Scientific research is constantly moving the world forwards, whether it’s improving our health and wellbeing or developing new technology to make our daily lives easier. New discoveries and innovations in chemistry have a massive positive impact on society, but at what cost to the planet? Dr Wade Petersen, lecturer at the University of Cape Town, is on a quest to make research more sustainable by setting up an off-grid laboratory, with help from the Royal Society of Chemistry.
“I was obsessed with science from a really young age and always knew I wanted to work in a lab,” says Wade. “When I was a child there was a show on television called ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’ and that was it for me, I was hooked! From when I was about seven or eight years old my parents would buy me all these science books and chemistry experiment kits. It was just chemistry all the way for me!”
Wade’s early passion for science drove him through his studies. He completed his PhD at the University of Cape Town in 2015, where he first signed up to the RSC, and then went on to become a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of York, UK.
“My interests lie in drug discovery. It’s so important that we design new molecules for drugs, especially with the increase in drug resistance. The possibility of helping people is what motivates me. But I’m also concerned with how we do this in the most environmentally friendly way possible, while still achieving the same type of chemistry. You always think of science as achieving great things but you never think about the waste and the energy use involved.”
Finding ways to use cheap, renewable energy sources to synthesise biologically active molecules that can be used for new drugs is central to Wade’s research. He was recently awarded a significant joint research grant from the Royal Society of Chemistry and the African Academy of Sciences that has helped bring his vision to reality.”
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“We’re planning to build a completely off-grid laboratory in a shipping container within the UCT campus, using solar panels as a power source. The students absolutely love this idea and are really into progressing the project.
“One way of making our work cleaner and greener is using light energy to catalyse reactions. Photocatalysis is a field that’s buzzing at the moment. So, with the money from the RSC, I bought a photoreactor. It’s a light box where you can catalyse reactions, which is essentially my entire research area, so I couldn’t have got started without it!”
“The RSC funding was easy to apply for and not too time consuming, which was great. Obviously you have to put in a strong proposal to get accepted but it’s not pages and pages of work. In fact it was so good that I told all the other academics in my department about it!”
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.
As well as receiving the research grant from the RSC, Wade has also taken advantage of the travel grants on offer to be able to attend events in other countries.
“I did my post-doc in the UK so I got a travel grant to go back and attend a conference in Cambridge recently. I had lots of contacts there still so it was really nice to get the chance to go back. I really enjoy going to RSC events, they’re always fun. You know there will be high quality scientists in attendance and the network of people that you generate in those meetings are great. You relax and chat and ideas spark.
“I recommend the RSC to all my students - they’re all members now! I encourage them to take advantage of the travel grants. The student packages they offer are really quite cheap, it's affordable for a PhD student to become a member and the benefits are amazing.
“I find the organisation to be very welcoming, it feels young and vibrant. Personally, I have found being a member extremely useful and it enhances my presence within the scientific community.”
It’s an exciting time for Wade and his research team as they embark on their eco-friendly lab project. At such an early stage in his academic career, it’s inspiring to witness Wade’s dedication to addressing global issues such as climate change, all while helping his students achieve their potential.
“I love teaching so much, interacting with students and helping them to get science training. Because of South Africa’s history, there is an inherent disadvantage that runs through the education system. If I can help to deliver a good education and improve equality and diversity, all while progressing sustainable chemistry research, my job is fulfilled!”