John Fossey

Favourite Thing: Making molecules that have never been seen before



Oreston Primary (1988), Plymstock Secondary (1995), Year in Industry Scheme (1996), Cardiff University (MChem, 2000), Queen Mary Univeristy of London (PhD, 2004)


PhD Chemistry

Work History:

Since my PhD I have worked at the University of Tokyo, the University of Bath and the University of Birmingham. Between school and university I took part in the Year in Industry Scheme working at Wrafton Laboratories in North Devon.

Current Job:

Senior Lecturer


University of Birmingham

About Me

Married with three children, specialist in organic chemistry and appreciator of asymmetry.

I live in Bournville neighbouring the chocolate factory! I am a scientist working at the University of Birmingham as a senior lecturer. I teach organic chemistry and lead a research team that probes aspects of catalysis and sensing. I am fortunate enough to travel with my work and have friends all over the world.

I am married with three children, all at primary school. I enjoy cycling and go by bike to work along a canal, and am often surprised by the wildlife en route.

I enjoy cooking, and see many parallels between the kitchen and the laboratory. The best aspects are developing my own protocols (recipes) and creating something unique. In both science and cooking the quality and cleanliness of your apparatus is important, and in both cases tidying up after yourself is the most boring part.


My Work

I lead a research team in catalysis and sensing and teach organic chemistry

“Making fun stuff that does cool things”

I find the discovery of new molecules and novel ways to make them the most interesting and rewarding challenge of the chemical sciences. I am driven by a desire to understand how molecules interact with each other, and use that understanding to achieve previously unattainable goals. Its great when the molecules we make have real-life practical applications, such as in healthcare, but the primary reason to try and make news things is to see if we can. If it was easy it would not be fun.

In the area of catalysis, our work revolves around making new catalysts, or new molecular tools. We are the tool makers, and we hope our tools inspire others to create things we could never have imagined. Think about the inventor of metal rivets, the inventors could not have envisaged their use in the constriction of the Eiffel Tower or holding aeroplanes together. Without new molecular assembly tools it will be difficult to imagine how drugs to combat emerging diseases will be prepared in a cost effective way.

My Typical Day

Cycle, laptop, research, Netflix

After breakfast with my family, I usually cycle to work along a peaceful stretch of canal, giving a few mins of quiet time for thinking and planning the day. When I get to my office I have go through emails and messages from a wide range of collaborators, global research projects means “office hours” is a thing of the past. Time zone management is really helped by shared online calendars. Most days I will talk by Skype or FaceTime to collaborators in Asia, Europe or North America, and I am interested to make contacts with more scientists in Africa and South America. My research team usually present me with recent results and we discuss any problems. During term time I might teach a class but teaching is not my main activity at present. Science requires resources (money) and much of my time is devoted to securing resources so that my team can carry out research, this means collating ideas and hypotheses and presenting those, usually in writing, to agencies that support science, it s bit like writing a Dragon’s Den pitch. I will also spend time collating results for publication. We share our results with the scientific and wider community through publications in peer reviewed journals. Conveying our ideas and findings in an accessible way can be tricky. I also spend time refereeing papers and funding applications, this means offering opinions (confidentially) on the scientific results and ideas of others in my field.

On a good day I will have seen research results from my team that I would not have expected at the start of it, I will have had time to eat lunch and conversed with leading scientists about unanswered questions of science.

When I get home, usually late,  I like to have a rest and switch off for a little. After dinner, and the kids have gone to bed, I usually end up double (or triple) screening, binge-watching watching online services like Netflix, iPlayer and Amazon or listening to comedy, science or electronic music podcasts whilst checking emails, instant messaging collaborators and writing papers. Work-life-balance is a phrase I dislike, perhaps admin-life-balance is what could be addressed. A musician does not stop enjoying music at 5pm and a scientist (who might also be a musician) does not stop trying to solve research problems when the sun goes down. As long as I enjoy research it does not feel like a job and I will take every opportunity to learn new things and find out the answers to the questions I am fortunate enough to set myself.

What I'd do with the money

Start a physical science podcast


I really enjoy comedy podcasts like “AIOTM” (aiotm) and “Do the Right Thing” as well as podcasts about making comedy and the people behind it, like “Comedians Telling Stuff” and “Comedians’ Comedian.” I also like science podcasts like “The Naked Scientist” and the “TED Radio Hour.” But what’s missing is the podcast about the people “making” science, especially in the less prominent physical sciences arena.

I’d use the money to buy some recording equipment and interview a few leading physical scientists (for the first season) about their own passions, drivers, ambitions, fears, hopes and loves. If its popular I might interview biologists or even medics in the future.


My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Hungry Inquisitive Equaliser

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I mostly listen to electronic music and don’t really recognise bands or singers. I listen to DJs and producers like Joey Riot, Gammer and Kutski.

What's your favourite food?

I don’t get to eat them much theses days, but nothing beats a real pasty

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Worked in Japan

What did you want to be after you left school?

A university student

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Part of growing up is learning from your mistakes, I had plenty of opportunities to learn from.

What was your favourite subject at school?


What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

The first time I made a molecule, that to the best of our knowledge, had never before existed anywhere in the universe

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

TV programmes such as Tomorrow’s World and Horizon, particularly seeing the late Richard Feynman talking about the everyday fun of scientific discovery. Its a bit of a cliche but I enjoyed forensic science in dramas when I was growing up.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Unemployed. Actually I’d love to be a wild life documentary maker, but think the time away from family and friends would be difficult

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

(1) To be rich enough to do the science I want and not worry about money; (2) To see my kids grow up happy and establish their own independent lives; (3) To be remembered as an educator and scientist that made a difference

Tell us a joke.

Some people think chemistry is not the fundamental underpinning science.

Other stuff

Work photos: