SCI was pleased to support #BlackInChem, working alongside our Corporate Partners and members to amplify the voices of our Black chemists.
We have heard stories from several Black chemists who highlighted the steps being taken by many companies to increase diversity. But we can also see that there are many more steps that can be taken to encourage the next generation of budding Black chemists and scientists.
#BlackInChem has had support from Scott Bader, an SCI Corporate Partner, with both Damilola Adebayo and Luyanda Mbongwa sharing their perspectives as employees of Scott Bader. Elsewhere, Cláudio Laurenço gave a compelling account of his journey to become a post-doctoral research associate at a leading consumer goods company.
Cláudio Laurenço worked for free and was overlooked before eventually securing his PhD and starting his career in chemistry.
These chemists are following in the footsteps of some pioneering Black scientists such as Percy Lavone Julian, who has been profiled on the SCI Blog.
Many organisations have expressed their support and shared thoughts on what steps they are taking to encourage and ensure diversity. Indeed, #BlackInChem is a global effort and companies such as GSK have shown their support as well as numerous Black chemists talking about their experiences and achievements over the last week.
Percy Lavon Julian’s pioneering work enabled a step-change in the treatment of glaucoma | Editorial credit: spatuletail / Shutterstock.com
Over the coming months, we will be profiling other Black chemists, past and present, and continuing the dialogue around diversity.
For Cláudio Lourenço, the path from student to multidisciplinary scientist has been far from smooth. The Postdoctoral Research Associate reflects on the institutional challenges that almost made him give up, the mentor whose support was so important, and the barriers that block the way for young Black chemists.
Please give a brief outline of your role.
I work for a leading consumer goods company. I am a multi-disciplinary scientist contributing to the development of novel formulations for household products.
Why are you supporting #BlackInChem?
I’m supporting #BlackInChem because I am a champion for diversity. I believe that what we see from our windows in the street is what we must have inside our workplaces. In an ideal world we should all have the same opportunities, but unfortunately this is somehow far from the truth. We need to motivate our young Black chemists to aim for a career in science by providing welcoming environments and real opportunities instead of just ticking boxes. We need to showcase our Black chemists to show to the younger generation that they can also be one of us.
What was it that led you to study chemistry and ultimately develop a career in this field? Was this your first choice?
I have always been passionate about research and science. My father had a pharmacy, so I was always close to chemistry and was a very curious child. Yes, it was my first choice but the lack of opportunities and trust from universities and scholarship providers made it a long run. My motivation faded and I nearly gave up.
Was there any one person or group of people who had a specific impact on your decision to pursue your career path?
Yes, but after my degree I nearly gave up. It took me nearly two years and changing cities to find something (a voluntary position). I was always keen on taking up mentors to show me how to progress in my career. There were a few people who helped me by training me and teaching me how to navigate the scientific world and pursue a career in science.
I only got my first job (which I worked for free) because of Peter Stambrook, an American scholar from the University of Cincinnati, who I met through a friend while polishing glasses in a restaurant. This man was open and keen to put a word in for me at a leading university in the UK. He taught me so much on how to be a scientist and humbly grow up and make a career in science. Eventually, all his advice kept me on the right path.
What impact would you like to see #BlackInChem have over the coming year?
More Black students in postgraduate courses and an increase in role models to motivate the younger generations to pursue careers in chemistry.
Could you outline the route that you took to get to where you are now, and how you were supported?
Personally, my career path was far from easy. I only managed to get my PhD at 38 years of age. I needed to first prove myself. Despite all my efforts and dozens of applications, I was never considered a good candidate. I needed to work for free for two years to land a proper job in my field of choice. During that time I took on many odd jobs to support myself. I worked for a top 10 university for free and they never saw my worth or gave me an opportunity. With that experience I landed a proper job at a leading pharmaceutical company. After one year with them, they funded my PhD studies and now here I am with a career in science.
Considering your own career route, what message do you have for people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Never ever give up - it is possible. Look for the right mentors and be humble. You do not need to reinvent the wheel, but only to find someone who can lend you theirs. Learn to grow from the experiences of others and be ready to fail a couple of times - we all do. Be open to learn and never be afraid of following your dreams.
What do you think are the specific barriers that might be preventing young black people from pursuing chemistry/science?
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. I understand that tradition sometimes prevents this, but we need to change and ignore tradition for a bit.
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?
Showcase Black chemists and inventors to motivate the younger generations and show society that Black people are not only artists and musicians. Target extracurricular activities in schools where children are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Train your staff to be open. Create cultural events that not only target Black people but also for other people to learn and see that in the end we are all equal. We all need to learn to embrace our differences and grow together.
