Suze is a previous winner of ‘I’m a Scientist’, a competition where school students get to meet, interact with, and vote for their favourite scientists.
Describing herself as a nanochemist - both literally and professionally - Suze brings her passion for chemistry to a wealth of science communication and outreach activities, as well as finding time to conduct her own research on materials for artificial photosynthesis.
During Suze’s childhood, her insatiable curiosity for discovering how things work often left her parents possessions in a state of disrepair. Despite this, the combination of the support provided by them alongside her inspiring teacher Mr Brian McVicar led her towards a lifelong love of science and engineering.
“When I was tall enough to climb up onto the side of the bath, at about the age of three onwards, I would take my Mum's lotions and potions and mix them all up in the bathroom sink to see what I could make!”
This nurturing environment initially led Suze to study for a BSc degree in chemistry. It was during this time that she first learned of nanotechnology and its applications.
“I recently found my handwritten lecture notes back at my parents' house, and remembered the joy I first experienced learning about nanotechnology for the first time! The science behind it was fascinating, and the first time I really enjoyed the quirkiness of the finer points of quantum mechanics - before that it was quite a bit of a challenge to try and understand it enough to pass my exams, but not so much that I lost the plot.”
After receiving her degree Suze took a turn away from chemistry, embarking on a graduate scheme in accounting. It wasn’t long however before she felt she missed chemistry. After this time away from university she chose to return to undertake an MSc to find out what a research degree would be like before then committing to a PhD.
Variety is where you find the fun
Now a teaching fellow at Imperial College London, Suze divides her time there between carrying out her own research and teaching science and engineering undergraduates. A significant part of her teaching role is facilitating the transition between school and university. Her PGCE in secondary school science gives her an insight into how students are currently taught chemistry and physics and how best to support them into higher education.
Suze’s research devises and optimises materials that can capture solar energy and pass this energy on to water molecules in an area of research known as artificial photosynthesis. It is based on reactions observed when plants use the process of photosynthesis to make their own fuel. In this process, water is split to generate hydrogen gas. Hydrogen can be burned to release three times the heat that an equivalent volume of methane would produce, and only generates water as a by-product. Hydrogen is therefore a much cheaper, cleaner and more sustainable fuel, and is less polluting to the environment.
As well as sating her own curiosity in the lab, Suze is an ardent science communicator. She delivers regular public lectures at schools, universities and science festivals, is a presenter on the Discovery Channel’s You Have Been Warned and is a science writer for numerous websites including Forbes and Standard Issue.
“I love the variety of my days. In a single week I could be in the lab, supervising students, lecturing undergraduates, filming for a TV show and representing my discipline in discussions with policy makers in Parliament. I could keep my work to a simple routine, but where's the fun in that?!”
Work for it
Suze is a vocal advocate of increasing diversity in science and frequently delivers lectures on the subject. She has also been involved in a number of activities for not-for-profit organisation ScienceGrrl, a network that celebrates and supports women in science. Suze recently featured in their video cover version of Thomas Dolby’s 1982 hit She Blinded Me with Science and wrote a blog describing her research as well as why she got involved in the project.
"Keep trying, and never give up on your dreams. Follow your heart to 'your' job. Ask questions. Ask for help and advice. Work harder when you're younger to open doors for you in the future. Find role models. Maybe they’re like you but maybe they are totally different to you."
Suze believes that as a society we must encourage people to study science and engineering after they leave school, but in a way that suits them best. In the right environment, with the right support, hard work and understanding, challenges and surprises can lead individuals to flourish in a whole range of careers, and not all of them obvious when studying a subject such as chemistry.
“In science and engineering in general, I think I am one of many people, often mostly women, who attribute every success to 'luck' - we don't seem to be able to bring ourselves to admit that it is through the sheer hard work, through professional development and affirmative responses to opportunities that do come along and ALL THE HOURS of extra work that are often never acknowledged that may also have something to do with it. Maybe luck has something to do with it, but hard work and amazing support are probably more scientifically accurate reasons as to how I am able to do the science and science communication that I love so much as an actual job!”
Words by Suze Kundu and Eleanor Hall
Images by Royal Society of Chemistry/MPP Image Creation
Published February 2016