Favourite Thing: I really enjoy every aspect of my job but the best moment is when you’ve analysed all the data, finished all the calculations and you’re putting together the theory to describe what your experiments show. It usually results in some very lively scientific debates!
University of Bristol (2013 – present), University of York (2009 – 2013)
University of Plymouth (Research Assistant)
University of Bristol
Me and my work
Firing lasers at molecules to see how they react with light
I work on a subject called ‘photodissociation dynamics,’ which is a technical term for studying how molecules break up or react when you shine light on them. This is really important as chemical reactions caused by light (photochemical reactions) are really, really common in the world around us. These photochemical reactions are what cause paint colours to fade over time and even some diseases, like skin cancer.
Although photochemical reactions are normally caused by sunlight in daily life, to study them in a lab we use lasers as our source of light. This is because it means we don’t have to rely on the weather to do experiments and laser light has many very special properties. (You can read more about this here) The lasers were use are a lot brighter than laser pens, so they can be very dangerous, as they can blind you and if you stick you hand in the laser beam, it burns your skin very badly.
We fire several different laser beams into a group of molecules one at a time. The first laser causes the molecule to react and the second laser acts a ‘spy’ to tell us how the molecule is moving during the reaction or what has happened to it.
These processes can be very complicated and to help us understand what happens, we use a lot of calculations that have to be run on very powerful computers. These calculations are based on the rules of quantum mechanics and can predict how the molecule is likely to react in our experiments.
We want to understand how photochemical reactions work in lot of detail so we can understand things such as how our DNA protects us from the harmful effects of sunlight and how chemicals will affect our atmosphere.
My Typical Day
Playing with lasers and running calculations on a supercomputer
First thing in the morning, I switch on my laser systems as they take over an hour to warm up and work properly. While I’m waiting for my experiment to wake up, I see whether any of my calculations have finished or analyse any of the data from the previous days experiments. On a good day, I can then go into the lab and start doing experiments straight away but lasers are very temperamental and they break down very often, so a lot of the time I find myself having to try and repair things before I can get started. Some days, I also teach undergraduates or school students, helping them out with their experiments in the laboratory or will attend lectures given by other scientists on their research too.
What I'd do with the money
Help get more young people hands on experience with real spectroscopy equipment
I’d love to give more people access to using miniature spectroscopy instruments and let you see how you can use laser technology to differentiate between food dyes, telling apart engine and gear box oil on Formula 1 cars and how our eyes and nose have more in common with CSI-style piece of analytical chemistry equipment than you might think.
Bristol University is very fortunate to be home to the BristolChemLabS (http://www.chemlabs.bris.ac.uk/) scheme which helps to give budding young scientists access to our teaching labs, bringing experiments to schools and generally helping more people get access to practical science.
We have loads of students come to the university every week to try new practicals, use our equipment and generally get some great hands on experience in a real lab. We often travel quite a distance to visit schools too, particular with our miniature lasers as part of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Spectroscopy in a Suitcase scheme.
The money would help sponsor schools to either host a visit from BristolChemLabS or visit the university to participate in some of the outreach activities we offer.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Determined, enthusiastic, hard-working
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
Anything with cheese
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Getting to live in Japan for three months as part of my PhD – I had the chance to do some amazing science and see some great local festivals while I was there
What did you want to be after you left school?
I knew I really wanted to study science at university but when I did some work experience in a lab, I knew that I really wanted a career in science research
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Probably a few times
What was your favourite subject at school?
Probably Physics and English
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Getting to work on one of my favourite molecules in Japan. It was incredible to finally meet one of the scientist whose papers I had been reading for years and to get to do some really new and exciting work together on this molecule.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
Although many of the scientists involved in the development of quantum mechanics are probably my favourites, I don’t think one scientist in particular really inspired me to become a scientist. I just really enjoyed studying it at school and the more I heard about the research that was going on around the world, the more interested I became.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I also really love writing, so I think I’d probably go into science journalism
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) That my experiment would stop breaking down 2) That my bidding for funding to work in Japan again is successful 3) That I get to do some more really novel and creative work during my PhD
Tell us a joke.
I was going to tell a Sodium and Hydrogen pun but NaH.
My PhD ends up being quite busy as I have the opportunity to work on three different experiments.
My main experiment and the other gas phase laser experiment are here:
The ultrafast (femtosecond) laser experiment is here:
The gas phase experiments are as complicated as they look! You can’t see the lasers in the femotsecond experiment as they live under some black plastic to keep them free of dust along with all the mirrors and lenses that direct the laser light that comes out of them.