The transfer from a very practical summer of research to an online version has, like many others, been a real adjustment. Chemistry as a subject is one of the most hands-on courses containing a huge amount of in-lab time, which is currently not possible. However, the move to online work has given me a huge appreciation of the realities of this subject. From my studies as an undergraduate so far, there have been no opportunities for a true research experience. Our lab components are highly planned and checked to ensure the safety of the students, and the feasibility of the experiments themselves meaning I have never had to properly plan reactions before. Now, the only work I am able to do is planning, so this has been quite a change!
In very simple terms, the preliminary research for my project looks at finding ways to change what bond is present at a specific location within a molecule. By changing this bond, the molecules formed could be used in a variety of applications, removing the need for toxic heavy metal catalyst. I am specifically looking at replacing a bromine atom with a larger carbon-based functional group in a specific molecule, which has been the focus of very little previous research.
As an undergrad this is a pretty daunting task! I have little prior knowledge, and there is little research to base my ideas off and move forward with, so lateral thinking is incredibly important. I have already found that even when I’m not sitting at my desk ‘working’, ideas are floating around my head about ways to convert functional groups for possible synthetic routes. I am a problem solver by nature, so don’t mind letting ideas stew before I come to a conclusion, but with past problems there has always been an answer, so research is an exciting opportunity to work on something truly new. Already, in just over a week, I have learnt a huge amount about my own skills as a theoretical chemist. In the past, I thought my biggest skill as a chemist was my practical nature and the ability to be careful and methodical in a lab, as opposed to my specific knowledge of reactions. Being forced out of my ‘comfort zone’ and to treat my degree as a thought problem has really taught me about my skills as an analytical chemist. The ability to think laterally about a problem is not something that can be easily taught at undergraduate level, especially when potentially toxic and highly explosive chemicals are involved but online research has given me an early opportunity to think differently around a problem.
However, the online work has definitely had an impact on the research itself. As with everyone, spending days staring at screens can be draining. However, one aspect I had not considered was the lack of ability to switch off. It can be hard to forget about an idea when you work on it in the same room as where you sleep. In previous years there has been an easier separation between work and home for chemists. When you leave the lab, you can’t take a reaction with you, so you get some space from the problem. I am a practical person and rely on both my brain to figure out a problem, but also being able to give ideas a go. This is why I love a subject like chemistry – it is the perfect combination of both aspects; you can’t just put some chemicals together and see what happens but you also can’t just sit and think about ideas – you need to go and apply them. By working solely online, I have had to adapt from an attitude of “this could work, so let’s go and try it out and see what happens” to “let’s find every possible idea and whittle them down slowly theoretically” which has certainly been hard, but a good challenge. It can feel like I’m thinking about it all the time, but I’ve found that having a chance to socialise with fellow scholars and friends has been a real help.
Even in only a week and a bit, this opportunity has taught me so many valuable lessons of operating in a research focussed environment, and I seem to have caught the research bug! I am incredibly lucky to have this opportunity, all thanks to Lord Laidlaw for the funding, and to Dr. Kilian and the School of Chemistry for an opportunity to work on some very exciting research!
My new 'lab' looks very different from normal, but work can still be done!