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.