Kylie and her research group pioneered a new method, using enzymes bound on carbon beads, to catalyse reactions.
Curiosity about the world featured strongly in Kylie’s childhood. Her family encouraged her to look into nature during walks in the forest and find out what makes different plant species unique. Inspirational teachers, both in science and humanities, also contributed to her enjoyment of science, although this may not have been to the taste of all the family…
“I didn’t have a chemistry set, but I did love making mixtures and then feeding them to my grandmother when I was a child!”
Going to school in Australia meant that Kylie did not have to specialise too soon and was able to study literature and music, as well as maths and science, in her final year of school. After reading chemistry, physics, maths and biology in her first year of university, Kylie finally had to decide on a particular area:
“I decided to specialise in chemistry because it was able to really dig into the deep questions about how processes function in the world around us… I started working in chemistry because I was really excited about the possibilities to use my knowledge of chemistry to understand reactions happening inside biological cells and to develop a deeper understanding of biological systems… I wanted to be able to pursue the depth of knowledge that chemistry could bring about how reactions happen, how materials are made up and so on, and in particular I had an interest in how biological systems work – but I always said I wanted to understand that at a deeper level than biology was tending to present. I wanted to be able to follow where the electrons go.”
English literature was her other possible career path. During Kylie’s time at Melbourne University, it was common for students to do two degrees in parallel, and complete them slightly sooner than the time it would take to do them separately. She therefore majored in English literature as well as chemistry, gaining a BA at the same time as a BSc.
This has influenced how she now writes papers: “I enjoy the use of language in writing papers and will spend a long time arguing over exactly how we’re going to express a particular sentence to get just the right message across, and so it’s meant that I really enjoy that writing part of my job. It plays into writing grant applications, writing talks, writing publications.”
Kylie has patented a new technology, named HydRegen, and recently won our Emerging Technologies Competition in 2013. She says “it sort of came about accidentally” as a result of the work of her research group. As a result, the group is starting a project with GlaxoSmithKline. You can find out more about HydRegen, and using enzymes as catalysts for synthesis, in RSC News and on the Vincent group website.
Outside the lab
As well as a love of literature, Kylie finds time to be a STEMNET Ambassador, give talks to school students and promote careers in science. She tells us:
“I was recently involved in a ‘Chemistry at the Garden’ project with the Botanic Gardens in Oxford. I contributed to an audio trail on chemistry and plants which anyone can follow during a visit to the gardens (my segment was about the chemistry of nitrogen fixation occurring in bacteria in the roots of certain plants). As part of this project, I also led a guided walking tour on nitrogen and plants. This has led to some follow-up talks in schools, for example a talk to a geography class to explain the chemistry of global nitrogen cycles.”
She is also keen to promote science careers to students who might not have considered going to university, or picking chemistry as a subject. She was a panel member at the Mulberry School for Girls ‘Women of the World’ Festival and has given talks at a number of schools around London as a CHEMnet (now STEMnet) Ambassador.
Words by Jen Mizen
Images © Royal Society of Chemistry
Published January 2014