The story of how PhD student, Harry Sample, found his calling within academia is a great example of the importance of following your passions, and not being afraid to ask for what you want. With support from his university lecturer and the Royal Society of Chemistry, Harry discovered his love for a relatively under-valued area of research and was able to pursue his dream.
“I first came across the RSC during my A-levels,” says Harry. “We used a number of RSC textbooks and I kept up with things published in their journals. As soon as I enrolled at the University of Hull to study chemistry I signed up at the first opportunity.”
As Harry progressed through his degree, his initial interest in physical chemistry faded and was replaced by a fascination with organic chemistry – helped along by his exposure to new people and ideas.
“Before you get to university, you have to funnel your interests down and make choices to narrow down what you want to study. But then when you start your course, the funnel suddenly inverts and you have so many options to choose from.
Having access to journals and newsletters through the various RSC divisions I was part of gave me new insights, and networking with other members at events broadened my view further. This helped me realise that although I was good at the mathematical side of physical chemistry, I actually enjoyed organic chemistry far more, it’s what I really wanted to do.
“I realised when it came to organic chemistry, there are such a wealth of reactions and there’s always more than one way you can get to a compound in the majority of circumstances. For me, it’s the creativity of chemistry, how you get to a certain compound, that’s really interesting. I think a lot of people see chemistry as very rigid, but once you get into research you realise that’s not the case.”
Studying in Hull, a city well known for its chemical industries, many of Harry’s course mates ended up going on to work in local companies after graduating. But Harry was certain that path wasn’t for him.
“I’ve always had negative feelings about going into an industry role. It’s great for some people, but I have always loved the ‘old school’ chemistry way of working. It’s like, ‘We went out to make this weird molecule, and it does this, and I’m not quite sure why we made it, but we did.’ And I still love that approach, it’s cool, it’s exciting!”
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So, rather than applying for an industry placement during his MChem, Harry found a different way to get experience in the research field he was interested in pursuing, securing a summer internship through the RSC Undergraduate Research Bursary.
“There was one module that especially captured my interest, it was about heteroaromatic chemistry, run by Ross Boyle, Professor of Biological Chemistry. The final lecture about porphyrins was particularly fascinating. It was the first time I went outside of the lecture notes and decided to read more around the subject and the work being undertaken in Ross’ research group. Next semester, I ended up participating in the third year group project they were running. I was so inspired that I plucked up the courage to ask him if I could do a summer internship with the group. He said yes – if we could get funding!
“We applied to the RSC for financial support and were fortunate enough to be accepted – it was a massive relief and I was so thankful. I spent 10 weeks in Ross’ lab researching the use of porphyrins as radiosensitizers. I learnt so much and it accelerated my development tenfold. Quite simply, without the RSC research bursary I wouldn’t be doing what I am now – completing a PhD and doing what I love. The experience was invaluable.”
Harry is now part of the POLYTHEA programme, funded by the European Union, where he is based at Trinity College Dublin, in partnership with the University of Coimbra, Portugal. His work is focused on the development of photosensitizing dyes that can be used for the preparation of formulations, nanomaterials and therapeutic applications. He is also turning his hand to outreach projects, when time allows!
My area of research is massively underrepresented – you’d think that the molecules that make blood red and plants green would be in the curriculum everywhere, but they’re left out. It’s not an area that the wider public seem interested in or think affects the world we live in. But people put porphyrins into a wide variety of systems.
“I want to pass on the torch now and inspire others to get into this area of chemistry, just as I was inspired during my degree. I can do this through a mix of research and teaching. The more young students that flourish, the more science will grow.
“I’ve had the time to do lots of writing recently, helped by my RSC membership, which gives me easy access to top quality research – a huge bonus. I hope that maybe someone will read my published work and is encouraged to follow it further. That would be fantastic!
“Since I’ve returned to the lab following the coronavirus lockdown, it’s been ridiculously full on. But I get to go into work and make stuff that people have never made before. I love that, and loving what I do is what success means to me.”