My Laidlaw Experience: a retrospective

I reflect on the unpredictable events that lead me to Laidlaw, and how my experience on the programme has been coloured by equally unforseeable circumstances. We're in quarantine anyway right, why not give it a look?

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It started with a bet. A friend and I both applied for the Laidlaw scholarship with the understanding that, should either of us be fortunate enough to be accepted, the first round of drinks was on the lucky recipient. To my great pleasure, it looks like I’ll be buying…

Looking back, if you asked me what I expected the experience to involve when I first started on my Laidlaw journey, I’m not quite sure what I would have told you. I must confess to a certain amount of digging before the application process started, but I can’t say that it in anyway prepared me for what was to come. On a train coming back up to St Andrews after Winter break last year (completely by chance), I ended up sat next to Calum McCutcheon, a Laidlaw alumnus who introduced me to the programme. Whether he knew it at the time or not, that was the first conversation of many. Over the next few weeks and months, I peppered him with questions about his experience - what he’d gained and how the programme had helped influence his leadership journey. The more I heard, the more excited the prospect seemed and so I kept digging. I discovered the two pillars of the programme: leadership and research.  I decided to tackle the research component first. After speaking with the career adviser in my department, I was put in touch with another Laidlaw alumnus who shared with me how enriching the opportunity was for his theoretical understanding. I knew this was something I’d be interested in.

Little did I know that 4 months (give or take a pandemic) later, I’d be conducting my research from my bedroom in rainy Rawtenstall, equipped with all the chemistry resources of my kitchen fridge. Needless to say, this endeavour wasn’t going to be – nor should it have been – a trivial one.  When the first day of research came round, I thought it would be a nice idea to outline some of my initial feelings and expectations, and later reflect on them. Here’s what I wrote:

Today marked the beginning of my research project. It’s been a long time coming. After weeks of back and forth between my supervisor, the Laidlaw team and myself, trying to reach a compromise that allowed me to bisect my project into two sessions (because of COVID-19 blah blah blah) I finally got to a point where I could start. The premise of my project is quite a cool one: I’m trying to help my supervisor synthesise a compound for use in a light emitting electrochemical cell which is both cheaper to produce and as efficient as an OLED for use in next generation lighting and digital displays (laptops, tablets etc.).

My plan is to spend a couple of weeks becoming familiar with the mechanisms behind currently employed light emitting technology (fluorescence, phosphorescence and thermally activated delayed fluorescence). “Making stuff glow” sounds innocent enough, but even after one day I can see how vast the area is. I’ve been given loads of papers to sink my teeth into, but before I get started on those, I need to get my head round the basics of the aforementioned theory, particularly thermally activated delayed fluorescence (TADF). Then comes the fun part in December when I get to spend 3 weeks trying to synthesise a new narrow frequency emitting TADF molecule. Who knows- maybe the emitter I help to make will eventually be employed in the digital displays of the future?! I think it would be cool to use a mobile phone or tablet knowing I had a hand in making the screen work.

Before that though, there’s a long road ahead. I’m nervous that I won’t be able to fully understand TADF due to my so-far limited exposure to quantum mechanics. Hopefully my knowledge will grow through the research. I’m curious to see whether my motivation wanes for the project over the next few weeks - I guess self-leadership really will be vital here.  At least now that we’ve had the welcome talk, and I’ve seen what is expected, I don’t feel quite so lost. I’m optimistic about the next few weeks. I’ll be interested to see what the leadership talks are like too – I suppose I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out.

So here we are 2 weeks later, and still I can claim only the most superficial understanding of TADF. For as interesting as it is, there is an ocean between theory and commercial implementation. That said, I wholeheartedly look forward to my lab time in December, where maybe I’ll see the theory become something more tangible. It occurs to me, that maybe one day, someone reading this post will do so on a device engineered by the theory I am helping to pioneer. I like that.

As for my initial worries and concerns, I think they were mostly warranted.  Whilst my limited grasp of quantum mechanics will surely limit how far I can understand the theory involved, these first 2 weeks have shown me that there’s absolutely no shortage of material to cover in the meantime. For a guy who’d never heard of an exciton a few weeks ago, I’m proud of how far I’ve come. As for the leadership talks, I did write a similar summary of my thoughts on Andy Coxall’s talk, which I’ll summarise as this post is getting long.

I wrote:

What resonated with me most about his [Andy’s] talk was when he said that he uses purpose as an anchor that stops him from getting lost.

I really took that to heart. Did you know over 20% of global energy consumption goes towards lighting? Imagine the implications my research could have.

The only thing left to say, is a humble and sincere thank you to my supervisor Eli Zysman-Colman for introducing me to the field, to my fellow scholars for keeping me sane on this adventure and to Lord Laidlaw, Alex Stanley and the rest of the Laidaw team for making this possible.

Matt Fry

Student

I'm a chemist at the University of St Andrews, but in my time here I've dabbled in several different subject areas: Spanish, Italian, Maths and Computer Science as well as Chemistry. Although these seem quite different fields, they share a commonality, in that there is some formal grammar underpinning each of them. If you understand the rules, you can manipulate these tools to accomplish a certain goal - be that synthesising a particular molecule or having a conversation. I'm a keen linguist, having spent time teaching English in one of the top private schools in Spain, and regularly attend evening Italian classes. I enjoy most areas of Chemistry, particularly organic mechanism and fluorescence - hence the focus of my project. I'm always looking for new opportunties inside or outside the lab, and would like to explore the field of patent law as I think it fuses my interests quite nicely. It'd be great to meet any like minded people, so feel free to send me a message!

2 Comments

Go to the profile of Gwendoline
Gwendoline 3 months ago

Wonderfully written! I really enjoyed reading this :D

Go to the profile of Matt Fry
Matt Fry 3 months ago

Thanks Gwen! I look forward to reading yours, when is publishing day?