A teaching fellow at the University of Cambridge, Peter is heavily involved in outreach work.
I want to do chemistry experiments
During his secondary school education, Peter’s response to ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ was always “I want to do chemistry experiments.” Despite even being told his future aims were quite ridiculous by one prospective head teacher, Peter succeeded at building his career from chemistry experiments.
Looking back at Peter’s upbringing, it was maybe always obvious that he would become a chemist. Peter’s childhood was spent on his parents’ farm, building his own laboratory from scratch. “I had a few basic chemistry sets; I started off in my bedroom with a little spirit lamp which progressed over the years and eventually took over.” Things really began to expand when he worked at a laboratory suppliers and he was paid in equipment and chemicals.
Peter’s role model, a family friend who taught chemistry at a further education college, nurtured his interest in chemistry. It was clear his role model had patience and direction that shaped Peter’s understanding.
“I could phone him up for literally hours and talk about my chemistry questions. I understand that as a teacher, it is really lovely when you get students really excited and passionate about a subject. I can relate to that very much being an educator myself now.”
Whilst studying for his A-levels, Peter represented the UK at the Chemistry Olympiad finals in Hungary. As the only participant from his school, he never regretted taking this decision over competing for the junior rowing finals - his other passion. Peter went on to study chemistry at the University of Cambridge. “In coming to university, the way I was looking at things was not necessarily following the way it was taught.” The difficulties he faced as an undergraduate sparked his involvement for improving the way chemistry is taught at university, his textbooks and his outreach work.
Education is the top priority
Currently a teaching fellow in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, Peter lectures to undergraduates and played an active role in developing course material. “We’ve completely restructured the chemistry course. It is much clearer and is far more educationally sound. It leads the students through in a logical way.”
As well as an educator, Peter is heavily involved in outreach work. Not only has he fronted lectures at the Cambridge Science Festival but he regularly promotes chemistry to children and adults. Since his participation as a teenager, Peter has been involved in the International Chemistry Olympiad throughout his career. Chair of the 41st edition, his efforts were recognised when he was appointed MBE in 2014. In 2012, Peter also gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures - The Modern Alchemist - which is currently on tour around the UK.
“Outreach is important because a lot of people naturally seem to have problems understanding chemistry and I don’t think it needs to be like that. For me it makes perfect sense, I understand how it all fits together and the beauty of the periodic table. It’s nice trying to get that across to other individuals.”
Not only targeted towards children, Peter sees adults benefiting from his demonstration lectures. He often experiences people in their thirties and forties that never understood the material at school but now appreciate how it all fits together. “There are issues with chemistry; the only chemistry stories where chemistry is really emphasised that make it into the media portray negative issues. The key thing I’m trying to do with the lectures is keep education as the top priority.” Currently writing a popular science book, Peter hopes to reach out to the public and try to correct the negative view of chemistry.
First in the family
Growing up on a farm, Peter understands that his parent’s support and belief in a good education were important. “I was the first one to do any A-levels and coming from a farming background, my parents didn’t have the same opportunities they were keen for me to have. It was quite a change.” Peter advises that “if you have a passion for something, there should be nothing to stop you exploring this. Nobody in my family had done this before. Even though my family don’t necessarily understand what I do, they are very proud of me.”
Knowing people who have got their qualifications and specialised during their times as technicians, he believes it isn’t absolutely necessary to go to university.
“If you are interested in chemistry, perhaps you might start out as a technician in a school or university. It’s just about keeping your options open in terms of not thinking that it is something beyond you.”
One issue Peter believes is an underlying problem in some students is a lack of mathematical understanding. “All of the sciences are blurred into one and some of the difficulty stems from the fact people aren’t being guided in terms of the best combination of subjects to choose.” Peter agrees that in order to become a good chemist, students need a good level of maths and a broader understanding of all the sciences. “There is an absolute problem here, not every school is able to offer their students further maths which is something the government ought to be addressing.”
Peter’s passion for teaching and enhancing student understanding is a theme seen clearly throughout his lectures and textbooks. Addressing some of the core problems, he has been involved in writing university textbooks and books aimed at bridging the gap between school and university. Why Chemical Reactions Happen? has been popular in schools and builds connections between key concepts across the chemical sciences. Peter advices, “for those that are setting out, I always knew I wanted to be a chemist. It is very important that students don’t neglect other sciences and maths early in their career. If you are really good at maths, you can understand areas of theoretical chemistry that otherwise you’d be less interested in.”
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images by Nathan Pitt & Caroline Hancox, © University of Cambridge
Published November 2014