Investing in undergraduate projects advances science and develops future researchers

Summer projects offer an exciting window into the world of research. For undergraduates, practical chemistry is confined to the structured experience of teaching labs – a far cry from the day-to-day reality of working in this field. Often the lack of context for techniques and experiments means students struggle to see the applications of the skills they are learning, or how those experiments connect to the wider world.


Source: © Julie MacLeod

Abigayle Boyce is now doing a PhD in organometallic chemistry – something she didn’t consider before her summer placement

Placements therefore provide a valuable opportunity: a chance for students to dip their toes into research, building on existing skills and tackling real-world problems. ‘These projects give a wider overview of why we’re doing chemistry,’ says Stephen Mansell, a catalysis researcher at Heriot-Watt University, UK. ‘They give students the experience of what research is really like and that will definitely help them decide whether they want to carry on with chemistry as a career.’

A summer placement between the second and third year of his undergraduate degree was an important part of Mansell’s chemistry journey. ‘There are always hard points in university and I think second year was probably one of them,’ he says. ‘Having that opportunity to work in a lab enabled me to boost my skills and I started third year feeling much more confident and with experiments going better.’ This newfound confidence and interest in research was ultimately a vital stepping stone on the way to Mansell’s current position as an assistant professor. In the years since, he has been keen to ensure that others enjoy the benefit of similar opportunities, hosting 10 summer students over the last 10 years.

Stephen Mansell

Source: Courtesy of Stephen Mansell

Having been inspired by his own undergraduate placement, Stephen Mansell regularly hosts students in his lab over the summer

Placements aren’t only beneficial for the undergraduates. These short-term positions offer an excellent opportunity for permanent group members to gain mentoring experience by supervising the placement students. ‘Often PhDs don’t realise all of the useful and specialist skills that they’ve built up over two or three years,’ says Mansell. ‘I think it’s quite a confidence boost for them to feel that they know enough to teach somebody else about it.’

Many academics also have more projects than group members available to work on them so an enthusiastic pair of hands can be really helpful to drive these dormant projects forwards.

An eye-opening experience

Mansell is adamant that these vital contributions by summer students should be recognised and a recent paper from the group,1 exploring the design of an improved rhodium C–H borylation catalyst, names three summer students who contributed results to the project over three consecutive years. ‘It’s predominantly the work of PhD student Paul Morton, and the undergraduate summer students explored different topics around it,’ Mansell explains. ‘Abigayle Boyce worked on forming the tethered carbene ligands and hexane borylation, Lennox Stewart ran and analysed some of the catalytic reactions, and Anamarija Pišpek did the computational chemistry with Stuart Macgregor.’

Boyce, Stewart, and Pišpek have all since started or secured PhDs and cite their summer placements with Mansell as a key part of their respective decisions. ‘I was a Covid graduate so when I took part in the summer project, we didn’t have lab experience and I’d really lost my confidence in chemistry,’ says Boyce. ‘I’m so grateful that I got the experience – I ended up loving it so much that I went on to do a PhD in organometallic chemistry, which I wouldn’t have even considered previously.’

Lennox Stewart

Source: Courtesy of Lennox Stewart

Lennox Stewart was able to gain practical skills missed when teaching labs were cancelled due to Covid-19

The two years of intense Covid restrictions had a profound impact on how undergraduates learnt chemistry, with social distancing rules requiring departments to rapidly develop alternatives to traditional teaching labs. ‘We were meant to get one lab session a semester and they had shortened the experiments. We did the first one, but then there was the second lockdown and that was pretty much it,’ recalls Boyce. ‘You just had to watch a video or read a script and then you would be given sets of data to write the lab report. We basically had no practical skills and chemistry stopped being fun.’

‘Going into fourth year we’d have to do an independent project and I was concerned that I would have no idea what I was doing,’ explains Stewart. ‘There were so many individual skills that we’d just missed completely.’

During their placements, Boyce and Stewart were able to practise their underutilised lab skills, building confidence in the basics and learning a raft of unfamiliar specialist techniques such as using Schlenk lines and glove boxes. The complex analysis required to interpret the outcomes of their experiments also allowed the pair to put their theoretical knowledge of characterisation techniques like x-ray crystallography, 2D NMR and gas chromatography into practise for the first time.

Almost as soon as I finished the project I knew I really wanted to do a PhD

Abigayle Boyce

The more relaxed timescale of placements compared with teaching labs reduces the time pressure on individual experiments and gives students time to think about what they’re doing and why, says Mansell. He adds that this focus on the bigger picture, rather than generating the perfect lab report, is a much more realistic view of chemistry research and isn’t the only surprise for undergraduate students. ‘We often set them tasks where we don’t know the answer so the interactions between supervisors and research students are really important. It’s much more of a discussion than they expect.’

