Explosives expert Jackie is head of the Centre for Defence Chemistry at Cranfield University.
Looking back, Jackie believes the person who has influenced her scientific life the most is her father. He was an electrical engineer and had an ability to explain the most complex subjects in simple terms. “He taught me in one afternoon how an electrical motor worked for my physics A-level exam,” she recalls.
Polymer chemist to explosives expert
Jackie grew up in Peckham, in the south-east of London, and attended Honor Oak Girls Grammar School. The school encouraged her to study the sciences and they expected her to go to university. She studied for a BSc in chemistry at Southampton University and then “mainly due to not knowing what to do next” she stayed at Southampton and completed a PhD in polymer chemistry.
After a year’s postdoctoral research, Jackie decided her future lay in academia but she was advised to experience working in industry first, to gain an understanding of the commercial environment. For three years she worked at Perelli General, carrying out research into polymeric optical fibres for short distance communication. She then returned to academia, taking a position as lecturer at Cranfield University.
When Jackie joined Cranfield University she had no experience working with explosives. But whilst teaching polymer chemistry to undergraduates and postgraduates, she was encouraged to attract research contracts from businesses. Her first contract was with Standard Fireworks, looking at improving their manufacturing techniques by adding polymers to bind powdered fireworks. Following this, Jackie was awarded a research contract with the Defence Explosives Research Agency (DERA) – this time to improve the manufacture of polymer bonded explosives. “This was my first introduction to high explosives and, through this contract, I started to increase my network within the defence industry,” she explains.
Jackie has since worked with a multitude of defence organisations including the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the Ministry of Defence and BAESystems. She has also represented the UK on NATO projects and EU expert advisory committees. Jackie enjoys working with the media and has appeared on programs such as the Naked Scientist, Tomorrow’s World and Life Scientific.
For the last eight years Jackie has been head of the Centre for Defence Chemistry at Cranfield University. She is not only responsible for the delivery of teaching courses but carries out research and offers consultancy in all aspects of explosives, propellants and pyrotechnics chemistry: from synthesis, manufacture and characterisation, to testing and evaluating performance and safety, and aging and disposal.
Challenges and rewards
Jackie takes delight in tackling the research challenges she is faced with on a daily basis and describes the most enjoyable part of her job as being able to work with people who are extremely competent. She also finds teaching undergraduates and postgraduates to be particularly rewarding.
“As an explosives chemist the work is challenging, exciting and diverse and we always welcome talented young scientists who are good researchers and communicators in all aspects of chemistry.”
The greatest challenges Jackie has faced during her career have been those where work has impacted on family life. She describes missing holidays and weekends with her husband, whilst trying to write her first book, as being particularly tough. Jackie doesn’t think she could have dedicated so much of her life to her career without the constant support and sacrifices of her husband. “I remember even when I was a PhD student, he would keep me company when I was running experiments late at night,” she says.
Advice to others
“Chemistry is a wonderful subject and is part of our daily life – from washing, cooking and eating, we are surrounded by chemical reactions which take place without us realising.”
Giving advice to those considering a career in chemistry, Jackie says, “they should be prepared to accept chemistry as part of their everyday life.” Speaking specifically about careers in academia, she goes on to say, “you’ll never be super-rich but you’ll have a sense of fulfilment and achievement when you see your students graduate. It’s a way of life and I highly recommend it.”
Words by Isobel Marr
Images courtesy of Jackie Akhavan
Published September 2015