University of Bath: 2011 to present, University of Bath: 2010-2011, University College London: 2006-2010, Sheldon School 2004-2006, Grittleton House School 1999-2004
PhD (Sustainable Chemical Technologies): 2016, MRes (Sustainable Chemical Technologies: 2011, MEng (Biochemical Engineering): 2010, A-Levels (Biology, Chemistry, Maths):2006, 9 GCSEs: 2004
University of Bath
Favourite thing to do in science I love putting enzymes through their paces. I have spent much of my project pushing enzymes as far as they can go, seeing if they crack at higher temperatures and in other harsh conditions. This has led to my nickname: The Enzyme Torturer.
I am looking at a particular bacteria that you would normally find in a compost heap, and seeing if I can use it to make medicines and other chemicals.
The species of bacteria I work with, Geobacillus thermoglucosidasius, can be found all over the world. Typically found in compost heaps, it is in the soils across the planet, carried in the wind as a hard football-like spore.
It is currently being used to make ethanol for fuel, from waste like vegetable peelings, cut grass and other plant based materials. I am looking at one type of enzyme that is involved in this, but looking to see if they can help produce medicines, other biofuels, and other valuable chemicals.
I work between biology and chemistry, across a huge number of fields: microbiology (growing bacteria), genetics (picking out the genes that I need), enzymology (investigating the enzymes themselves), analytical chemistry (measuring the chemicals that I make), and sustainability. One of the reasons I enjoy the work that I do is because I can work in all these different areas!
The reason that I am doing what I do is sustainability. Most of our chemicals, including things like plastics and paints, and our fuels are all made from oil. Supplies of oil will run out, and burning oil, petrol and gas for energy causes an enormous amount of pollution and contributes to climate change. If we were to get our chemicals from plants instead, then we could reduce our use of oil. Enzymes can be used instead of using a chemical process, further reducing our need for oil. They can also be safer than using some metal based routes, but enzymes also need a lot more research than relying upon a chemical process that may be new or might have been used for hundreds of years.
My Typical Day
I don’t have a typical day – but I can give some examples of what I get up to!
I am in the very last stages of my PhD, which is a second degree that you can do after you go university for the first time. I have written my thesis, which is a report on my entire project over the last few years. I have had my final exam based upon this report, and am currently correcting it – I have just passed 50,000 words and am nearing 200 pages!
Currently my days are quite varied. I do not have a full time job at the moment, but I am looking for one. I am hoping to stay in research, continuing in a similar area. Editing and correcting my thesis is taking most of my time at the moment, but I am also finding time to teach short courses about my research to Year 9/10 students. I also happen to be a useful helper to my brother in Year 7 and my sister in Year 10 – both seem to get a lot of homework!
Whilst I was in the laboratory my days were more focussed, and I did some pretty long days/nights there. At the start I worked from 9am-6pm five days a week, but towards the end I was doing much longer hours as I tried to do more experiments. Because I don’t really like mornings (who does?) I arrived in the lab about 10-11am, and left somewhere between 10pm and 2am. I was part of the night crew, as we called ourselves.
Most of my work involved investigating enzymes, which you can’t see. Biology has been called the science of putting colourless liquids into other colourless liquids, which is true. Unlike some areas of chemistry, we don’t often get to make a rainbow of colours with our work. The most important piece of equipment I worked with was called a spectrophotometer, which was able to record the amount of ultraviolet light reflected by my “colourless liquids”. A key chemical that my enzymes worked with would reflect this light, and I would be able to tell how fast my enzymes were working based upon the amount of light reflected and how much this changed over time.
Highlights of work include attending conferences, or big meetings, with hundreds or even thousands of scientists. I was able to present a poster at a conference in The Hague, in the Netherlands, and give a talk in Lille, France. Getting to The Hague was difficult, I ended up in four countries in four hours!
What I'd do with the money
Invite students to a conference at a university.
I have previously run a Green Science Symposium for Year 12 students, which was a half day event at the University of Bath. Over 150 students from across England and Wales came, and various members of research staff gave talks about their work, just like a scientific conference. Students attending were encouraged to present posters of their own work as well. Teachers, students, and the occasional parent all enjoyed it. The most interesting part was the interaction between students and presenters, who met outside the hall, again just like a scientific conference. Students were able to ask questions about research, and understand what researchers were doing at Bath and why they were doing it.
I was able to run such an event due to the funding of a member of staff from the Royal Society of Chemistry, and having this funding would allow me to put on another event like this. I can’t say what the exact format would be at this stage; however, I think I would look to invite younger students to attend and more PhD students to give talks. I would like to again demonstrate the wide range of research across chemistry, chemical engineering and other fields that falls under the remit of sustainability. There really is a huge range.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Crazy, Rambling, Loyal
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Don’t really have one, as I listen to a lot of music – currently listening to Timoteij, a Swedish pop group.
What's your favourite food?
Chocolate. Bacon comes a close second though.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Going to The Hague to present at a huge conference. Getting there was hilarious, including arguing with a conductor on a French train. Speaking to thousands of scientists and engineers about their work, about education and about the world at large was a fantastic experience.
What did you want to be after you left school?
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not really, but there was that one time I was convinced by my friends it would be possible to unlock a door using my glasses. Thankfully my glasses were (mostly) intact at the end of that particular experiment. Didn’t get the door open either.
What was your favourite subject at school?
Biology and Chemistry
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Discovered some new enzymes that no one else has ever seen before.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
I can’t remember a specific thing or person. I have just always wanted to learn as much as I could about science.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Professional Magic: The Gathering card game player.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
A job in research, a better memory, the ability to fly.
Tell us a joke.
What do you call a deer with no eyes? No idea. What do you call a deer with no eyes and no legs? Still… no idea!
Here are some of the fabulous people that I have worked with over the last few years:
My biology lab bench, frequently less tidy than this:
My chemistry lab, definitely less tidy than this usually:
This was my office during my first year – my year group are in this picture. Bonus points if you can find me!
Also from my first year at Bath, this was on a trip to Devon to learn about alternative approaches to sustainability. There was a dressing up box. It got used. Extensively. Why was there one there? Not a clue!
My PhD in one picture – this is all of it. Each vial contains a strain of bacteria, most have never been created before and contain one of the genes that codes for an enzyme.
This was the scale at which I grew my bacteria. Typically using 2.5L glass flasks, with 500ml liquid in.