Being immersed in a research group was particularly eye-opening for Boyce. ‘I loved the collaborative aspect, learning the process of research from other people, and the freedom and creativity of the work,’ she says. ‘Almost as soon as I finished the project I knew I really wanted to do a PhD.’ 

Industry involvement

The support of Johnson Matthey through their Platinum Group Metals (PGM) award scheme was key to facilitating Boyce and Stewart’s work. ‘There isn’t really any consumables budget from the university for summer students so you’ve got to have the chemicals in place or some other funding,’ explains Mansell. ‘Johnson Matthey’s involvement in this project was crucial – without the loan of rhodium trichloride we’d have had to abandon the rhodium project completely.’

A chemical structure

Source: © Stephen Mansell

Three undergraduates contributed to different aspects of the catalyst design – and their involvment meant Johnson Matthey contributed a crucial supply of rhodium (green)

As part of their leadership in sustainable technologies, Johnson Matthey’s PGM scheme loans out small amounts of platinum group metals (which typically cost hundreds of pounds per gram) to facilitate research into new applications of these catalytic elements. Any research waste is then returned to the company, which can recover most of the precious metal through its on-site recycling facility, later making this material available to other teams. All researchers are welcome to apply but the organising team are particularly keen to support projects that widen participation or bring new researchers into the field. ‘We supplied Stephen with 5g of rhodium metal – at today’s market price that’s around £580,’ says Barbara Breeze, a senior principal scientist at Johnson Matthey. ‘We’re delighted that this award supported three summer students and has resulted in a journal publication.’

Johnson Matthey, like many other companies in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, also offers its own summer placements on-site, providing two-week experiences for A-level students and longer placement opportunities for over-18s. ‘Building that talent pipeline is critical. Obviously if we’re going to meet the energy transition and sustainability goals, we need as many chemists, engineers, and scientists going into this field as we can,’ says Breeze. ‘Student placements enable us to train up and enthuse talented individuals for a career in industry, with the potential to hire these individuals after they’ve completed their studies.’

Most of Johnson Matthey’s summer placements are initiated by students sending a CV and covering letter expressing their interest in the experiences they would like to gain. This contact often inspires and shapes the resulting project and this is exactly how Gareth Hart, now a research scientist at Johnson Matthey, secured his placement between school and university in 2018. ‘I wanted to develop skills and understand the chemistry in industry better – I really saw myself wanting to work at the interface of academia and industry,’ he says.

Being in that team environment is really conducive to developing good collaborative skills

Gareth Hart

Over the course of two months, Hart worked on a variety of projects across health, metal recycling and platinum group metals and was particularly excited by how the specific skills developed in an academic environment applied in an industrial setting. The contrast with academic chemistry, especially regarding the relative importance of safety, scaling and lifecycle considerations, was completely new and Hart recalls how he was supported by the various site teams as he built an understanding of these different industrial priorities.

In addition to the extensive technical experience gained from this placement, the opportunity also enabled Hart to develop soft skills that are often overlooked in undergraduate study. ‘Summer placements can be one of the first experiences of significant teamwork within science for students so being in that team environment is really conducive to developing good collaborative skills,’ he explains. ‘Communication is another key one – reporting findings and putting them into presentation format for digestion by others.’

This positive experience crystallised Hart’s career ambitions to work at the intersection of academia and industry and in 2021 he returned to Johnson Matthey as a research scientist. ‘There was always a strong desire to return here having seen all of the great science and the impact that it can have on the world,’ he explains.

Investing in the future workforce

The majority of the chemistry community recognises the value of these opportunities and most academic institutions and commercial organisations are happy to be approached by interested students. But finding a suitable position is just the first step – funding these placements is also hugely important. ‘Unpaid placements can only benefit a real subset. It’s got to be paid if it’s going to be fair and accessible to everyone,’ says Mansell. ‘But there’s no centralised system or regulation to ensure that the funding’s there and it’s up to each university or organisation to decide how much they want to put into summer placements.’

Large companies such as Johnson Matthey often have a budget allocated for outreach and summer placements so it’s always worth asking the question, says Hart. ‘Johnson Matthey are also heavily involved with the RSC’s Broadening Horizons scheme, which offers a structured route for disadvantaged or underrepresented students to obtain summer placements and mentorship,’ he says.

More broadly, there are several national schemes in place to support these opportunities in academia, or where this outreach budget isn’t available. The RSC offers Undergraduate Research Bursaries for six to eight week summer placements each year and students are invited to submit a project proposal with their chosen supervisor to apply for funding. UKRI also recently changed its regulations, allowing universities to divert any leftover funding from PhD studentships to support summer placements.

How to fund these projects and where the responsibility should lie is difficult to determine but it’s clear these opportunities are a valuable investment in the future of the chemical sciences workforce. ‘Doing a summer placement absolutely changed the path of my life,’ says Boyce. ‘It empowers you to make the decision about your future in chemistry and without it, I would be going down a completely different path.’