Recognised by the Royal Society of Chemistry as one of the ‘175 Faces of Chemistry’ both past and present, who have helped to shape chemistry and science, he completed his doctorate at the University of Sussex under the supervision of the Nobel Laureate Sir Harold Kroto.
Alongside Sir Harold, there have been a number of influential people in Steve’s career, including his science teachers at St Bonaventure’s Roman Catholic School in East London, who cultivated his passion for discovery, and headmaster Sir Michael Wilshaw, who’s advice to take pride in your work and to try and become role models in the community has been key to his progression.
“When I was working with Harry, he always wanted people to have hands-on experiences. Harry was very fond of his Meccano sets and always talked about the life lesson of using nuts and bolts, tightening them with a screwdriver and spanner, but not too tightly. He was advocating for experiences that were at the periphery of the maker movement and community. He helped me a great deal at Sussex University, so when in my final year of my PhD I was given an offer to join him in the United States, I thought yes, I can give something back for all the help he gave me.”
Sir Harold had been offered a position at Florida State University and Steve joined him as a postdoctoral associate to help direct the Kroto Research Group, focusing on carbon nanotube-based technologies, including hydrogen sensors, piezoelectric thin films, and photovoltaic devices. “We had a real opportunity to bring people together from diverse cultures, and our lab had research students from under-represented communities. It was a really inclusive group, and we made substantial contributions to research. There was also the educational outreach component through the Global Educational Outreach for Science Engineering and Technology (GEOSET) initiative.”
Through GEOSET they created a global database of freely accessible, on-demand educational material for students and educators. “The GEOSET initiative is a great way to engage with other researchers and help them to document their work. It was always based on the idea of giving students a platform to express their passion for science communication, and that was something I really wanted to do.”
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Steve has always had links with the RSC, but it was in the final year of his undergraduate degree at Sussex University when it really made an impact. “I won an RSC prize for the best final year undergraduate chemistry project and forging that connection to the RSC, and that recognition really started me thinking about other ways to engage with the RSC. Can it help me with my research or help me go on to higher education? – what can I get involved in was the question. When Harry became president of the RSC, he did a lot to highlight science outreach and science communication. I think that was when I started talking to the RSC members about public outreach activities.
But I also think becoming a Fellow of the RSC and being one of the 175 Faces of Chemistry was the culmination of all the support over the years from the RSC, friends, family and co-workers. It made me realise that as an ambassador for diversity, I could help to shape research activities and outreach opportunities, and in my current position, establish a Research Art Science Exhibition.
Now an annual event, the Research Art Science Exhibition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (initially supported by the Campus Climate Improvement Grant) encourages all students, and especially those from unrepresented backgrounds, a place to highlight their research work by providing an artistic representation through pictures. It also gives students opportunities for networking with other researchers and seeing their work from a different perspective. “This exhibition really gained a lot of traction with continued support from UMass Libraries. Using the RSC resources to see how other communities are finding ways of getting students involved in outreach activities is an essential part of my engagement, and this grew from me being a diversity leader and one of the 175 Faces of Chemistry.”
As the lead for the Digital Media Lab Steve fosters collaborations with departments, and organisations outside the university in the development of media projects, 3D printing research and Virtual Reality technology. This side of his current post means alongside his teaching responsibilities and chemistry research, he has become far more involved in projects that stretch as far as investigating strategies for space-based telesurgery with his team and medical experts.
And his advice on getting involved with the RSC “Be creative and do something outside your comfort zone. Challenge yourself to make a difference in the lives of other members of the RSC. Even having a discussion at a conference about your problems can make a big difference. We all have problems, but after discussing them you feel energised, you know you are not alone experiencing these problems, and it’s a really good feeling to be connected.”