It’s funny, because although I’m an ambitious person, I don’t really know why I decided to pursue chemistry. I just sort of stumbled into it - but I don’t regret it! It’s nice to be able to talk about what I’ve achieved over the past few years and I’ve enjoyed the journey.
Byron has always had a goal in mind and although he’s still early in his chemistry career, his drive and dedication are plain to see.
“In China, where I grew up, when you’re 18 you do the national examination, which gives you a general score. After completing my exams, I chose the discipline I wanted to specialise in and I just picked something I was good at and didn’t hate. Chemistry was the best option at the university I chose - Dalian University of Technology in Liaoning province.
“Before I started at the university, I had set myself a goal of travelling to a different country to do a PhD. That was the best option for me.”
With his sights set on a new life abroad, Byron did everything he could to prepare for the admissions process.
“In my first year of university, I did a lot of extracurricular activities compared to others. I learned English and started researching. I managed to get experience in the lab as a research assistant once a week. That was a big change for me and it really helped to build up my knowledge.”
Thanks to his hard work, after applying to universities in the UK and the US, Byron was accepted by Durham University, England, to do a PhD, without having completed a Master’s degree.
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“That’s pretty unusual,” says Byron. “I was so happy to be accepted at Durham as it’s a highly ranked university and I really liked the sound of the course. They even let me have a chat with the supervisor before I applied. It was a tough goal but worth it.”
Upon moving to the UK and starting his PhD, Byron became aware of the RSC and commenced his membership in order to attend a number of conferences and events.
But it wouldn’t be until later down the road that he would take full advantage of the benefits.
My PhD was to design molecules which can be used as nanoscale electronic building blocks to make computer chips smaller and faster. It’s a promising technology which requires very delicate techniques. There is still a long way to go before we can see it in real life. However, we did get a lot of attention and funding for what we were doing, which was somewhat satisfying.
“My postdoc was in a similar field, together with research topics in solar cells and OLEDs, which seemed more applicable to real life. But I started to realise that I wanted to do something that had more of a tangible impact on the world. That’s why I started thinking about moving out of the academic sphere and into industry.”
Following his postdoc, Byron moved down to the University of Surrey to get involved with the Knowledge Transfer Partnership, a partly government-funded programme to encourage collaboration between businesses and universities, designed to help SMEs grow their technology. Byron led a £250k project to develop, market and launch a new polymer product within one year, coordinating a team of physicists and engineers, all while working on his own skills, including achieving his Chartered Chemist (CChem) status through the RSC.
“The job struck a great balance between industry and academia, because I was still employed by the university but worked in a company called Plastipack Ltd., a specialist manufacturer of cover materials for swimming pools and water storage solutions. I liked using my academic knowledge to develop a new and innovative product for the company.
“This position inspired me a lot. I started to learn project management because I liked that part of the job — meeting lots of new people, tracking project progress and engaging stakeholders. So in the year I was there, I obtained an APM project management qualification, completed 40 hours training in the Chartered Management Institute and also got my Chartered Chemist status. It was a busy year!
“I found out about the CChem through one of my colleagues. I remember seeing it on his card. I looked it up on the website and saw that I could meet most of the requirements. I knew this sort of recognition might help me move to an industry role, and in any case, it would be great to have on my CV, so I went for it.”
While taking his first few steps on to the career ladder, Byron has also engaged with the RSC Career and Professional Development team for support and advice.
My RSC mentor was very helpful. When you’re like me and just starting out, it's great to be able to talk to people who have gone through similar experiences. It does put your mind at ease. And they helped me with my CV and cover letters as well.
l've been in touch with the RSC Careers team on and off when changing jobs. It’s so nice just to have somebody to bounce ideas off and share with. Job hunting and figuring out what you want to do can be quite stressful at times. Especially when you're young, it can be hard because you don’t have any industry experience or the right connections. It’s comforting to know that I have some backup with the RSC. It makes me feel more determined and more positive
In order to expand his network and become a more active part of the chemistry community, Byron took on the role of secretary to the Management Group, one of the RSC’s many member-driven special interest groups.
“I got involved because I'm so interested in project management and it’s been very beneficial for meeting new people. Most of the members have had long careers already and have a wealth of experience. So I like to speak with them and hear their stories. It helps me to grow.
“We also run webinars, lectures and workshops, to train people in general management. To help prepare these and then get the training from them is such a bonus. As I’m currently looking for a project management position, being part of the Management Group really helps; it’s good to have more relationships with people in that field.”
Byron is now back at the University of Durham, working closely with the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), which brings together academia, businesses, government and investors to bring new ideas and research into the marketplace.
“It’s a European funded project to help SMEs complete technical projects. We are focused on functional materials, basically coatings and graphene related materials. We are working with more mature technologies and products, things that are already in the pipeline. There’s something really exciting about that.”