Craig Priest tells Yfke Hager that stumbling into chemistry and tripping round the globe have given him a passion for science that he’s eager to share

Education opens doors and broadens horizons. That was certainly true for Craig Priest, whose chemistry education has given him firsthand experience of both, literally taking him to the other side of the world.

Born and raised in South Australia, Priest moved to Germany for a postdoctoral position, which he says gave him a whole new perspective. As one of the winners of the 2011 Young Tall Poppy Science Awards, which recognise Australia’s outstanding young researchers and communicators, Priest hopes to pass on some of those perspectives and inspire future generations of scientists.

Falling for science

He may be an ambassador for science now, but Priest says that as a young school leaver he didn’t even know what a research career meant. ‘I sort of fell into science,’ he admits, ‘and I was very happy with what I found!’ It wasn’t until he read the course description for chemistry at the University of South Australia that he seriously considered studying science. ‘I was quite a creative student,’ he explains. ‘The description stressed the importance of creativity and innovation as well as a strong scientific background, which made me think it might be for me.’

During his honours year, Priest met the mentor who would shape his future scientific career: colloid and surface chemistry expert John Ralston. His research project focused on the influence of roughness and chemical composition on surface ‘wettability’. ‘A liquid responds to surfaces with bumps, scratches and patches in very different ways,’ says Priest. ‘These surface features can make it harder or easier to coat a solid with liquid; think Teflon frying pan.’

The lure of doing independent original research was so strong that Priest decided to pursue a PhD in the same lab. Being supervised by a scientist of Ralston’s stature was a real career boost, says Priest. ‘Having a mentor who knows the system and the critical steps needed for a successful research career makes all the difference.’ When Ralston invited Stefan Herminghaus from the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self Organization in Göttingen, Germany, to give a talk at a conference, a new door was opened for Priest.

He secured a postdoctoral position with Herminghaus, and in 2004 moved abroad for the first time. It proved to be an eye-opening experience. Not only was he introduced to an exciting new field, microfluidics, but he also found himself exploring other cultures. ‘Coming from Australia to Germany, where the next country is just over the horizon, was simply amazing,’ he says. The international diversity in the lab helped too. ‘We had members from Russia, Ukraine, Mongolia, Greece, America - I really felt connected with the world during my time there,’ he recalls. ‘What other career path offers you the opportunity to experience something completely different?’

Return to Oz

The opportunities continued to come knocking when, just two years later, Ralston contacted Priest about some new research positions at his alma mater. In 2006, Priest returned home to become a research associate at the Ian Wark Research Institute, and was promoted to research fellow in 2010. Drawing on his microfluidics experience, Priest now focuses on developing functional interfaces that enable faster, better and cheaper chemical processes. Recent successes include using microfluidic channels to make microcapsules for drug delivery in a fraction of the time that it would take in a traditional lab, and a new way of extracting metals from water into oil in a microchannel, which Priest hopes to scale up for industrial applications.

In 2009, Priest was successfully nominated for Fresh Science, a science communication boot camp. Here, he discovered that communicating science to the public is far more challenging than communicating it to fellow scientists. ‘What I found really fascinating was going to schools to talk about my science and finding that students asked better questions than journalists,’ he laughs. ‘They unfailingly get right to the heart of the matter.’ Winning the Tall Poppy award, he says, will allow him to communicate the importance of creativity. ‘Scientists are inspired to bring true innovation to what we understand about the world. And that makes science a truly engaging career path.’

Yfke Hager is a science writer based in Manchester, UK