Following a Nuffield research placement in industry, MChem student Fiona won a place on the London International Youth Science Forum.
With parents both in scientific careers, science was openly discussed at Fiona’s home and was a natural part of everyday life. Never needing a chemistry set, Fiona often played with her dad’s old lab equipment: micropipettes, balances and microscopes.
“We weren’t doing anything ground-breaking but putting things under the microscope and pipetting water was great fun!”
She always loved science lessons at school, especially her own investigations, but it wasn’t until her Nuffield Bursary five-week scientific placement at GlaxoSmithKline in Stevenage, that she was seriously drawn to it. Under the guidance of her supervisor, Fiona investigated the use of ketonic solvents with the Suzuki-Miyaura reaction.
“I had to consider all of the parameters that could affect the performance of the reaction and then analyse the data. The experience of working in an industrial laboratory really inspired me to go on and study chemistry.”
Analytical thinking, trial and error and thinking outside the box
Fiona is now in the final year of her MChem at Oxford University where she enjoys applying fundamental laws to real world problems. Since being at university, she has discovered the breadth of chemistry and some of the challenges it brings. Mastering extremely different topics in detail from organic mechanisms to quantum mechanics demands Fiona’s commitment and hard of work. “The reward for this work is an immense feeling of satisfaction when you finally understand a topic you’ve been struggling over,” she says.
For her final year project, Fiona works with Professor Harry Anderson FRS who specialises in molecular engineering. Enjoying both working in the lab and the atmosphere in her group, she is synthesising a template for the template synthesis of catenane. In the future, she aims to continue study for a PhD and afterwards, move into the business side of a scientific company.
“I’m interested in business and how I might combine my scientific background to develop and commercialise novel scientific ideas and projects.”
Nuffield Placement to STEM Ambassador
Finding out about the Nuffield foundation through older girls at her school presenting their work in the science society, Fiona decided to apply. Through the placement, she hoped she would decide what she wanted to study at university by getting laboratory experience. For her work on the Suzuki-Miyaura reaction, she was awarded a Gold CREST Award and secured a place in The Big Bang Fair Final UK Young Scientist and Engineer competition in 2011.
After presenting her project numerous times to judges, Fiona won a place on the London International Youth Science Forum, LIYSF. Through this, she spent two weeks with international science students from over 60 countries going to lectures and on industrial trips.
“LIYSF made a huge impression on me and I am still in touch with many of the friends I made at the conference.”
Fiona’s experience at The Big Bang Fair has sparked her interest and further opportunities in school science workshops. In 2014, she helped run ‘Rainforest Uncovered’ by ScienceBox, a workshop attended by 40 school children. Fiona is passionate about science education having experienced the student’s enthusiasm; she is continuing her work by becoming a STEM Ambassador.
The Nuffield Foundation placement generated so many opportunities for Fiona and she advises others considering studying science at university to apply.
“Degree-level science and working in a research lab is very different to your scientific experience at school. The placement will either inspire you or stop you from making a wrong choice.”
“When I tell people that I do chemistry at university, I often get the reply, ‘but isn’t that hard?’. I agree that chemistry is challenging and the idea of it being impossibly difficult is daunting. We need to build confidence in studying scientific subjects and it needs to start at an early age in schools.”
Having spoken to so many school children whilst volunteering, she sees many that are interested in science but have little opportunities at school. With the few science clubs around reliant on the dedication of a few committed teachers, she believes the key is to increase children’s exposure to science at school.
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images © Ian Farrell/ Royal Society of Chemistry
Published February 2014