Chem Coach Carnival

Here’s my very late contribution to See Arr Oh’s Chem Coach Carnival. The hashtag is #ChemCoach on Twitter.

Your current job.

I’m a PhD student at the Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London. I make metal nanoparticles of various shapes and sizes using flow reactors. Other researchers want them for use in organic electronic devices.

What you do in a standard “work day.”

Upon arriving at uni I immediately go for a shower because I cycle rather than take the tube. Riding my bike keeps me sane. Next thing: coffee.

After that I sit down and plan my day, most of which is spent in the lab. For my own research that involves analysing data, planning/doing reactions, ordering supplies/equipment, programming, building home-made equipment, doing electron microscopy, writing…

My work is very varied and I like it like that. I’m in a small group so everyone has to muck in and learn how to do lots of different things. Nothing is simply delegated to someone else. I think my work probably borders on chemical engineering/process chemistry.

I spent most of Friday running some preliminary tests on a new flow reactor. I also took delivery of a new optical microscope, then helped get rid of an old server rack because we’ve recently got a new optics table and need to make some space. After clearing up the mess I made in the lab I helped out our undergrad student with some MATLAB code.

I also spend one afternoon a week demonstrating for third year undergraduate physical chemistry labs. Teaching is fun, but sometimes very frustrating.

What kind of schooling/training/experience helped you get there?

I went to a comprehensive state school and sixth form before to Imperial for my undergraduate chemistry degree, where I’m now doing my PhD.

During my undergrad I did a summer placement with another group at Imperial, very generously funded by the supervisor. That confirmed for me that I wanted to do a PhD. I strongly recommend that students interested in a PhD do a summer placement.

I’ve also had a lot of non-chemistry part time jobs, mostly in bookshops. I’d like to think that’s given me a good try-anything, get-on-with-it attitude.

How does chemistry inform your work?

It doesn’t so much inform my work as form the core of it. It’s no good if I build the finest flow reactor in the world but my reaction doesn’t work.

I love running reactions, especially anything with a nice colour change. It’s so exciting when it works (and totally makes up for all the times it doesn’t). This Abstruse Goose comic sums up my feelings perfectly.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career.

Not funny, but I’m fairly sure I’m the only person to have ever modified an Argos mini oven to make silver nanoparticles.

Conference talks: generally a bit rubbish?

Athene Donald recently wrote about what you don’t see at academic conferences. Academics may go to conferences in exotic places but they only see the inside of conference centres, hotels, airports and restaurants.

In the last year I’ve only been to two conferences. Unfortunately neither of them were in exotic places. The first was in York and I went with a few people from my group. As none of us are especially well-known in our field we unlike Athene had the freedom to explore York in the evenings. The second was held at Imperial and attendance was compulsory for DTC students. They were both small (no parallel talks) and lasted two days.

The speakers at both conferences, with the exception of one or two each day, were incredibly uninspiring and unenthusiastic. I remember trying to fall asleep one afternoon in York after nearly exhausting my iPhone battery reading papers. I was very disappointed as I had hoped to come back with fresh ideas but instead felt that it was a massive waste of time and money.

How can people talk so blandly about their own work? If the speaker isn’t excited by it then they most certainly can’t expect the audience to be interested. Many talks didn’t have any questions—the presentation equivalent of a death knell.

How have we ended up in this situation? I find it particularly baffling when I think about talks given by PhD students in my DTC. Recently we had a day with industry sponsors and visitors from other universities to listen to some third and final year PhD students present their work. The presentations were largely fantastic. Enthusiastic, confident, engaging, interesting… Really very good. Last month my cohort gave our MRes talks and the comments from markers were (nearly) all positive too. A world apart from the dreary, mind numbing talks I’ve sat through at my last two conferences.

Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I’ve really been put off going to anything other than something massive like the MRS conference where there will always be something related to my field and hence tolerable, even if the speaker is a bit tedious.

Does anyone else find most talks bad too? Are good talks unfortunately the exception? On the positive side, at least I’m at the beginning of my career so I can follow Athene’s advice, especially for my next trip to Italy in April:

Early career researchers, don’t kid yourself your professors enjoy themselves on such trips by seeing all the sights of the world you’ve always wanted to see yourself. Chances are, if you get to visit some far-flung place for a conference, you will enjoy your trip much more than your seniors because you live your life at a more leisurely pace. Make the most of it!