As rewarding as a career in chemistry can be, often it’s not without its obstacles. That’s certainly been the case for Bryony Hockin, who has had more than their fair share of challenges pursuing their love for chemistry. But Bryony’s strength and perseverance has not only led to great successes, it has helped them promote diversity and equality in the chemistry community.
Bryony is currently completing a CRITICAT CDT PhD in the Zysman-Colman Group at the University of St Andrews, focusing on small molecule photoredox reactions using earth abundant metal catalysts.
It was during Bryony’s undergraduate studies at Durham that they first came into contact with the Royal Society of Chemistry, from which point their relationship with the organisation began to grow.
I’d been aware of the RSC since school, they came to our sixth form and did career events,” says Bryony, “I saw them at the freshers' fair and instantly thought, well must be useful for me because I’m a chemist! Plus, the student discount was great, and you got deals on textbooks and free magazines.
“I must admit when I first saw the RSC’s HQ, Burlington House, on a trip to London, my reaction was, ‘Oh that’s posh!’ but for an old establishment it feels like a very modern and accessible organisation.”
Since signing up for their membership, Bryony has taken advantage of the many events and conferences on offer in order to expand their knowledge and share ideas.
“The RSC events are brilliant. I was lucky enough to have my abstract accepted for the Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson Dalton Poster Symposium, which is very prestigious. It was well good - or in more professional terms, it was a really valuable experience! The speakers there were fantastic, I actually got to chat to Warren Piers about my work afterwards, it was really exciting. And a great networking opportunity too.”
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Bryony is making great progress with her PhD and there have been plenty of positive moments, but the last few years have presented a number of challenges for them to navigate.
“I’m working on making new copper-based photocatalysts for transformation of small molecules. Initially we were investigating more wide-ranging applications of these new catalysts, in terms of solar fuel synthesis but we’ve narrowed it down since then to the production of high value complex organic molecules like pharmaceuticals. These copper catalysts have some unique properties compared to conventional photocatalysts that use iridium, for example. They’re easier to synthesize, cheaper, less toxic, and very good at doing unique reactions to create complex organic molecules.”
“In fact, just before lockdown began, I was ready to publish my first first-author paper, but the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that we can’t work in the lab, so that’s put the brakes on things.”
It has been a worrying and uncertain time for students, researchers and academics alike as their work has gone on hold.
“My PhD funding ends in March and I’m supposed to have handed my thesis in by then. However, due to the pandemic we’re really behind and sadly there has been radio silence about funding extensions. The RSC has been sympathetic about our situation and I am in contact with the team about any support they can offer. I appreciate that everyone is working under difficult conditions at the moment but we need communication and reassurance.”
Frustratingly, this is not the first time that Bryony has been without a laboratory. In February 2019 the Biomedical Sciences Building at St Andrews was completely destroyed by fire. The blaze gutted the building but thankfully no one was injured.
“We lost some of our research material and our entire labspace, it was really sad. The research group I work in is about 35 people - it’s one of the biggest in the chemistry department. We were left asking ourselves, ‘What do we do now?’”
“Luckily the RSC was incredibly helpful during our time of need, giving us access to the Chemistry Community Support Fund that they run. Through this I was able to go to an amazing photochemistry and photophysics summer school, which not only benefited my PhD but it was something useful and engaging to do at a difficult time.”
Even through these challenging periods, Bryony has devoted any spare time they have to promoting chemistry in the wider community with the RSC and fighting for equality and diversity within their university and beyond.
I am really passionate about public engagement; I think that’s what I’d like to go into next. I am inspired by the RSC as they have a big involvement in outreach and raising awareness about studying chemistry and appreciating chemistry within day-to-day life.
“It was during my MChem year at Durham that I got involved in an RSC grant project, ChemSG, where we went and spoke to local scout and guide groups. We did lots of fantastic, messy science experiments with them, which they absolutely loved! It was amazing to see young people really engage with science and get hands-on with it. This is what really sparked my interest and it's something I’ve continued to do more regularly during my PhD.
“I also got involved with an RSC project where I helped write some science curriculum policy for the Dundee Science Centre. I was really impressed that the RSC was giving funding to places like this, which actively seek to do public engagement in areas of social deprivation where children may not get the chance to get excited about science.”
Equal opportunities is a cause close to Bryony’s heart, as can be seen through their outreach work. Bryony also sits on the School of Chemistry’s Equality and Diversity Inclusion Committee and is involved in representing women and non-binary people in STEM.
“It’s an issue I’ve come across in chemistry in particular and I’m very outspoken about, as I have personally experienced intimidation and bullying as a result of frequently being perceived as a woman. I spoke to the RSC about the incidents and they offered their support, as well as signposting a counselling service. It was helpful to know that they were there to talk to.
“The lack of work life balance and long hours expected in academia make it discriminatory for women, caregivers and disabled people. Plus, many chemistry buildings are still unfit for disabled people to use. Being a disabled non-binary person I have big problems with this!”
The RSC is stepping up to support this cause further with its Inclusion and Diversity Fund, which provides financial support for innovative products, activities and research projects that do just that. Previous recipients of the funding have included projects related to gender, disability, socio-economic background, language, BAME scientists and the LGBT+ community.
Bryony is keen to continue their RSC membership in the future and wants to make sure new students are aware of the benefits too.
“I’ve only become more and more enthusiastic about the RSC as I’ve progressed. I would definitely recommend a membership to students who are just starting out - it's very affordable. For a start you have to be a member to apply for grants! The RSC has always been extremely generous in giving me grants to travel and go to international conferences, which has really expanded my knowledge and allowed me to share ideas with chemists all over the world. 10 out of 10, would recommend!”