So I know it has been a while, but you will be pleased to know I have used the time absent from here wisely. I have managed to finish a couple of papers, ; I have improved my German exponentially (I now know 32 words rather than 1); and I got a knight costume for carnival. All in all, a good few months.
Personal advancement aside, I was also invited to sit on the organising committee for this years inaugural Reaxys Inspiring Chemistry Conference. The conference is centered around the Reaxys PhD prize which is now in its fourth year. The prize is the only international chemistry PhD competition (as far as I know), and is awarded across all fields of chemistry, with the winners selected by peer review of submitted papers. Peer review is undertaken by a large international panel of scientists headed up by Prof. Barry Trost (Stanford), Prof. Martin Jansen (Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research), Prof. Gerard Parkin, (Columbia University) Prof. Henry Wong (Chinese University of Hong-Kong), Prof. Eiichi Nakamura, (University of Tokyo) and Prof. Anthony Barrett (Imperial College, London), with the lucky winners awarded $2000.
Traditionally the Reaxys Prize has tagged on to a major international conference, but this year they have taken a bold step to hold a conference of their own in Grindelwald, Switzerland. The conference will be a small and exclusive event for world leading young scientists that have undertaken groundbreaking research in their fields. Invitation is primarily restricted to this years finalists and winners, previous finalists and winners, associated supervisors, the high-profile conference committee, and the excellent speakers.
Keeping the conference relatively small will allow us to really maintain a really high calibre of attendees, and to maximise the interaction between speakers, finalists and other participants.
This years speakers have not officially been announced as far as I am aware, so consider this a world exclusive. The keynotes will be: Prof Dr Erick M Carreira (ETH) and Dr Peter Denifl (Borealis), and the plenaries: Dr Matthew Gaunt (Cambridge), and (my young academic of choice) Dr Sarah Reisman (Caltech). This is really a great opportunity to interact with the worlds leading scientists, from PhD students and post-docs, early career academics, to those that sit at the very top of their fields. This is not an event where the big players disappear after their lecture. The whole basis of the event is interaction, and everybody will be available for the whole conference.
Oh, and one last thing. The deadline is one week today, so get your application in here.
I spend a lot of time worrying about the image of chemistry. I want people to know that you don’t have to be a ‘geek’ to be great at science. I also think this image can dissuade great young minds from following their instincts and passion for science (particularly chemistry of course) because they do not ‘fit’ in to what they perceive is the image of a scientist.
I am hoping that this new ‘reality show’ out of MIT will give people a bit of an idea about what chemistry at university is about, and will show a broad spectrum of people and personalities. I know MIT is probably not that representative of science education as a whole, but we can can hope a little that the result of this is positive for the perception of chemistry and chemists.
Though a deeply buried and cynical part of my being, despite my audible protestations, thinks probably not!
Unless you happen to be part of the academic system, how an academic career actually develops is not widely know or understood. To be honest, even to those within the system, the whole thing is pretty damn confusing. It is possible to skip certain steps, ‘fellowships’ pop up at all different levels of the career path, and despite having the same label have completely different meanings, and the differentiation of ‘levels’ is often ambiguous.
To clear this up I have made a pretty picture and given a small description of each stage. To be clear though, my picture is a fairly linear simplification of the system, and alternative pathways with roundabouts, traffic lights, and holes in the ground all exist. In addition, I am talking solely about the UK system. In the rest of the world requirements differ and titles of positions vary: though the general pathway of undergraduate degree, to postgraduate degree, to post-doctoral research, to an academic career, hold true. Furthermore, this is written from the perspective of a scientist (specifically a chemist), and in the arts this is probably quite different.
(y = years)
A BSc (Batchelor of Science) and MChem (Master of Chemistry) are primarily taught courses requiring the learning of material and the succesful completion of examinations. These qualifications are graded as 3rd class (3rd), lower 2nd class (2:2), upper 2nd class (2:1) and first class (1st), with a 1st being the highest level.
A BSc and MChem are typically identicle for the first two years. The second two years of an MChem are more research focussed than the final year of a BSc, and taught modules in the final year of an MChem are of a level beyond that of the BSc. An MChem is a higher level qualification than a BSc.
MSc (Master of Science), MRes (Master of Research), MPhil (Master of Philosphy) are postgraduate degrees of the same level. The proportion of research and taught modules differentiates each qualification. Completion of examinations and submission of a research thesis is required for completion of the qualification. The qualification is graded using a pass/merit/distinction scale.
A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is typically 100% research based and is completed over a 3-4 year period. A PhD student will research a specific topic(s) over a number of years under the supervision of an academic (university lecturer), and is then required to submit an extended thesis (200-300 pages) reporting this work. For a PhD to be awarded the student must defend their research, which has been critically evaluated by two academics (university lecturers) in an oral examination (viva) lasting for 2-4 hours. PhD research must be of a publishable level i.e. of a quality that could be submitted to peer-reviewed journals for publication in scientific literature, but publishing research is not a requisite for completion of the qualification (though is highly desirable). A PhD is not graded on a sliding scale, though successful completion of these studies affords the student the title of Dr.
Post-doctoral research (or “post-docking”) is not a formal qualification, but is typically required for progression in an academic career. Post-doctoral research is completed under the supervision of an academic in a manner similar to a PhD, but a significantly increased level of independence is expected, and the ability to generate ideas and develop this into publishable (peer-reviewed) research papers is critical. Post-doctoral positions are typically between 1 and 2 years, and a number of these may be undertaken in different research groups (i.e. working for different academic supervisors) before moving up the career ladder. Undertaking a post-doctoral research position under the supervision of your PhD supervisor is not generally viewed as favorable.
