Chief chemist at EDF Energy, Stephen – who started as an apprentice – wholeheartedly endorses the vocational route into science.
Q: What does your role involve?
A: Just to put it into context, EDF Energy own and operate 15 of the 16 nuclear reactors in the UK, so that’s across eight power stations, and my role working with colleagues is to be the focus for chemistry across the fleet.
I will be looking at strategies that make sure we promote the management of chemistry both here in the centre and also at the fleet. I’ll be looking at training initiatives and training development of new and existing staff to make sure that we can continue to learn new skills and develop their progress. I’ve been involved in commissioning the writing of chemistry standards and technical governance documents, and then also ensuring that we have compliance against those as well.
And then finally I’ll be looking at areas of chemical safety. We have very concentrated acids and alkalis on our nuclear plants in huge volumes and people are working with those on a day-to-day basis. Most of them will be non-chemists so we need to make sure that where they are coming into contact with chemicals, they do so safely, for their own personal safety and also for that of their colleagues.
Q: How important is chemistry to EDF?
A: My role is very rewarding. I’m really fortunate in my role, I get to see chemistry happen in practice. I get to see the benefits of minimising corrosion in the plant, steel work lasting longer than it should do. I get to see the benefit of working with colleagues and seeing them developing their technical abilities. And keeping everyone operating safely – the benefit for us is that we can turn chemistry from a theoretical discipline into actual practice, and making a plant last longer, seeing it really happen in front of our eyes.
Q: How did you get to where you are today?
A: I started as an 18 year-old back in what was called the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) at the time, straight from school. I did a couple of A-levels (one of them was chemistry – not magnificently passed!) but it was enough to get me onto an apprenticeship for the CEGB. So I spent my first couple of years doing a part-time HNC, which was sponsored by the company at the time, at a local secondary college in Chatham in Kent. I think it’s still running now.
I did quite well at that and I also was doing well at work in terms of the other parts of the apprenticeship, and so I got agreement and sponsorship to carry on for a further three years to do the Royal Society of Chemistry’s own degree at that time. I don’t think they run it any more, it was called the GRSC (Graduate of the Royal Society of Chemistry) Part I and Part II, and that was a further three years’ day release."
Q: Have you always worked in chemistry?
A: I did start off with chemistry and I’ve often come back to a chemistry department but I’ve worked in inspection departments, engineering departments, training. I’ve worked at a power station. So I think the emphasis for my career has been variety. I’ve been very fortunate, probably because we’re in a big company, to work in many departments outside my discipline. And from that I’ve picked up lots of different experiences that have been really helpful to me in my current role.
Q: What encouraged you to go into science?
A: When I was at school doing my O-levels (GCSEs now) I always liked the sciences – in fact, I did all three sciences, quite unusually. I had to change school to do my A-levels, one of them was chemistry. So there was no real character that really spurred me on, I always just loved chemistry, particularly the practical side. Looking back now, I was much more hands-on, on the practical side rather than the theoretical, when I was in a classroom.
Q: Who inspired you along the way?
A: It was really when I started work and came into the HNC that I benefited from some really excellent mentors at that time. My first mentor was a chap called Dr James Cordall, in fact he’s just recently retired from our co-company. He really set me on my way. He was an excellent practical chemist and showed me what I needed to do and encouraged me to work outside of my discipline to gain wider skills.
Q: Would you recommend the vocational route to others?
A: The vocational route really worked for me; it was a mixture between working on my chemistry skills during work time and also looking at the theoretical side again during the day release – the five years that I did to do the chemistry degree. Would I recommend it to others? Of course, absolutely! That’s why when I became chief chemist about five years ago, I re-introduced a scheme that served me well twenty years earlier when I was in the CEGB. So now we have chemistry technicians and chemistry apprentices starting the same way as I did – either from GCSEs or from A-levels – working their way to do an online or part-time HNC in chemistry. It’s really gratifying to know that some of them have carried on to do a part-time degree. It’s fantastic to see those people working through and I’m sure that within twenty or thirty years, if they’re still within the company, they may well be in the position that I’m in because it’s that really good balance between learning the practical skills and the theoretical skills that help you move forward.
Q: Why is diversity important in the sciences today?
A: Diversity and inclusion is really important to us within EDF Energy but also within the sciences in general, and in particular bringing more women and ethnic minority groups into chemistry. I’ve personally been working very closely with local universities and also my local secondary school (of which I’m a science governor) to make sure that women can pick the sciences up more at A-level. It’s really gratifying to know that near enough half of the young adults now going onto science A-levels are women. And that’s something that I would really like to see continued and promoted much more because those groups have as much to offer as white ethnic males.
Interview by Stephen McCarthy
Images © Ian Farrell/Royal Society of Chemistry
Published June 2014