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Diversity, chemistry and me

9 min read

Your inspiration

What inspired you to study chemistry/science?

We’re all inspired to study chemistry, whether we choose to label it chemistry or not. What is the baby’s instinct to put everything in their mouth if it’s not a genetic urge to analyse. Inspiration to study chemistry as a subject follows from the recognition that it is chemistry that has the power to describe the origin and fate of everything around us. That and a legitimate excuse to set alight to things.

Did you have a great teacher that made you enjoy chemistry at school?

Before we chose our science options, so the equivalent of ‘year 9’, I had a hugely enthusiastic teacher called Mr Taylor. As we investigated and rediscovered some of the great historic laws of science he would rename them after the student making the insight.

Did you have a chemistry kit as a child or was there a specific event that made you like chemistry?

Much to the consternation of my mother, I did have a chemistry kit. Most of the experiments involved minor pyrotechnics but occasionally I’d do something a little more inventive. I was proud of collecting oxygen from Canadian pondweed.

What did you enjoy about studying chemistry at school and at university? What were the challenges of university?

Chemistry came easily to me at School. At University it took me rather too long to learn to balance the distractions.

What would you have done if you hadn’t been a chemist?

In my dreams I would have been a professional cyclist.

What is the biggest challenge you had to overcome in chemistry and how did you solve it?

Electrostatic attraction means cations and anions attract one another. I am not pretending to have overcome that but by covalently connecting the cation and anion to form a zwitterion we could at least control their relative positions.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome in changing the way lecture material is presented to students and how have you overcome it?

The challenge is to ensure the most effective use of the student’s and the academic’s time. I am working to overcome that by presenting an evidence-based approach that is sensitive to the needs of the students and the academic.

Your career

What does your current role involve?

I wear many hats. I am the Director of Admissions responsible for recruiting and selecting students for our degree programmes. I teach the concepts that underpin bonding, structure and periodicity so that our students learn to predict and understand chemical properties rather than simply remembering them. I am fortunate enough to have a roving brief from the University to show how the lessons we have learnt from teaching chemistry can be applied to other areas of study and at other institutions. I am even fortunate enough to guide students working to ensure that cars stay on the roads when the fossil fuels run out or our carbon footprint becomes too much to bare.

What do you enjoy most about your current job?

Where do I start? I work with a wonderful group of colleagues teaching the greatest subject to excellent students in the finest city.

For anyone considering a career in chemistry, from your own experiences what can they expect?

I would like to suggest the periodic table as a metaphor. If you embark on a career you are going to make lots of discoveries and encounter huge variety. But you’ll learn to find the patterns and the fundamental understanding that you acquire will allow you to make sense of it all.

How would you describe your job to a non-chemistry specialist? (e.g. applications, what it might look like in the future etc.)

Human beings didn’t evolve to be passive absorbers of our surroundings. We evolved to be active participants. Chemistry degrees have long emphasised the practical skills to make and analyse compounds and mixtures. My job is now to put constructivist and analytical skills at the centre of education and displace the dependence on memory.

What aspect of your lifestyle do you value the most? Is it the freedom to travel anywhere in the world?

Every academic will tell you they are terribly busy. And if you want something done give it to the busiest one you can find. But one of the reasons we are so busy is because we wake up every morning and, to a great extent, get to decide how we are going to spend our day. It’s that kind of freedom I value the most.

The chance to share what I value most all over the world is certainly a bonus but it’s always good to get home.


Do you think it is more difficult for certain groups of people, e.g. females to work within the scientific community?

I would like to be able to say no, but the statistical evidence, the number of female colleagues in the sciences suggest that it is more difficult. I teach students, at undergraduate level; there is no gender difference in ability, attitude or ambition, so I see no legitimate reason why there should be a difference at faculty level. 

What more could be done to help promote diversity and help minority groups to advance in science and technology? What more could organisations like the Royal Society of Chemistry do to help?

I think we need a cultural shift. Too often well-meaning people are complicit in casual discrimination. The tendency is for white middle aged men like myself when confronted with evidence of discrimination to go on the defensive and explain that, “well I don’t do that”. This does miss the point. We need to call out and condemn everyday sexism, casual racism and tacit homophobia wherever we encounter it. It needs to become as socially unacceptable as for instance drink-driving.

Do you have any advice that you would give, either to those setting out on a chemistry career, or to those who may be under-represented in the chemical sciences?

The situation is improving. You will encounter dinosaurs with reprehensible attitudes but they will become fewer and further between. Institutions, rather than harbouring discrimination, are becoming the bastions of equality and the 175 year old Royal Society of Chemistry is a beacon.

You use technology in the lecture theatre to engage students, what journey have you taken to transform traditional lectures to modern style interactive lectures?

The 50 minute monologue in which the notes of the lecturer are transferred to the notes of the student without passing through the brains of either (which is a paraphrase of a famous quotation with disputed origin) is a waste of the students time, the lecturers time and the lecture theatre space. Fortunately the simple monologue is rare and most lecturers try to engage their students. I’d like to think I was always in that category. However, interaction costs time and there was only so much I could do. A second issue was the tendency of a small cohort of very keen students to monopolise the question answering. Technology provided a means of addressing both of these issues. Lecture capture through screencasting allowed me to provide resources students could view in advance. The use of audience response handsets (clickers) provided a means to collect the responses of every student. Combining these practices results in lecture flipping. By utilising peer instruction one can pose much more challenging and valuable questions within the flipped lecture environment.

Do you think traditional style lectures still play a part in teaching students at university?

There is a huge body of evidence that demonstrates unequivocally that active learning and teaching is more effective than passive lectures. However, many will recount anecdotes of inspiring oratory that motivated us to study. How many stirring speeches will we hear or even be receptive to in the course of a week’s study? Why can’t inspiration be delivered in an interactive fashion? If traditional lecturing means a 50 minute monologue then I hope we will see an end to the practice within a generation.

Have you seen a change in how students respond to your lectures and modules?

Yes, absolutely, students now see contact time as more worthwhile, more constructive and dare I say it, more fun.

What advice would you give other lecturers and teachers that still use the traditional style lecture but want to branch out and engage students more?

If you want to engage your students more, you have two choices. (1) Reduce the amount of content and use the freed time for challenging interactions addressing concepts. (2) Flip part or all of your course. Find an alternative means to deliver the content and use the contact time for active learning.

Has there been any resistance from your colleagues or students in the way you teach?

Academics aren’t always the best model for the student cohort. They tend to be attached to the model of University education they remember from their degrees. In reality they too learnt little in lectures but compensated by working hard independently. I am all for asking students to develop as independent learners but I don’t think that means we need waste everybody’s time with the classic lecture format.

A small minority of students who find they do learn best through private study do not see the benefits of the flipped approach and are content with the lecture being an occasion on which they collect the list of things they need to prepare for the examination.

Are you finding others taking on board your radical approach to teaching to improve their lectures and engagement with students?

I don’t regard my approach to teaching as radical. I’ve looked at the evidence and combined the best practices. All my colleagues would employ exactly the same approach to designing their scientific research. When I get the chance to make that point and show how easily the step to active learning and teaching can be then yes they adopt the approach.