>> As we celebrate #BlackinChem, we mark the achievements of some inspirational chemists. Read more about the amazing career of Percy Lavon Julian.
This week SCI is joining with business and academia to mark #BlackInChem, an initiative to advance and promote a new generation of Black chemists.
Over the coming weeks, we shall be profiling past and present Black chemists, many of whom are unsung heroes, and whose work established the foundations on which some of our modern science is built. We start with the outstanding contribution made by Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975).
Born on 11 April 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, US, Percy L Julian was the son of a clerk at the United State Post Office and a teacher. He did well at school, and even though there were no public high schools for African Americans in Montgomery, he was accepted at DePauw University, Indiana, in 1916.
Due to segregation Julian had to live off campus, even struggling initially to find somewhere that would serve him food. As well as completing his studies, he worked to pay his college expenses. Excelling in his studies, he graduated with a BA in 1920.
Julian wanted to study chemistry, but with little encouragement to continue his education, based on the fact there were few job opportunities, he found a position as a chemistry instructor at Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee.
In 1922 Julian won an Austin Fellowship to Harvard University and received his MA in 1923. With no job offers forthcoming, he served on the staff of predominantly Black colleges, first at West Virginia State College and in 1928 as head of the department of chemistry at Howard University.
In 1929 Julian received a Rockefeller Foundation grant and the chance to earn his doctorate in chemistry. He studied natural products chemistry with Ernst Späth, an Austrian chemist, at the University of Vienna and received his PhD in 1931. He returned to Howard University, but it is said that internal politics forced him to leave.
Physostigmine was synthesised by Julian
Julian returned to DePauw University as a research fellow during 1933. Collaborating with fellow chemist and friend Josef Pikl, he completed research, in 1935, that resulted in the synthesis of physostigmine. His work was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Physostigmine, an alkaloid, was only available from its natural source, the Calabar bean, the seed of a leguminous plant native to tropical Africa. Julian’s research and synthesis process made the chemical readily available for the treatment of glaucoma. It is said that this development was the most significant chemical research publication to come from DePauw.
Once the grant funding had expired, and despite efforts of those who championed his work, the Board of Trustees at DePauw would not allow Julian to be promoted to teaching staff. He left to pursue a distinguished career in industry. It is said that he was denied one particular position as a town law forbid ‘housing of a Negro overnight.’ Other companies are also said to have rejected him because of his race.
However, in 1936 he was offered a position as director of research for soya products at Glidden in Chicago. Over the next 18 years, the results of his soybean protein research produced numerous patents and successful products for Glidden. These included a paper coating and a fire-retardant foam used widely in World War II to extinguish gasoline fires. Julian’s biomedical research made it possible to produce large quantities of synthetic progesterone and hydrocortisone at low cost.
Percy Lavon Julian | Editorial credit: spatuletail / Shutterstock.com
By 1953 Julian Laboratories had been established, an enterprise that he went on to sell for more than $2 million in 1961. He then established the Julian Research Institute, a non-profit research organisation. In 1967 he was appointed to the DePauw University Board of Trustees, and in 1973 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the second African American to receive the honour.
He was also widely recognised as a steadfast advocate of human rights. Julian continued his private research studies and served as a consultant to major pharmaceutical companies until his death on 19 April 1975. Percy Lavon Julian is commemorated at DePauw University with the Percy L Julian Science and Mathematics Center named in his honour. During 1993 the United States Postal Service commemorated Julian on a stamp in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to science and society.
Since the start of 2020 the world has been a different place. During March the UK Government instigated a lock down, with those who could required to work from home, this included scientists. Completing my PhD studying insect olfaction during a global pandemic was not something I expected, but how did I spend my days?
As a scientist I spend a portion, if not the majority of my time in a lab doing experiments. Pausing this work created several challenges, and as a final year student induced a serious amount of panic! To adapt, I focused more on computational experiments and extensive data analysis. Thankfully, I had some small computational projects already, which could be extended and explored further. This also included attending online courses and webinars to develop new skills – I really enjoyed SCI’s webinar series on computational chemistry and found it useful when completing my protein docking experiments!
Writing, Writing, Writing
As a final year PhD student, there was one task at the beginning of this year that was high on the agenda – writing my thesis. Many past PhD students will tell horror stories about how they were rushing to finish lab work and writing up in a mad dash at the end. Being forced to give up lab work, and having no social activities, meant a lot more focus was put on writing during this time. Personally, I have been privileged to be in a house with other final year PhD students, creating a distraction free zone, and managed to crack down on thesis writing!
