Twenty years ago, David’s research took him to Beijing, where he has since set up a chemistry outreach programme for migrant children.
David first became interested in chemistry at the age of 11 or 12, when it was possible to buy a lot of chemicals by mail order. He had a huge amount of fun, and learnt a lot of chemistry, by doing experiments in his garden shed; he was also encouraged by his teachers at the Royal Latin School in Buckingham to think outside the syllabus.
Having learnt what was in the syllabus as well, he went on to study chemistry at Jesus College, Oxford. During this time, he had the opportunity to give tutorials to undergraduates and since he enjoyed both the research and the teaching, decided to look for a job as a university lecturer and, following a postdoc at Bristol University, worked at Exeter University for 11 years.
Thus far, David’s career had been very ‘conventional’ but that changed in 1996 when he was offered a job at Beijing University of Chemical Technology (BUCT). At the time, conditions in Chinese universities, and society as a whole, were often thought of as being poor. On telling his UK colleagues that he was moving to China, the (more polite) ones said, “you’re brave” and the (less polite) ones said, “you’re crazy, what science can you do in China?” He replied, “maybe not so much now, but come see me in a few years’ time and you’ll know why I want to be in China!”
And that’s how it turned out. David now works in an interdisciplinary team, headed by Xue Duan, that researches layered double hydroxides, a class of synthetic clays that can be tailored by varying their chemical composition. The team has an in-house pilot plant, allowing them to move from the test tube to large scale manufacture of materials quickly. Their most recent product, an additive that protects asphalt (bitumen) from UV radiation, is being used to prevent new road surfaces from degradation. This is assisting the Chinese government’s efforts to improve western China’s economy.
“It’s been one of the most satisfying aspects of working here to see how laboratory research can be turned into products which are useful in the real world.”
David’s latest focus is on chemistry outreach and communication. Whilst the UK has a long tradition in this area, going back to Joseph Priestley and Michael Faraday, there is not such a strong tradition in China. To help fill this gap, in partnership with the Migrant Children’s Foundation, David used a grant from the Royal Society of Chemistry’s 2011 International Year of Chemistry Challenge to set up 'Fun with Science', a programme of practical chemistry for children of migrant workers from the Chinese countryside, working in Beijing. China has a very rigid residence permit (‘hukou’) system, which means that migrant children are often unable to get a place in a state school in Beijing. They either have to stay back in the village with their grandparents, or – if they join their parents in Beijing – attend poorly-funded migrant schools outside the state system that don’t offer the chance to study science. In addition to giving migrant children their first exposure to science through simple chemistry experiments, the 'Fun with Science' classes allow them to learn in a new and exciting way. The programme also provides valuable training in communication and organisation skills for the university students who act as volunteer tutors.
'Fun with Science' soon attracted the attention of various government bodies and the Royal Society of Chemistry Beijing Local Section, which David chairs, has been invited to run practical chemistry labs at all of the major science festivals held in Beijing. The queues for the lab are invariably longer than for any of the other activities, with parents willing to queue for two or three hours to give their child a rare opportunity to do practical science. Although the majority of the participants are primary school students, a significant number of high school students also ask to take part, because although they have studied chemistry for two or three years, they say they have done little, or no, practical work.
The lack of exposure to practical work in normal classes is also evident in David’s lecture demonstrations to schoolchildren: “Whilst enthusing a class of seven year olds with chemistry is probably very similar irrespective of whether they are Chinese or British, I have found that even doing something as simple as relighting a glowing splint in oxygen in a lecture demonstration on hydrogen peroxide to high school students here can result in gasps and applause. Science communicators in the UK probably have to try a bit harder to get the same reaction from 17 year olds!” After a lecture recently, a high school website quoted one of their students as saying “I never imagined that all those dry-as-dust chemical reactions we have studied are actually so fascinating!”
Building on the initial funding from the Royal Society of Chemistry, David’s university has committed to supporting science outreach and in the coming academic year they are planning to set up a Centre for Chemistry Popularisation, which will produce a range of teaching materials and run training sessions for teachers from schools and science museums from across China. BUCT has a new scheme which funds selected postdocs with the expectation that they will subsequently become members of academic staff and David will have one of these working with him on this project.
“As chemists, our education and training gives us a great skill set. My advice to anyone setting out on a chemistry career would be to think about how to employ those skills to the maximum effect, which might mean looking outside conventional career pathways – even if the leap is not as large, geographically at least, as moving to China!”
Words by David Evans and Debbie Houghton
Images courtesy of David Evans
Published August 2015