An enthusiasm for sharing her expertise, together with a passion to help students do science in a safe way, is the overriding driver for Dr Olga Kuzmina.
Her journey to her current role as Faculty Safety Manager at Imperial College London traversed her from her home country of Russia through Poland, Germany, Japan and now the UK. Her work in the safety arena has been recognised with a ‘40 under 40’ award, which is run by the leading UK magazine Health and Safety at Work. This special award for early-to-mid career safety specialists applauded Olga’s creative approach to her role which has seen a marked reduction in the faculty’s year on year accident rate. She has been instrumental in unifying risk assessment and lab training and writing a catalogue of more than 60 standard operating procedures (SOPs). “It is nice to be recognised for what you enjoy doing. I have a great team and support from my supervisor, and it was really wonderful to have the team recognised as well when we received the Provost’s Award for excellence in health and safety in 2019.
“I come from a medical family, both my mother and grandmother were nurses.” But it was chemistry rather than biology that attracted the young Olga. “It was like magic seeing materials transform – you have solids that become liquids, and gases changing colour and even igniting spontaneously. It was really interesting, and this led me to study chemistry at university.” After obtaining a Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the St Petersburg State University of Technology and Design, she worked as a process engineer at an electrical equipment and microelectronics factory, but soon went on to study for a PhD in Chemistry from the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena in Germany.
Next came a role as a development chemist at Azko Nobel in the UK, with the job of ensuring new paint product formulations were first of all safe for the workers and safer versions of paint formulations maintained their original properties. For example, would Matt Eggshell still be Matt Eggshell even with a new formulation? “But I knew I wanted to do science. This was when I reached out to Professor Tom Welton at Imperial to see if they had any positions. At the time they didn’t but he invited me to visit and I knew this is where I wanted to work. I joined the Welton research group 10 months later when they had an appropriate position available. It was also at this time that I joined the Royal Society of Chemistry. A senior member of the team told me about the RSC and its benefits, so I joined and immediately applied to achieve chartered status and subsequently became a Chartered Chemist (CChem) and Chartered Scientist (CSci).”
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“I was heavily involved in outreach and the RSC provided a lot of support for this. I was using their example experiments and scripts on how to conduct them. And then I became aware of the outreach grants, so with two of my colleagues we applied and were awarded funding to conduct six chemistry workshops for the general public. We called them ‘Chemistry Around Us’ as they focussed on kitchen chemistry, transport and cosmetics. It was an interesting experience for both the audience and myself – I learnt a lot.”
The next step for Olga was made possible by a mobility grant from the RSC which saw her spending three months over two years in Japan at Tokyo University of Technology and Agriculture, doing research on polymeric ionic liquids under Professor Hiroyuki Ohno. “This was amazing and one of the brightest memories of my life, because it was such a different culture, different mentality and work ethic. I enjoyed what turned out to be such an eye-opening experience.”
When Olga’s research contract was coming to an end she again turned to the RSC, this time for careers advice. “We talked through my CV and career aspirations and the advisor gave me an insight into where I should look for job opportunities and how to change my CV. I remember she said one page is good for a CV, but two pages is also good if you cannot get everything onto one page!”
Olga is currently a senior mentor for the Imperial College Membership and Accredited Recognition Scheme (MARS), which is accredited by RSC, as well as Royal Society of Biology (RSB) and Institute of Physics (IoP). The Imperial MARS scheme was originally introduced to support students, but Olga has worked with the RSC to expand it to include staff working in chemical sciences. “This is a first for the RSC to have such a mentorship scheme to support staff development at a university. We have around 190 members of staff in the Department of Chemistry and about a quarter of them have chartered status with the RSC. I think these numbers can be improved, especially among those chemists who are considering moving into industry as industry really values chartered status. From my own experience and those of my colleagues it is beneficial to have chartered status for example when you are applying for grants. And for students it helps them stand out when they are looking for employment.”
The latest health and safety project for Olga, again linked to the RSC, is a commission from the RSC books editorial team to write a health and safety challenges book. Entitled ‘Challenges for health and safety in higher education and research organisations’ the book features experiences drawn from across the UK, US and Europe in both industry and academia. “When we moved the research part of Imperial’s chemistry department from one campus to another there was a great deal to tackle in setting up a new department in a different location. We needed to know how to remove, store and safely set up everything and finding out how to do so was difficult as there was very little information available. So we reached out to our colleagues from across the research disciplines and have drawn together information that is likely to be of assistance to any health and safety professional, facility manager and project manager at any stage of their work. We conducted a survey with researchers and students on their health and safety experiences. Any person who completed the survey will receive a free copy of the results. The survey is included in chapter one, and it is interesting to compare it with the results of a similar survey conducted by Nature a few years ago which found that 86 percent considered their lab to be safe, but almost half of them experienced an injury. Luckily the old days when you could not become a good scientist without sustaining at least one serious injury is well behind us. Science continues to develop, and there are new challenges every day and you have to respond with new health and safety procedures to keep on top of the developments and cover all emergencies. I’m hoping this new resource will prove itself to be invaluable in the future.
“I have found that the RSC has been invaluable to me throughout my career, providing me support and allowing me to have a range of experiences I never thought would be possible. I highly recommend membership of the RSC and I look forward to my ongoing involvement with our professional body.”