Despite in-person events, including many large international conferences, being cancelled, many organisers were quick to move meetings online. This made so many events more accessible. Though I am sad to have missed out on a trip to San Francisco, during lockdown I have attended numerous webinars, online seminars, two international conferences and even given outreach talks to the public and school children.
Getting back to ‘normal’
It is safe to say the world, and the way science works, is never going to be the same. But scientists are slowly migrating back to the lab, adorned with a new item of PPE. On top of our lab coats, goggles and gloves we can add…a mask. Despite the stressful time, I managed to get my thesis finished handing it in with a lot more computational work included than I had initially planned!
Nearly two years ago, while attending admissions day in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London, I was asked, ‘Why Chemical Engineering?’ That is also the question I will attempt to answer today, before beginning my second year at Imperial.
1. ChemEng is everywhere
If you look around, you will see countless things whose production involved chemical engineers. From a plastic bottle on your desk, through cosmetics and medicines, to the fuel that your car uses – all those products involve complex chemical processes designed and improved by engineers. I see chemical engineering as a job full of opportunities – and of many diverse ones, as well.
Not only are there numerous industry sectors to work in, but also possibilities beyond the scope of ChemEng. For example, other areas of employment stretch across research, finance and management, as chemical engineering equips students with many useful transferrable skills, such as problem-solving abilities or analytical thinking.
2. Chemical engineers can make the world a better place
It may sound like a slogan, but I really believe it’s true. Today’s society faces serious problems, some of which are caused by human activity. It is hard to ignore the changes in the natural environment and the problems such as climate change, but chemical engineers are here to find a way to fight it.
Nowadays, the focus in designing chemical processes is increasingly shifting towards environmental sustainability. Even our department has a carbon capture pilot plant, and when implemented on a chemical plant, carbon capture is aimed at reducing CO2 emissions. Chemical engineers can make production processes more eco-friendly and help to develop clean energy generation, which is crucial for today’s world.
Another big challenge of the 21st century is ageing society. It results in increased occurrence of diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and many other types of illnesses. Subsequently, this increases the demand for various kinds of medicines, increases the consequent development of pharma industries, and thus, more opportunities for chemical engineers to benefit society.
3. ChemEng is fun!
To be perfectly honest, this course can be challenging at times. But at the same time, I find it really exciting and rewarding. Its multidisciplinary nature is what makes it interesting; we study elements of maths, physics, mechanics, some elementary programming and different branches of chemistry. It is also a course full of practical work – lab experiments and group projects, which develop co-operation skills and the ability to solve real-life problems, but it is also a fun way to learn and to meet new people!
The most important thing is to enjoy what you study, and ChemEng is an ideal fit for those enjoying STEM subjects and willing to solve practical problems. And that is probably why I am so excited to come back to uni and start second year.
The David Miller Travel Bursary Award aims to give early career plant scientists or horticulturists the opportunity of overseas travel in connection with their horticultural careers.
Juan Carlos De la Concepcion was awarded one of the 2018 David Miller Travel Bursaries to attend the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy, which was held in Boston, US. Here, he details his experience attending the international conference and the opportunities it provided.
I’m currently completing the third-year of my rotation PhD in Plant and Microbial Science at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. My work addresses how plant pathogens cause devastating diseases that affect food security worldwide, and how plants can recognise them and organise an immune response to keep themselves healthy.
Because of the tremendous damage that plant diseases cause in agricultural and horticulturally relevant species, this topic has become central to achieving the UN Zero Hunger challenge.
Thanks to the David Miller Award, I was able to participate in the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy held in Boston, US. This event is the major international conference in the plant pathology field and only occurs once every five years.
This year, the conference gathered together over 2,700 attendees, representing the broad international community of plant pathologist across the globe. In this conference, the leading experts in the different aspects of the field presented the latest advances and innovations.
Juan’s current research looks at the rice plant’s immune response to pathogens.
These experts are setting a vision and future directions for tackling some of the most damaging plant diseases in the agriculture and horticulture industries, ensuring enough food productivity in a global economy.
All Images: Andrew Lunn/SCI
On 19 March 2019, SCI hosted the second annual final of the Bright SCIdea Challenge, bringing together some of the brightest business minds of the future to pitch their science-based innovation to a panel of expert judges and a captivated audience.
As an opportunity to support UK/ROI students interested in commercialising their ideas and developing their business skills, the final included talks and training from our judges and networking with industry professionals.
The day started with a poster session and networking, including posters from teams Glubiotech, Online Analytics, HappiAppi and NovaCAT.
