Leaving school at 16, Steve worked as a lab technician while studying for his HNC in chemistry before going on to university.
Steve’s passion for science came from his father who was a self-taught man, read avidly and devoured anything to do with science.
“I remember looking up at the stars one night as a young child and asking him what they were. When he explained that they were suns, I asked why they are so small. He explained that it was because they are so far away and then went on to explain how long their light takes to get here. From that moment I wanted to know more about how things work and what makes the universe tick.”
A lad from a mining village
At school, Steve had supportive and inspirational science teachers who offered encouragement not only in chemistry but in his other passion, music.
“I now try to pay back my debt to these people by trying to be as supportive and encouraging as I can to the younger people I meet in science.”
In coming from a family where no one went to university, Steve’s first challenge was getting there. “My chemistry teacher in secondary school tried to persuade me that I should go, but at that time, I believed that university was not for a lad brought up in a Yorkshire mining village.”
If he hadn’t been a chemist, Steve always thought he would have ended up going down the pit as many of his classmates had. Leaving school at 16 to work as a lab technician, he studied on day release for four years to get a HNC in chemistry at Barnsley College of Technology. Giving him a good grounding in chemistry, Steve’s boss convinced him to go to university full time and study for his degree. “I found it challenging to adjust to undergraduate life, but I stuck it out and then after graduating decided I wanted to do a PhD,” Steve recalls.
Analytical links with Africa
Steve now works as analytical science team leader in the research and development department at Domino Printing Sciences. Steve works within multidisciplinary teams at each stage of the process from understanding the chemistry, physics and engineering to providing the analytical data. Steve mostly enjoys the strategic aspect of his role in developing tools to solve tomorrow’s challenges and the 'eureka moment' after understanding something for the first time.
In addition to his day job, Steve has worked with Professor Anthony Gachanja at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, JKUAT, in Nairobi for the last ten years. After Barry Nixon of Mass Spec Technologies donated a gas chromatography-mass spectrometer (GC-MS) for Anthony’s students to get hands on experience, they set up a charity: the Foundation for Analytical Science and Technology in Africa (FASTA).
“Our first fund raising event was an 85 mile walk across the Yorkshire Wolds, with sponsorship from the RSC, BMSS (the British Mass Spectrometry Society) and many individuals. That was back in 2005 and since then, we have funded a second GC-MS, a GC and an automated thermal desorber for use on the GC-MS systems to enable atmospheric analysis.”
Steve describes African chemists as some of the most dedicated and enthusiastic people he has worked with. With their passion for using chemistry to improve the economic prospects of Africa and the natural environment, they are keen to get hands on experience. Through the RSC Analytical Division, they work closely with the Kenyan Chemical Society, and are looking to set up a similar division in east Africa to facilitate international links for analytical chemists.
“We hope that this hub of analytical excellence in Nairobi and JKUAT will soon become self-sustaining. In the near future, I believe that African chemists will be delivering the training courses themselves.”
Until then, Steve will keep on fundraising. In 2013, they did a sponsored drive across Europe in a £200 car and in 2014, they embarked on a sponsored bike ride from London to Paris.
A naturally inclusive profession
With the global population approaching 10 billion, Steve sees pressures on culture, resources, freedom of movement and expression becoming greater.
“Science must be an enabling and enlightening force in the world. The need for chemistry in Africa is more pressing now than ever, if pressures on biodiversity hot spots on that continent are to be managed whilst allowing the economy to grow and lift people out of poverty.”
Steve advises others to be prepared to work hard, ask questions and not to accept the status quo. “Most people working in science will be delighted to offer help, encouragement, advice and really tangible assistance if you show that you are willing to put the effort in,” he says.
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images courtesy of Steve Lancaster
Published January 2015