With so many fascinating avenues to choose from when studying chemistry it can be tricky to decide which route to take. Through attending events, networking and keeping an open mind, you never know where the next opportunity might take you. Dr Matthew Wallace, a research fellow in the School of Pharmacy at the University of East Anglia, found just that, after applying for a studentship through the Royal Society of Chemistry that ended up inspiring the focus of his research.
In fact, much of Matthew’s journey into chemistry has been a series of trials and explorations into different fields before finding his true passion. His interest in science started when he was a child growing up in Wirral.
“I lived near Stanlow oil refinery,” says Matthew. “The big pipes and flares were so captivating to me. I wanted to know more about how it all worked. At school I was initially interested in electronics, but I didn’t do A level maths so couldn’t take it onwards. Luckily I had a very inspiring chemistry teacher, although I must admit it wasn’t a subject I was instantly enamoured with, or at least the chemistry we were doing at the time - a lot of counting bonds and structures!
“So when I went to university I chose to study chemistry with oceanography, but I discovered I wasn’t very good at the ocean bit! That’s when I decided I wanted to be a pure chemist. You can do a lot of things with chemistry, that’s what really struck me.”
Matthew completed his MCHEM degree at the University of Liverpool in 2013. It was during his undergraduate degree that he first signed up for a membership with the Royal Society of Chemistry, which would be the start of a fruitful relationship with the organisation.
“I had been aware of the RSC from my school days, there were always RSC posters up in the labs! In my third year at university I was fortunate enough to get a summer studentship through the RSC’s Analytical Chemistry Trust Fund, which is actually what first got me interested in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) and I’ve stuck with it ever since. The studentship allowed me to establish myself as a researcher in a way that would have been difficult otherwise, so I am very thankful for the opportunity. It’s what got me where I am today!”
With a clear idea of the direction he wanted to take, Matthew went on to do a PhD at Liverpool developing new NMR techniques to study self-assembled peptide gel materials, for which he won the Royal Society of Chemistry 2017 Ronald Belcher award.
“If you have a material that is semi-solid you can’t usually study it using NMR because the atoms are too immobile, but during my PhD I found a way of doing it anyway! My supervisors applied for the RSC award on my behalf and I was surprised to have won as there is a lot of great research out there. It was a big boost for me.”
During his PhD and since joining the team of researchers at UEA and Norwich Research Park, Matthew has been actively involved in the RSC’s special interest groups and conferences.
“It was at an RSC event that I had my first experience of presenting orally. It went really well, people seemed impressed by my research and that helped with my confidence. The conferences are important because they bring people together. We all encourage each other in what we’re doing.
“I’ve met some very interesting people through the RSC. It’s always good to expand my network and I get to meet people who are more experienced, from both academia and industry, who are always willing to help. For example, I met somebody who works for a software company and they ended up supporting my research grant application."
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After attending a number of NMR conferences arranged by the RSC, Matthew was appointed to the NMR discussion group committee.
“It’s a good mix of established academics and researchers from industry who have been on the committee a long time and then there are people like me who are fairly new to the arena. We organise the conferences and meetings, although at the moment we’re doing online seminars to try and keep us together as a community.”
Matthew is currently developing new NMR imaging techniques that will enable the faster development of new drugs and materials.
“The problem with traditional NMR techniques is that you can only analyse one sample at a time under a fixed set of conditions. My research allows people to analyse samples under a range of conditions very quickly - you can measure the properties of a drug molecule in 30 minutes rather than it taking all morning.
“I’ve got a four year plan that involves expanding the technique to other systems, and then the seven year plan is to get it out there and make it popular!”
During the coronavirus pandemic Matthew has kept himself busy by writing a paper, having to rely on calculations he can perform on Excel rather than physical experiments. He has also written a chapter on the study of semi-solid materials for the RSC book, Specialist Periodical Reports in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance.
“In terms of the Royal Society of Chemistry, I know that whatever I do next I will remain a member. I would definitely recommend students get a membership, it’s so important to keep up with what other people are doing in chemistry. It’s nice to compare what you’re working on to what others are doing and see the value of it.”