My life in science: the good, the bad and the ugly
Alex Bytheway has spent a great deal of #time4chem over the years, doing chemistry as a hobby, and carrying out outreach activities.
My love of science began in year seven when I was first introduced to the subject of chemistry by my teacher, Mr Jordan. He was a fan of fiery demonstrations and had a passion for the subject.
Mr Jordan hosted a lunch-time science club for a select few of his year ten pupils and he invited me to join. The discussion was diverse and we were not restricted to the curriculum. We spent one session remotely controlling a telescope in Chile, thanks to an education project allowing schools to book time to use it.
Over time my ambition to fulfil a career in chemistry was born and I began to perform my own experiments at home, using the contents of various kits that I had been given for Christmases and birthdays. The contents of these kits did not take me far, so at my dad’s suggestion we started purchasing 'real' laboratory equipment and chemicals online.
I would spend most of my spare time purifying various substances such as copper(II) sulfate that I had bought online. My dad oversaw all of the experiments and made me think about the chemistry behind them – not just carrying out the task.
I was given a copy of The Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments and realised that amateur chemistry was nothing new and was in fact the origin of modern professional chemistry –the gap between the alchemists and salaried chemists. It is a field of blue-sky thinking and many problems have been solved by hobbyists.
By the age of 14 I was handling alkali metals in my own back yard chemistry laboratory, with my dad closely supervising. I could literally stand there for hours watching small pieces of sodium fizz and crackle across the surface of a trough of water. It was mesmerising and I wanted to do more.
Halfway through year nine I moved school, and my new chemistry teacher convinced me to enter the Bill Bryson Science Communication Competition. We spent many weeks carrying out experiments and filming them in our extra-curricular slots and lunchtimes, eventually producing a DVD entitled 'Science in Sport'.
Looking back on this now can be quite amusing. My dad had helped with the editing, and the video certainly had some flaws! When we presented the end result to the chemistry department staff the word 'Fred' appeared for a few frames in the middle of the video. Thanks dad!
In sixth form I decided to set up a scientific society with the help of a friend, and support from my form tutor. I contacted lecturers and science communicators from around the UK and asked them to provide inspirational lectures. I even managed to get one of my own role models, Professor Peter Licence, a member of the Periodic Table of Videos team at the University of Nottingham, to deliver a lecture. This lecture was entitled 'My Life in Science: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly', hence the title of this very article.
My home chemistry laboratory was slowly coming to an end as I had now advanced to a level where I required better facilities. The more hazardous substances were now being disposed of, which is a lengthy process to ensure that it is done so both safely and legally. However, I found new opportunities to get involved with real scientific research.
The Royal Society of Chemistry’s ChemNet community then invited people to join a trip to the Sellafield nuclear processing plant. Sellafield is home to the National Nuclear Laboratories and contains nuclear waste for reprocessing from all over the world. It even houses the waste from trident missiles. The plant is very secure, due to its hazardous nature, so this was a very rare opportunity.
Our tour commenced after a safety briefing and a series of security checks. We were allowed to see the nuclear cooling ponds and explore how chemistry can be used to separate different radioisotopes. This experience revealed how science evolves over time. Decisions that once seemed to be a solution to an energy crisis are now causing problems of their own, which must be solved by developing new scientific solutions.
Solving real-world challenges
When I was 16 I successfully applied for a Nuffield Research Placement and had the opportunity to carry out a live research project at Bangor University School of Chemistry. The aim of my project was to extract a compound known as haemanthamine from a mixture of decomposed daffodil bulbs. Haemanthamine has been shown to have some antimalarial properties in previous testing but it is unfortunately too expensive to synthesise, so extracting it from daffodils may make it more feasible.
The project was successful and I managed to extract enough haemanthamine for X-Ray Crystallography at diamond light source. My samples are currently being used to test for antimalarial properties and derivatives are being made by new MChem students at Bangor.
After the Nuffield Research Placement, I decided to apply for a role as a STEM Ambassador for Wales. My application was successful, so after a short training session my role became official. As a part of this role I have taken part in a variety of science communication events such as presenting my work on haemanthamine and delivering a lesson entitled ‘Life from Light’ to some year six students.
I’m still continuing my extra-curricular and outreach activities. I’ve represented the UK at the International Youth Science Forum, an amazing opportunity to meet brilliant young scientists from all over the world, and have presented my research at the National Big Bang Fair at the Birmingham NEC.
From all of my past experiences in science, one piece of advice has always remained in the back of my mind. To paraphrase Sir Professor Martin Poliakoff: "To be a good chemist you need to open your mind. That means that you need to study a wide range of topics to learn things that you do not know. Don’t just attend lectures containing content that you already know."
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