Training sessions came next, with Neil Wakemen from Alderley Park Accelerator speaking first on launching a successful science start-up.
Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne from Genius Foods spoke next on her personal business story, going from the kitchen to lab to supermarket shelves.
Participants could catch a glimpse of the trophies before giving their pitches.
The first team to pitch were Team Seta from UCL, with their idea for a high-throughput synthetic biology approach for biomaterials.
Team Plastech Innovation from Durham University presented their sustainable plastic-based concrete.
Closing the first session, Team DayDreamers. pitched their AI-driven mental wellness app.
The break was filled with networking between delegates and industry professionals.
Opening the second session, Team BRISL Antimicrobials, from UCL, showcased their innovative light-activated antimicrobial bristles that could be used in toothbrushes.
The final pitch of the day was from Team OxiGen, from the University of St Andrews, presenting their designer cell line for optimised protein expression.
After asking lots of questions during each pitch, the judges were left with the difficult task of deciding a winner.
Team HappiAppi, from Durham University, were voted the best poster by the audience!
The second runner-up was Team Seta!
The first runner-up was Team BRISL Antimicrobials!
Congratulations to the winners Team Plastech Innovation!! They win £5000 towards their idea.
We would like to thank our participating teams, sponsors (INEOS and Synthomer), guest speakers and judges (Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, Robin Harrison, Inna Baigozina-Goreli, Ian Howell & Dave Freeman).
Ivalina Minova is an SCI Ambassador, 2018 SCI Scholar, and a third-year PhD student at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK, where her research involves the development of new techniques to help understand and improve industrially important reactions.
In this article, she discusses four aspects that have helped with her success as an early career scientist and the invaluable support resources she has benefited from.
Her last blog ‘How the SCI Early Careers programme helped me’ can be found here.
Mark your milestones
As a student at the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Critical Resource Catalysis (CRITICAT), one of the milestones outlined in my four-year PhD training programme is to complete a three-month industrial placement abroad.
Having a clear goal and timeline is critical in early career development. I started thinking about potential placement visit options early and took the initiative in setting up an arrangement with a chemical company, Johnson Matthey (JM).
Find a mentor
Having a mentor in industry can significantly benefit you in the early stages of your career, especially if you are working in academia. I was determined to find influential people who could help me to achieve my goals.
Part of this mission was being awarded an SCI scholarship in July 2018, which will support my three-month research placement visit at JM, a pioneering chemical company in sustainable technologies. I had built links with JM through my MChem studies at Durham University.
These have developed throughout my PhD, as I have initiated several catch-up meetings with research teams and R&D managers to discuss my research. In one of those meetings last year, I asked about the possibility of completing a placement visit at their US site, to which they agreed!
Look for funding opportunities
Once I had identified my desired placement visit abroad, I focused on applying for various funding opportunities to help fund my trip. Although my PhD programme provides financial support towards such placement visits, the costs of going to the US would exceed my budget.
There are a number of mobility grants and scholarship opportunities that I applied for listed below, that have allowed me to secure sufficient funding for this placement:
I was successful in obtaining the last two of those three.
The power of networking
I attended a lot of conferences early on in my studies and was not shy to give oral talks, where my confidence in giving presentations on my research naturally grew.
Some of my personal highlights include presenting at the 6th International Congress in Operando Spectroscopy in Spain and being awarded an SCI Messel Travel Bursary to present my first manuscript on ‘Unravelling the mechanism of direct alkene formation from methoxy groups in H-ZSM-5, as revealed by synchrotron infrared microspectroscopy’ at the ACS Spring 2019 National Meeting and Exposition in Orlando, US, in March 2019.
Overall, I found these four key things beneficial to me in advancing my early career research and I hope that this blog will inspire others to take initiative as they move towards their next career step.
Ivalina Minova with SCI’s Early Careers Committee Chair, Alan Heaton. Image: SCI
As an SCI member, she is actively involved with the Scotland Group and has attended a number of early career events, which have helped with her career development and she has detailed in this blog.
Her last blog, about her experience working at Diamond Light Source, can be found here.
College of Scholars’ Day
SCI award three scholarships a year. Image: SCI
Presenting at SCI’s College of Scholar’s Day on 19 November 2018 was a memorable and enjoyable experience, which introduced me to the larger network of SCI Scholars, both current and past. I was able to gain valuable insights from hearing about the progress and achievements of other Scholars.
Some of my personal highlights from the day included speaking with Dr Alex O’Malley, who has successfully launched his independent career at Cardiff University, Wales, UK, supported by a Ramsey Fellowship, which is given to early career scientists looking to build their own programme of original research.
