Antarctica-based atmospheric chemist Neil carries out cutting-edge research in one of the world’s most extreme environments.
Inspired at an early age
Popular television shows such as Tomorrow’s World, Star Trek and Dr Who helped to spark Neil’s passion for science from a young age. However, it was a Christmas gift of a chemistry set and microscope that proved the biggest inspiration and put him on the path that he is still following today. Neil recalls spending long, rainy winter days as a youngster in the Lake District, designing and performing his own experiments. His fascination with the experimental side of chemistry only grew stronger as he progressed from school to university:
"I think the most important aspect for me was the instrumentation and physical/practical side of chemistry. The theory was interesting and helped me to understand the processes, but being able to apply that knowledge and creating something new in the laboratory was always the most exciting and challenging part."
After completing a PhD at Queen’s University Belfast, Neil worked across a variety of research areas, holding posts at a biomedical diagnostic company and also at a major consumer goods company where he studied the effects of washing powders and dyes. Following this, he took up a position as an atmospheric chemist at the University of East Anglia where he worked on the development of an aircraft platform for the MET office and was also involved in field-based campaigns that saw him conduct research in a variety of locations including Mace-Head (Ireland), Jungfrau (Swiss Alps) and Cape Grim (Tasmania). Neil feels that these early expeditions were crucial in preparing him for his current role with the British Antarctic Survey:
"I think I was slowly building up to this challenging Antarctic environment from an early stage in my career. This was a good thing, as time spent in the field with such harsh conditions is both physically and mentally demanding. It takes a lot of character to perform well in any field campaign and Antarctica is a little more challenging than most."
Out in the cold
At present, Neil runs the Clean Air Sector Laboratory (CASLab) at the Halley VI Research Station on the Brunt Ice Shelf in coastal Antarctica. The work he carries out focusses on understanding how gases behave in a clean and polar environment and how this compares with past records. This research has important implications for ice-core interpretation and our understanding of the impact of polar climate change on atmospheric composition.
As well as making time for scientific writing, training, logistical planning, blogging, budgeting, presenting and taking part in interviews for the media, Neil oversees many aspects of instrumentation design, development, testing and operation. Every year he is involved in a research expedition to the Antarctic, lasting from a few weeks to a full summer season of four months. Aside from having to deal with immovable seasonal deadlines, working in these extreme conditions often involves huge complications. Neil explains, “Working in a hostile environment brings with it many challenges. Trying to operate and run a suite of state of the art instruments in a laboratory in Antarctica is the most challenging thing I have had to do so far.”
Despite obstacles that would be completely alien to most, such as sea-ice and snow drifts often blocking his route to work, Neil has found ways to make the most of his time in the Antarctic. Ice-climbing, penguin-spotting and ski-touring through incredible landscapes are just some of the perks of this unusual workplace. However, Neil finds the most inspiring thing about his unconventional job is the wide range of extraordinary and dedicated people that it brings him into contact with. Reflecting on this, Neil says, “I get to meet a variety of people from different backgrounds from the wider science community. Their enthusiasm and commitment to work in this area, and the amount of highly technical research that is carried out in these challenging and harsh conditions, never ceases to amaze me.”
Advice for others
Neil strongly believes that everybody has the capacity to be involved in science and that finding a niche in this area is essential. He gives some final advice to those setting out on a new career in chemistry:
"Chemistry has essentially moved on from being a single-stage platform to a matrix of connections tying up technology, business, environment, the sciences. There are more opportunities to be involved with science now than ever before so focus on what you enjoy the most and find the area that incorporates those aspects."
Words by Jamie Durrani
Images courtesy of Neil Brough
Published November 2015