All the world’s a lab, and all the men and women merely researchers…
As we move through life our perception of the world changes. Our views and beliefs develop and grow, as do our understanding and knowledge. This constantly growing wisdom changes both our perspective of the world and how the world sees us. Throughout childhood, we learn the fundamentals of life, the basics of growing up, before our school years give a wider spectrum of education. Eventually, we hope to find our passion and develop as a specialist.
I first found my love for chemistry when I was about five years old. I spent Saturday afternoons making ‘potions’ with my nanna – concoctions of different-coloured liquids – where I mastered the art of pouring one on top of the other without them mixing. I was clearly a budding scientist, and lucky enough to be encouraged by my family to pursue that passion.
My memories of chemistry lessons in secondary school involve checking for hydrogen with the classic ‘squeaky pop’ test using Bunsen burners, sat at wooden benches covered in scratch marks and graffiti. I recently told a colleague (a first-year PhD student) this memory and was met with a confused ‘you used Bunsen burners?’. Apparently open flames are far too dangerous now, but I don’t recall any major fires at school.
At college, I chose to study chemistry, physics, maths and computing. After two years of learning and exams, I decided chemistry was the subject for me. Going from a range of subjects to just one was both exciting and nerve wracking, but off to university I went.
As an undergraduate, I was still learning the important fundamentals. Yet the work was never really my own: it was carefully planned lab scripts, designed to be ‘undergraduate proof’. I was learning from other people’s work and the rules they devised, mechanisms they elucidated and facts they found that shape the laws of chemistry. I refined my knowledge, found the areas I enjoyed and thrived in, identified the areas where I didn’t. Fortunately, these aren’t set in stone: my strongest module was organic chemistry and my weakest was physical, but I moved on to a physical-organic chemistry PhD. It just goes to show how our views of the world and personal strengths are constantly shifting.
I’m now in the final year of my PhD. I learn from my own experiments, research and experience, all of them moulding me to become an expert in my field. I’m still able to enjoy certain student perks – no council tax, student discount and free McFlurrys at McDonalds – but I consider myself a professional. Networking at conferences and presenting my work, sharing my passion, have been some of the high points of PhD life; they are balanced by long days, frustrating reactions (and colleagues) and processing countless NMR spectra.
Overall, managing my own independent research and becoming an expert in my field has been fascinating. It took me a long time to gain the confidence to be able to question professionals within the field. Throughout school, I was taught the facts, told to take them as law, and spoon-fed the information needed to progress. As an undergraduate, I learned to be critical of information, as not everything in the textbook may be the most up-to-date way of thinking. As I carry out research first hand and see cutting-edge work presented, I’ve begun to understand how these facts (and non-facts) come about, how people make mistakes and that science doesn’t always know the answers to the questions we ask.
As my PhD draws to a close, I’m going to be taking a less conventional path: I’ve accepted a position as an associate editor. I considered post-doctoral work, but the prospect of reading and reviewing the latest research is enthralling – although I’ll enjoy watching my fellow researchers’ progress through both academic and industrial routes, on to the next stages in their careers. While my own time in the lab is at an end, I’ll continue to develop how I view my subject so I can help shape the research published and guide the next generation of chemists.
It’s been a long and difficult journey so far, but one I wouldn’t have missed for the world.