Looking forward to the final! Got an insanely busy day but "I'm a Scientist" takes top priority!
School: Altrincham Grammar School for Girls (2001-2008), Degree: Durham University (2008-2012) with a year at University of Würzburg, Germany (2011-2012), PhD: University of Nottingham (2012-now)
School: GCSEs in Maths, English, Science, History, Geography, French and German. A levels in Chemistry, Physics, Maths and German. Degree: Masters of Chemistry with International Placement (MChem).
Pot washer at a restaurant – I’m not grown up enough to have had a proper job yet! I’m also a Rainbow Leader at GirlguidingUK
University of Nottingham
Favourite thing to do in my job: I love working out what the crystal structure of my material is – it’s the best way to confirm that the idea that you had and the months of hard work you’ve put into getting it, has actually worked and you’ve managed to make something nobody has ever made before!
I make MOFs, which are sort of molecular sponges which soak up gases and might be used to hold the fuel in your car in the future.
MOF stands for metal organic framework, which pretty much explains exactly what they are. I want you to imagine a climbing frame made up of poles and joints.
MOFs are a group of materials which are just miniature versions of your climbing frame. They’re made up of organic molecules (the poles) and metals (the joints). Organic is just a chemical word for anything that is made up of mainly carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and doesn’t include a metal.
Now, I hope you’re still thinking about your climbing frame? How many children do you think would fit in it? How many can you squeeze between the poles? Well, in MOFs we’re not trying to squeeze children into our frameworks – that would be silly, we’re trying to fit as many gas molecules as possible into the holes.
So why do we want to squeeze in all this gas? There are two main reasons.
Firstly, we think that the cars in the future might be powered by hydrogen gas. This would be better than petrol, because petrol gives off polluting gases when it burns. The hydrogen combines with oxygen to make H2O – water! The big problem is that it’s really difficult to store large amounts of gas. You couldn’t just have lots of balloons of hydrogen in the back of your car because hydrogen is explosive. MOFs might be a safe way to pack lots of hydrogen into a fuel tank.
The other reason is that they might be used to catch CO2 and other greenhouse gases coming out the top of things like power stations. The CO2 could then be stored in the MOF until scientists have discovered a way of recycling it. This could help to slow down global warming.
So what is my work exactly? Well, I design and make new MOFs to be better at storing gases. Some really simple ways of doing it are making the “poles” in the framework longer so that the holes are bigger and designing the organic molecules so that the gases stick to them more strongly.
Once I’ve designed and made my new organic molecule (this can take a very long time!) I mix it with a solution of metal and heat it up. Hopefully, if my experiment is successful, I get lots of nice MOF crystals, which can be analysed and tested to see how good they are at soaking up gases.
It’s difficult to know what shape framework will form – will the holes be triangular, circular, square….? We look into the crystal with a technique called X-ray diffraction. This technique is a bit like using a microscope to see small things, but instead of using light in our microscope, we have to use X-rays, because the things we want to see are even smaller than light.
The X-rays produce a pattern of spots and we use a computer programme to help us turn the spots into something we understand – a computer model of the crystal structure. If the crystals are really small, we sometimes have to analyse them at Diamond Light Source, because their X-rays are much stronger and can see the atoms better.
Once we’ve looked at the crystal structure and our gas results, we compare these to all the other MOFs people are making around the world and work out how we can improve it next time.
My Typical Day
I spend lots of time in a chemistry laboratory carrying out reactions.
8:45 I arrive at work and sit in the office for a bit. I answer emails, read the news and plan what I’m going to do with the day.
9:15 I go into the lab, check the ovens to see if I’ve made any new crystals, and start the days experiments
10:30 If I have made crystals, I take a quick break from the lab to submit them to the crystal queue – we only have a few machines to look at crystals and lots of people wanting to use them so you have to wait your turn.
11:00 Tea break – I sit in the office and read some journal articles whilst drinking a cup of tea – it’s important to know what everybody around the world who is making MOFs is doing.
11:45 Back to the lab – check how the experiments are doing. If they’ve finished reacting, it’s time to start purifying them – getting my product out of the mixture of things that I put in
12:45 Lunch time. I eat lunch in the office whilst answering emails, planning my next Rainbow meeting or trip/sleepover and talking to the other PhD students. Once a week at lunch times we have group meetings, when everybody working on MOFs in the department gets together and people give presentations on what they’ve been doing
1:30 If it’s my turn to use the X-ray diffractometer, I will find a crystal from my sample using a microscope and put it on the machine. It can take a few days for the computer to collect enough information to be able to make a model of a crystal structure.
2:00 Back to the lab – by now I’ve usually managed to separate out my product from everything else that was in the mixture. I test it on an NMR machine and Mass Spectrometer to check I’ve made what I wanted.
2:30 If the reaction has been successful, start the next reaction – this will usually run overnight and I’ll keep working on it the next day.
3:00 Time to set up some new MOF reactions – this is the thing I dislike the most. I have to weigh out lots of really small amounts of metal and my organic molecule and put them into glass vials. It take a really long time and is really boring.
4:00 Afternoon tea break – I might sit in the office and work on a crystal structure or a report or presentation I have to write. On Mondays I leave early to get to my Rainbow meeting on time.
5:00 Go back to the lab and check on any experiments that are running. Finish off some experiments or make sure the others are safe to leave overnight.
5:30-6:30 Go home
What I'd do with the prize money
Buy equipment and materials so I can run fun science activities in schools and for Scout and Guide groups.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Sun-sneezer, Volunteer-aholic, super-organiser
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I got picked to go on an all-expenses-paid trip to Germany to visit the chemical company BASF.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
I had a really enthusiastic chemistry teacher who persuaded me to take her subject for A level rather than history!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I was once sent out of my music class for laughing at the teacher’s singing.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I love learning languages and nearly studied them at A level instead of science subjects. I would love to live in an exciting foreign country teaching English as a Foreign Language.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
I love Thai food – especially currys.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I went Interrailing (travelling by train) through Eastern Europe for a month one summer.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To pass my PhD, travel the world, and have an extra hour in every day!
Tell us a joke.
A Scientist goes into a bar and asks for a glass of H20. His friend asks for a glass of H20 too and dies.