the plight of drug discovery and development, highlighting the challenges involved in creating a drug with high efficacy. While still in its infancy, James’ drug shows potential to prolong graft retention.