A colourful new chemistry course is preparing students for a wide range of possible careers - from cosmetics to computer graphics

A colourful new chemistry course is preparing students for a wide range of possible careers - from cosmetics to computer graphics

In September 2008, the Department of Colour Science at the University of Leeds, UK, merged with the university’s School of Chemistry. As a result, the university now offers a new degree: a BSc/MChem in chemistry with colour science. ’Colour science focuses on the synthesis, application and use of colorants and coloured materials’ explains Jim Nobbs, senior lecturer in the Department of Colour Science. ’This includes the chemistry of creation of specific colorants, such as dyes, inks and pigments, and the physical chemistry involved in applying them to substrates.’


Students study the creation of dyes, inks and pigments

Leeds’ Department of Colour Science is unique in the UK. Founded in 1878, it houses interdisciplinary scientists who are specialists in various technologies associated with colour and colorants, including the chemistry of colorants, colour measurement, polymer chemistry, polymer materials science, organic printed electronics, optics and imaging science. It has been recognised as one of the University of Leeds’ Research Centres of Excellence.

The aim of the course is to give students more options in terms of possible specialisation. ’However, our main focus remains to train chemists,’ insists Nobbs. ’Graduates of the BSc/MChem in chemistry with colour science are not restricted to careers involving colour science.’ Nevertheless, the course can open students’ eyes to career paths that they might not otherwise have considered. Cosmetic chemistry relies on colour science experts to develop new and improved hair dyes, while dyes used as sensitisers in cancer photodynamic therapy or as photo-antimicrobial agents are important tools in medicine. Those with a strong background or interest in physics or computer science may want to try turning their hand to the development of digital imaging systems for measuring colour and appearance, computer graphics for virtual reality simulations, or software development for industrial applications.

Industrial links 

The new course is likely to appeal to students who have a natural interest in colour and design. Because the department has very strong industrial links, the teaching and research projects often have direct industrial relevance. ’Students who are hands-on and drawn to research with practical value will probably get the most enjoyment from this course,’ says Nobbs. 

During the first 2 years, students taking the BSc/MChem receive the same grounding in organic, physical and inorganic chemistry as students taking a chemistry degree at Leeds, along with additional elements of analytical, colour and polymer chemistry. ’The colour science components gradually build up over the years,’ says Nobbs. At the end of the second year, students decide whether to proceed to the final year of the BSc programme, or on to the third year of the four-year BSc/MChem programme. In the third year of the BSc/MChem, students still take some general chemistry modules but start to specialise in colour science, while the final year is entirely devoted to colour science. ’A major component of the final year is an independent research project, which is conducted in association with an industry partner,’ says Nobbs. The BSc/MChem in chemistry with colour science has been accredited by the RSC, which means that students who graduate with first or second class degrees are eligible for full RSC membership and can apply for professional Chartered Chemist standing. 

What if? 

Industry has been very supportive of the course so far. ’We have more research projects available at our industrial partners than students,’ says Nobbs. ’Companies are particularly keen to have students investigate the "what if" type questions - the topics they would like to investigate but cannot allocate internal resources to.’ The first intake of students, who will soon be starting the third year of the new degree course, have also been successful in obtaining vacation jobs at AkzoNobel, GlaxoSmithKline and companies specialising in polymer science. 

So industry and the RSC have given the new course their seal of approval, but what about the students? ’Based on initial feedback, students have a keen interest in the course content. In fact, they have told us that they would prefer to be introduced to more colour science modules in the earlier years of the course,’ Nobbs says. ’We’re reassessing the course structure to address this.’ He notes that the department is working hard to ensure that the course continues to meet students’ expectations. ’We’re very pleased with the way the course has been received so far.’ 

Yfke Hager is a freelance writer based in Manchester, UK