October 12, 2020, by Jo Gregory

Our chemical romance: why society needs Chemistry.

In the second of our blogs highlighting outreach projects undertaken by PhD students in the Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Chemistry (CDT) during the lockdown, we hear from Joanna Lee, Alex Edmonds, Elliott Smith and Nicole Tsang who used the time away from the labs to conceive and produce a magazine based around their research topic.

How did you decide on the magazine format?

We wanted to design a magazine aimed at a non-scientific audience, with the incorporation of a children’s section so that the resource can be used by families.  The magazine format was designed to offer an incremental introduction to the topics we wanted to cover. The start of the magazine covers some basic information about chemistry and the importance of chemistry to society. After introducing the reader to some basic principles and concepts, we then felt we could explore some more complex topics which built on these foundations. Our group’s research is based on Late-Stage Functionalisation (LSF), which is quite a complex topic to introduce to a lay audience, therefore we included articles relating to LSF and our individual research toward the end. This also allowed us to discuss some of the most recent innovations and challenges in the field, which is probably some of the most interesting material.

For the title (Society, Sustainability & Synthesis), we thought it was an appropriate overview of the categories covered in the magazine. We felt it was important to relate our work and its uses to the reader, hence society, along with introducing them to some molecules they probably encounter every day. Sustainability is an important part of our research and our CDT in sustainable chemistry. Finally, synthesis is the focus of our research and where we apply LSF, and the more advanced techniques we discussed.

Extracts from the magazine introducing ‘Chemistry’ to the reader.

Why do you feel it is important to present complex scientific topics to a non-scientific audience? How did you decide what to include?

Explaining and presenting complex scientific topics to a non-scientific audience is important as it helps to promote the benefits of chemistry and develop their understanding of what scientists and researchers do behind the scenes. Sometimes chemistry has a negative reputation among the general public: ‘chemophobia’ is unfortunately still a widespread phenomenon. We felt it important to delve deeply into the subject to not only demonstrate its importance for society in general but also to explore some of the most recent developments and challenges highlighting the importance of research in the field. It’s important to explain the work we do to the public, as they are the ones who provide us with the money to carry out research. Ultimately the work is designed to benefit the public, whether that be directly in the products we invent or discover, or indirectly in the improvements to society and sustainability that come about from our research.

The choice of complex scientific articles was determined by our interest and theme Late-stage Functionalisation (LSF). We mention LSF a couple of times throughout the magazine which can be explained in a sentence or two in the earlier articles but is then expanded upon in its own article. We included articles to bring readers up to speed with the fundamental concepts needed to start understanding what we do in our research. The final few articles are more advanced, on the areas of research that we’re exploring in our own research projects.

This section of the magazine focuses on more complex topics including Late-Stage Functionalisation, the group’s research focus.

The design and layout of the magazine is eye-catching. Have you considered targeting a younger audience as well?

Although some of the articles – the more advanced stuff – will be inaccessible for school children, much of the other material could be simplified and explained to a younger audience. So adapting the magazine to be a suitable resource for schoolchildren is certainly a possibility. We have a small puzzle section at the end of the magazine that is suited for younger years along with the introduction of basic concepts such as global warming and safety in the laboratories. This could definitely be expanded upon to explain some other relevant concepts in chemistry.

Sections of the magazine aimed at a younger audience.

How do you plan to distribute the magazine?

We plan to distribute the magazine at outreach events, where the public can pick up and take the magazine home with them (obviously we don’t know when face-to-face outreach events will begin again given the current pandemic). We hope to send specific articles to other magazines for distribution such as university magazines like Impact and include a QR code to our complete magazine. From an online perspective, the CDT has a website and blog with links from twitter and we hope to publish articles online in blogs or websites which are scientific but are targeted to a lay audience.

What do you hope to achieve from this project?

We hoped to achieve the creation of a useful outreach resource to emphasise the importance of chemistry to society and introduce them to the chemistry around them. We give advice on how subtle changes in their life could help build a sustainable future and explain some concepts, for example how drugs are made, that people may want to know but resources out there already may be too black and white and/or aimed at scientists. We wanted to teach the lay audience some scientific terminology which is also reiterated by the crossword to show science can be fun and not just this confusing subject. Ideally, we hope we’ve provided the lay reader with some sort of intuitive understanding about the importance of chemistry and current challenges in the field along with how chemistry fits in with the goal of creating a more sustainable society.

The section aimed at a younger audience probably needs to be expanded upon to make a significant difference, but we would like to influence their opinion on science and encourage them to take science further, maybe even enjoy the subject a little more.

An introduction to molecules.

What skills have you learnt from this project? In what ways has it broadened your experience?

The project has definitely built upon our teamwork skills, having both individual and group deadlines and having to communicate effectively with each other. Writing for a lay audience is something we have done very little of in the past, therefore the project has helped us learn and practice this skill, especially when having to explain a complex idea. We also read a lot of articles while researching the magazine which was great as it allowed us to look at the bigger picture and consider how our research impacts the world outside of academia.

What is your background? What brings you to the Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Chemistry (CDT) at Nottingham?

We each did a master’s degree in chemistry either at the University of Nottingham or Warwick and are specifically interested in organic chemistry.  The CDT appealed to us as sustainability is one of the most important challenges in many fields in the 21st century, and we felt it was important to develop chemistry which fits in with the goal of developing ‘greener’ chemical processes. Nottingham’s profile as a world-leading university, as well as the positive experiences from our undergraduate studies (the three of us that studied here) led us to apply and continue studying.

Explaining concepts around plastics, waste and sustainability.

What are your aims for the future?

We aim to learn as much as we can during our PhD and hopefully publish some scientific papers. Career goals vary for us from working in industry perhaps for a pharmaceutical company in the research and development sector or heading toward academia. Some of us also aren’t 100% sure but we do hope to apply the unique skills we develop in the CDT toward whatever we decide to pursue.

Do you have any advice for young scientists?

Science will be key to solving some of the most pressing challenges faced by society in the future, so there’s never been a more crucial time for young people to go into science. We would advise them to work hard and focus on what they are passionate about. Always ask questions to keep learning because it is good to be inquisitive. Setting little goals can boost productivity and give you a whole new energy when you achieve them. We would certainly encourage young scientists to consider a career in chemistry, as innovations in this field will be key to developing a greener and more sustainable society. Also, science is such a broad subject, you’d be surprised how many opportunities science can open up for you, keep exploring a variety of interests and you may come across the particular topic you love.

You can access a copy of  Society, Sustainability & Synthesis here.

To find out more about the Green Chemicals Beacon and how our team of researchers are working to secure the low carbon economy of the future, please visit the website or follow us on Twitter @UoN_GCB

Posted in EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable ChemistryInterviews