Sean creates the Royal Institution’s L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre workshops that enable students to become a scientist or engineer for a day.
The first signs that Sean Thurston had an interest in science began to appear when he was a young boy, and his father kept pet fish. Sean became fascinated by his father’s fish, and was constantly asking questions about them. A family holiday to the Jacques Cousteau Institute in France confirmed his desire to become a scientist, and for much of his youth he wanted to become a marine biologist.
Chemistry first captured Sean’s attention thanks to his Year 9 teacher, a "classic-looking mad-scientist with massive grey hair and glasses", who had a somewhat explosive approach to teaching. A year later he began his work experience at Inspire, a public science centre in Norwich, and became interested in not just learning chemistry, but talking about it with other people.
“Working at Inspire got me really into talking to other people about science and getting other people interested in it.”
Sean enjoyed his week at Inspire, and when his manager offered him a part-time job at the centre he gratefully accepted. Throughout his A-levels he became more involved with science outreach, becoming involved with ChemNet, and later on as a STEM Ambassador.
Academia to Outreach
He went on to study chemistry at the University of East Anglia, becoming especially interested in synthetic organic chemistry. Initially wanting to be a researcher, he stayed at UEA for a PhD in organocatalysis.
“I loved the thrill of holding something that no one had ever made before.”
Just as Sean had finished his PhD, a friend showed him an advert for a job at the Royal Institution as an assistant for their famous CHRISTMAS LECTURES®. The job description was exactly what Sean was looking for, and too good to pass by. Sean applied, and after an interview in which that year’s presenter, eminent organic chemist Peter Wothers, emerged from behind a door to ask him what his favourite element was - “Iodine. Always iodine” - he started working at the Royal Institution just three days later.
Sean was thrown straight into a meeting with Peter to think about the experiments that they wanted to show during the lectures. With almost no limit to what they could do, Sean was able to bring together experiments and guests from right across chemistry: from hearing about a toddler cured by experimental xenon therapy to burning a diamond with Nobel Prize winner Sir Harry Kroto.
The dramatic climax of the lectures was a classic demonstration: burning hydrogen in air to form water. Normally, this is done with a balloon full of hydrogen, but the occasion demanded something bigger: much bigger, as it turned out. Sean and the CHRISTMAS LECTURES® team decided to perform the reaction in a length of pipe a kilometre long. The pipe stretched all the way around the building, through the lecture theatre, the library and onto the balcony and roof. Despite a few problems - “we didn’t realise at the time the logistics of handling a kilometre of pipe” - the experiment was ready just in time to be filmed for the lectures. Now it is Sean’s favourite demonstration, and he has performed it with the Royal Institution in many places all around the world.
After finishing his work on the lectures Sean wanted to stay on at the Royal Institution, and luckily a job working at the L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre appeared just as he finished. In the L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre workshops, students become a scientist or engineer for the day, testing their own ideas by designing and conducting creative experiments. Sean’s job is to design and run the workshops, a task that he enjoys:
“I’ve discovered that I really love inspiring kids into science, and working at the L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre it’s really nice to see people enjoying that and knowing that I had a hand in it. I can’t see myself ever wanting to leave the Royal Institution.”
Words by Stephen McCarthy
Published September 2014