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Jess Ham with Bill Bryson
Jess Ham

Jess won the Bill Bryson Prize for Science Communication 2012 for her comic chemistry cartoons, combining chemistry facts with witty science puns.

Jess Ham’s ability to combine chemistry facts with witty science puns and a creative hand was a talent that the Bill Bryson Prize for Science Communication judges couldn’t ignore. The Royal Society of Chemistry received hundreds of informative and creative entries to the 2012 science communication competition, with Jess Ham taking away the title of overall winner.

Jess Ham's winning cartoon

“Once I hit GCSE, chemistry was easily the most exciting subject at school. I was fortunate to have a brilliant (if not slightly deranged) teacher who filled our lessons with demos, jokes and explosions. My sixth form teachers were great too, though explosions were largely replaced with encouragement to read chemistry at university, something I hadn’t previously considered doing. Inspiration also came from the periodic table of videos Youtube channel and visits to the Royal Society’s summer science exhibition; though mainly from practical chemistry in sixth form.”

“As a class we did the Royal Society of Chemistry’s aspirin project, which I thoroughly enjoyed; and I was allowed to do some demonstrations to a group of kids, which was a bit of a dream come true really.”

Despite the complexity of coming up with her witty comics, the biggest chemistry challenge Jess has faced so far has been a major lack of motivation at university. “The course wasn’t what I was expecting: it’s very mathematical, fast-paced and a huge step up from A-level. I simply found it way too difficult and it made me wonder if it was something I was capable of, or even wanted to do. However my tutors and friends at college were very supportive, and despite the best efforts of the physical chemistry department, I’m now actually enjoying university!” These days, Jess continues to doodle in tutorial work and notes:

“My favourite things about studying chemistry (apart from my student loan) are having my very own stained lab coat and drawing diagrams in inorganic chemistry, because you get to colour them in.”

A picture of diversity

As a new undergraduate student, Jess comments on some of the diversity issues facing students making the leap to study chemistry at university. "Better communication between all schools and universities, especially about the expectations of students, would help equip a wider range of schools to send students to chemistry degrees, particularly at places like Oxford and Cambridge". She goes on to comment about the gender balance she’s experienced:

“At undergraduate level we seem to have a roughly equal number of men and women, though there does appear to be significantly more men higher up in the department. No-one seems to know exactly why this is or what to do about it!”

A further illustration of this point is possibly in Jess’s hand itself; her ‘typical chemist’ sketch covers a surprisingly high proportion of the chemists that Jess knows, despite being a narrow-minded stereotype:

“With the possible exception of lab technicians, the unsung heroes of science, chemists are generally characterised by their being at least slightly crazy.”

'Stereotypical Chemist' sketch - (c) Jess Ham

  1. Shiny bald head. Alternatively the chemist may be found with a professor-afro, or profafro; a wild mass of grey/white hair used to insulate the finely tuned brains of professors.
  2. Manic grin. Enthusiasm may be replaced with spectacular pessimism and a sense of humour so sarcastic and dry it could desiccate CaCl2. This is common among theoreticians and people who’ve spent too long teaching.
  3. Stained lab coat
  4. Smells
  5. Bad tie
  6. Chemistry
  7. Disregard for personal safety
  8. Hands scarred from broken glass tubing and burns. The chemist may not still be in possession of all their fingers.
  9. Badly concealed attempts to manufacture own fireworks.

The future for Jess

Jess on a unicycle in a circus tent

If she hadn’t studied chemistry, Jess would have trained as a circus performer; “If I can afford to, that’s what I’ll do once I’ve finished my degree", says Jess. With a knack for combining chemistry with less-than-typical creative outlets, it seems very fitting that Jess’s dream job would be to "travel round schools doing combined circus and science shows, selling over-priced comics and resources…”

With that in mind, watch out for a science circus popping up near you in the future!


Words by Emily James
Bill Bryson Prize Image © Terry Moore/Royal Society of Chemistry 
Other images courtesy of Jess Ham
Published August 2013

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