A position as a lecturer or an independent research fellow is the first position in which you are regarded as independent scientist (an academic). You are no longer working under the supervision of another academic, and at this stage you will often begin to supervise PhD students and potentially employ post-doctoral researchers. As well as undertaking and publishing your own research, teaching of undergraduate and post-graduate students is often a requirement of employment. A position as a lecturer is slightly favourable as the position is typically permanent, a luxury not afforded to independent research fellows.
Career progression from a lecturer through to a professor is neither essential or guaranteed. Progression through the ranks typically reflects your contribution to your subject in terms of research (and to a lesser degree teaching). Teaching requirements typically reduce throughout the career path, though the best academics (in my opinion) typically maintain as a high a commitment to teaching as possible. A successful research career is often reflected in an academics ability to procure financial backing for their research ideas, and the successful implementation of these ideas (demonstrated by publishing research). As a consequence, more senior academics typically have more financial support and thus employ more post-doctoral researchers and supervise a greater number of PhD students. The writing of research proposals to procure funding is one of the most significant administrative requirements of an academic.
Having just turned thirty, I most definitely wasn’t around to see Neil Armstrong take those first inspirational steps on the moon way back in July, 1969. My parents were though, and to this day they remember exactly where they were and who they were with. At 14 and 15 years respectively, and neither particularly scientifically minded, it is fantastic to imagine the impact this had on them, and on the other 500-600 million people (1) that watched on television.
Following the death of Armstrong last week, the internet has been awash with people lamenting the lack of progress mankind has made in space exploration since this historic moment; considering that in 1969 colour televisions had only just made the mainstream, yet still, men were bouncing around on the moon playing golf, you can see their point. We seem to have fallen a little behind in space exploration if you consider it in parallel to the of progression of, for example, the TV - just have a look in your pocket, or consider what is beyond the screen of that tiny device in your hand right now.
The problem with space exploration is that it is prohibitively costly, and given the current economic woes of the Western world, who would fund it? People want value for money and a return on their investments, and this is as true in scientific research as it is in any other business. This may seem like common sense, though the consequence of this is significant. If these values had been applied in the 50s and 60s, man would never have made it to the edge of the atmosphere, never mind to the moon.
Going to the moon was achieved because people had freedom to explore, and the desire to do something amazing. There was no profit, no obvious impact on society – except to those astute enough to see value in just figuring out if we can get there, and believing that what we learn on the way could change the world we live in – this was curiosity driven science, or as it is now more colloquially known, ‘blue skies research’. This kind of research is getting harder to fund, and understandably so. Scientific research is hugely expensive, and university research in the UK (2) is funded heavily by the tax payer (my PhD alone cost the taxpayer more than £100,000), and people rightly want value for money.
So is it worth it? Was spending millions getting to the moon, and is spending billions more getting to Mars value for money? Is funding any ‘blue skies’ research really worthwhile, or is it just a luxury we can no longer afford? It seems the answer to this question, in the UK anyway, is no. The research councils in the UK, which is the arm of the government that distributes funding for scientific research is becoming increasingly focused on research ‘impact’, and if your impact isn’t obvious and no financial return is forthcoming, then your research won’t get funded.
Only funding research with a significant ‘impact’ may seem a reasonable way to discriminate between hundreds of applications for a limited pot of money, but here is where the most significant problem arises: how can you predict ‘impact’? How do you know what will change the world? Or bring in millions to the economy? The answer is simple. You can’t. Chemistry Blog nicely illustrates this with discussions on the laser, ‘a physicists toy’ that became so ubiquitous, we use it to point at blackboards. Try searching Google for NASA inventions we use everyday to see the real impact of space research. Then we have graphene, a material that was isolated with sticky tape and what can essentially be described as a block of pencil lead – and stemmed from the ‘Friday night experiments’ (3) which have also given us floating frogs - not the kind of research that you could argue great ‘impact’ for . The properties of graphene resulted in a Nobel prize being awarded to Geim and Novoselov of the University of Manchester, and now millions of pounds world-wide is being pumped into research following this discovery. NOBODY would have predicted this, and thus would not have initially funded it, and that is the significant issue.
If you hear a scientist bemoaning that they can not get funding for their research into ‘thisideaisnuts’, or read an article about £200,000 research funding for ‘whatthehellisthepointinthat’, take a moment to think about what you have just read. The greatest discoveries are rarely planned, they are often consequence of doing something ridiculous/exciting/exploratory/crazy/stupid/grand/almost unimaginable (delete at will) – all of which could also be called blue skies research – just like going into space. So although we need value for money in research, scientists need the freedom to explore and be creative, otherwise scientific progress will become incremental, iterative and stagnant. This isn’t a call for researchers to be given free rein on how to spend tax payers money, just for those who don’t necessarily have a scientific background (and who are generally in charge of the money), to give a second thought to what really is important. Immediate impact doesn’t even come close to the unknown possibilities of the universe if we are bold and brave in our research.
Hands up for a (wo)man ot two on Mars.
(1) According to several internet pages of varying reliability
(2) Probably elsewhere in the world as well – though I don’t know this to be fact
(3) I was luck enough to see Geim give a lecture after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics a couple of years ago, so this is pretty much first hand information.
As it has moved to a new home and you may not yet be aware, I just wanted to let you know that the clues for this weeks Mega Chemist Challenge are now out. Just click here.