During the event, I also volunteered to help organise a post-graduate event at the SCI AGM meeting on 3 July 2019 initiated by the SCI Early Careers Committee, which will help students like me.
You can read more about the College of Scholar’s Day here.
This day-long event – held in Glasgow on 30 November 2018 – was aimed at PhD students and post-doctoral early career researchers. There was a diverse programme of invited speakers who gave talks on their current roles. This included an industrial research scientist from Johnson Matthey and a patent attorney.
There was an intriguing talk from a CEO and entrepreneur, Dr Paul Colborn, who founded his own university spin-out company. It was interesting to hear about the risks he took in starting his own business and the successful expansion of Liverpool ChiroChem, a chemistry-based CRO that produces chiral small molecules for biotech/pharmaceutical R&D.
I was also impressed by a talk from a senior manager from Syngenta that described how she had progressed up the career ladder after completing her PhD.
The event closed with a Q&A panel, which allowed us to ask more specific questions, followed by a wine reception and more networking opportunities. During the wine reception I approached one of the speakers from industry and was able to set up a mentoring scheme arrangement within the umbrella of the SCI mentoring scheme, which I’m sure will be a valuable experience.
Bright SCIdea: Business innovation and entrepreneurship training
Team of students with an innovate idea will compete for £5,000 in March. Image: SCI
I joined the Bright SCIdea Challenge 2019 with the motivation to learn more about business and entrepreneurial skills. The training day event on 7 December 2018 at SCI HQ provided the necessary training for writing a business plan and included talks on entrepreneurial skills, IP, finances, marketing and pitching.
I particularly enjoyed a talk on marketing given by David Prest, an experienced scientist from Drochaid Research Services, a recently established service-based company that provides research support to industry.
On Friday 11 May 2018, 20 delegates, ranging from Master’s students to post-docs, gathered at the SCI headquarters in London for a careers day in Agri-Food.
This was the first event organised by the newly formed SCI Agri-Food Early Careers Forum, and had six speakers presenting the perspectives of varying careers – Prof Lin Field (Rothamsted Research), Rhianna Jones (Institute of Food Technologists), Prof Tim Benton (University of Leeds), Dr Rebecca Nesbit (Nobel Media), Dr Bertrand Emond (Campden BRI), and Dr Craig Duckam (CD R&D Consultancy Service).
Delegates were treated to a variety of talks, ranging from advice on working within research to stepping outside of the research box into science communication or private consultancy. Over the course of the day, three common skills were covered by all leaders when discussing how they achieved success in their careers.
The first of these was networking. Every talk covered aspects of this, from going to conferences and events to being a good communicator. Building connections can be the key to getting job offers, learning about new opportunities, and even knowing where best to take your career.
Professor Tim Benton Image: Cassie Sims
Prof Tim Benton spoke about the importance of working in teams, and of showing respect to other professionals, especially if they work in a different area. Dr Rebecca Nesbitt spoke about careers communicating science, specifically the broad range of media that can be used, and how to get involved. Rhianna Jones spoke about taking opportunities to be mentored, particularly from societies and professional organisations, such as SCI and the Institute of Food Technologists.
Lin Field, Rothamsted Research
The second skill that was covered in depth was adaptability. Initially, Prof Lin Field spoke about this in a practical context – building a set of laboratory and general scientific skills that can be carried across disciplines.
However, each speaker had a different perspective. For example, Dr Craig Duckham spoke of learning new skills when setting up a private consultancy, such as accounting, business, and even web design and marketing. Prof Tim Benton summarised it well, stating we need to ‘look at the big picture’, and think strategically about where our skills can be used to better the world. He stated that we “need to be willing to re-invent ourselves”. Everyone agreed that we can achieve this by diversifying our portfolio of skills and taking as many opportunities as possible.
Lead, don’t follow
Each speaker spoke about being a leader, not a follower. This is a phrase that is used often in reference to achieving success, but is so important in every aspect of career development. Whether it is applying for a fellowship, or stepping out to start your own business, leadership skills will carry you through your career. A leader was described as someone who makes decisions, carves out a niche rather than following trends, and who sets an example that others follow naturally.
Overall, the speakers challenged delegates to consider what their idea of success is, and what skills they need to get there. The day was enjoyed by all delegates, and the advice given will help guide them throughout their future careers. The event could be summarised by this quote from Einstein, given by Prof. Benton on the day:
Try not to become a [person] of success, but rather try to become a [person] of value.
The event is planned to run for a second year in Spring 2019.