Scientist, engineer, science communicator, salsa teacher and part-time comic
There is no doubting Jamie Gallagher’s passion for science. Shows such as 'Periodic Success', 'Indestructible Energy' and 'Living in a Material World' are regularly delivered to packed audiences of all ages. Jamie won the Scottish heat of FameLab UK in 2012, a competition that showcases future generations of science communicators, and in 2013 he won the University of Glasgow's '3 Minute Thesis Competition', in which he had to explain his research to a non-specialist audience in a timeframe more often associated with the running length of a hit record.
Both an inorganic chemist and an electrical engineer, his day is often split between the chemical laboratory growing nanoscale materials and the engineering cleanroom, where he explores and tests the materials that have grown. A typical day will see him blowing glass to seal elemental reagents in a quartz tube, which can then be heated to 1000 °C to grow new and interesting structures. Evenings are often spent travelling to a science communication event.
“I’ve done some science stand up at a music festival in a welsh field, spoken at the Royal Institution and even been part of a very unusual science burlesque evening.”
A vocal opponent to the stereotyping of women in science, he names Marie Curie as a major inspiration.
“She is the only person to win two Nobel prizes in different fields and yet the prejudice and bigotry she encountered and battled through her life is staggering. She was turned away from universities; she was hounded and vilified by the media and all for being a woman. Marie Curie’s daughter also won a Nobel Prize making them the only mother- daughter pair ever to do so. Today it is all too easy to forget that her scientific quest was a daily fight, or to think that the issues she faced are long since gone, they are not. Let us learn from the mistakes of the past and ensure that no one needs to fight to justify their right to pursue their scientific dream.”
Part of Jamie’s love of chemistry comes from its real world applications and the ability to see how a concept developed in the laboratory can grow into something that can change people’s lives. From studying medicinal chemistry where an understanding of how the properties of a single molecule can have profound effects of the body, to the energy materials that he now studies that aim to provide us with clean and plentiful energy in the future.
“I love the applications of what I do right now. I grow materials that can take waste heat and generate electricity. I demonstrate this effect by using my body heat to power a small motor and it is very exciting the first time you take something that you have grown in the laboratory and manage to make it work in real life. The idea of clothing that could generate electricity is very exciting!”
When asked what to explain from his own experiences what someone considering a career in chemistry should expect that was his answer: expect the unexpected. Chemistry is a hugely diverse area and everyone’s experience and journey will be different. His advice, “feed your curiosity until you discover what it is about the subject that you truly love. Gradually you will find yourself gravitating in the direction that suits you.”
Perhaps some of his peers do not appreciate the value of his outreach work, but that is met with indifference rather than hostility.
However, in the absence of personal challenges he speaks passionately about the gender stereotypes that are still being pedalled in the media; about meeting girls who are already disengaged with science; and about the lack of legal protection in terms of maternity and paternity leave during PhD studies. He feels a responsibility to make noise about these inequalities.
“Science is for everyone and we have hundreds of years of history to correct, we are making fast progress but until equality is achieved across the board, until anyone who wants to pursue science has that ability then we must continue to fight.”
It is his opinion that everyone needs to be aware of the subtle discriminations that can have profound effects, such as the gendered marketing of science toys:
“The next time you see a chemistry set in the boy’s section and nothing but dolls and pink things in the girl’s section, complain.”
Words by Andrea Banham, video by Edwin Silvester
Images © Ken MacGregor/ Royal Society of Chemistry