EducationFortismere School, Muswell Hill, London; University of Manchester, Manchester
QualificationsGCSE: Maths, Triple Science, English, French, Drama, History, Graphic Design (A*-A); A-Level: English Literature (only AS) (B), French (B), Biology (B), Chemistry (B); University: MChem (master's) Chemistry with Medicinal Chemistry (2:1) Postgraduate: PhD in Bioorganic Chemistry (almost!)
Work HistoryAssistant Ballet Teacher; Street Team Leader at Edinburgh Fringe Festival (this involved handing out flyers to promote comedians, organising the other team members, scheduling the work rota); Graduate Teaching Assistant (helping undergraduate chemists with their experiments in the lab and examining them)
Current JobPhD Student
University of Manchester
The elements important to my work are:
The most important elements I work with are Silicon (Si) and Oxygen (O); I monitor how well my enzyme makes and breaks the bond between these two elements.
Being an bioorganic chemist I also do a lot of work with Carbon (C) because organic chemistry is pretty much the chemistry of carbon reactions.
I also make mutations to my enzyme, which means working with Nitrogen (N) and Hydrogen (H). These are the elements that are present in the nucleic acids that make up DNA
When I’m doing chemical reactions (not using an enzyme) with Si-O bonds I also use Chlorine (Cl). This is because it is a very reactive element and helps my reactions proceed.
Favourite thing to do in my job: Flash freeze things using liquid nitrogen
About Me: I am a bioorganic chemist working with sea sponge enzymes. When I'm not doing science, I do circus and stand up comedy. I'm currently developing a science circus show!
I live in Manchester, where I’m just finishing a PhD in Bioorganic Chemistry, but originally I’m from London. I moved to Manchester to study Chemistry as an undergraduate and liked it so much I stayed! I really really love circus, and spend most of my evenings doing trapeze or acrobatics (that’s me combing trapeze and acrobatics).
I also do comedy and host circus showcases. Last year I wrote a circus comedy, and this year I’m writing a science circus show for Cheltenham Science Festival. My goal for this year is to be able to do a handstand (they’re surprisingly difficult…). My favourite food is sushi- I went to Japan 4 years ago and it was the most amazing place I’ve ever visited. I have a Dutch boyfriend, and am trying to learn to speak Dutch but it’s really hard! I have a dog who lives in London. My claim to fame is that my Dad does the voices for Shaun the Sheep and Peppa Pig.
My Work: I'm a chemist working with enzymes found in sea sponges. They're very interesting because they are one of the only things in nature to make and break silicon-oxygen bonds. Sea sponges use these silicon-oxygen bonds to build their exoskeletons that protect them from the sea. These enzymes could be used to make drugs or break down silicon rubbers (like the kind you get in silicon kitchenwear) in an environmentally friendly way. My job is to find out what the enzyme looks like and work out what it likes to react with.
I’m doing a PhD in Bioorganic Chemistry, specifically working with an enzyme called Silicatein. Silicatein is found in sea sponges and is responsible for making and breaking Silicon (Si) -Oxygen (O) bonds. The sponges use silicic acid (a silicon-containing acid) dissolved in seawater to build their exoskeletons by forming long Si-O polymer chains. This enzyme is particularly interesting becuase it has the potential to be used in industry to make silicon polymers (which we use for things like silicon cookware, paints, sealants… The list is endless! My contact lenses are made out of a silicon polymer) or even drugs which contain Si-O bonds in an environmentally friendly way. Making and breaking Si-O bonds is a really horrible process, using extreme temperatures and chemicals like hydrochloric acid (HCl), which can cause acid rain. Enzymes don’t use all those horrible things, so are a great alternative! However, it takes a lot of work to get to that stage. My job is to try and make the enzyme Silicatein better for these things we want it to do in the future, which includes working out what it looks like, finding ways of making it more stable and figuring out what things it likes to react with.
Doing research isn’t easy, and I learn things by making A LOT of mistakes. Some of them are silly, like forgetting to add a chemical, using the wrong chemical or forgetting to switch the machine on (oops…), and some of them are because we’re making new knowledge and literally no one has done these things before. The best discovery I ever made was done completely by accident!
We have lots of different coloured gloves in our lab- the colour corresponds to how resistant to chemicals they are. Red are the thickest (they’re like washing up gloves) to use when you’re working with really corrosive chemicals, green are the thinnest and are for working in the biology lab.
My Typical Day: I do loads of different things as a PhD student, so there's no such thing as a typical day for me! Sometimes I spend all day in the lab, making enzymes and testing how well they work. Other days I spend reading to make sure I know all I can about my area of research! One thing that is certain is that I always make sure to take at least 3 breaks to drink tea- resting your mind is very important.
There is definitely no such thing as a typical day for me! I do all kinds of different science: biology, chemistry, analytical. Often the experiments I run go on for multiple days (sometimes weeks), so there can be lots of labwork one day and very little the next. Sometimes I don’t go into the lab at all and spend the whole day reading academic papers and planning my next experiments, or writing, or making presentations or posters for meetings. There’s a lot of variety! Most days involve a bit of both labwork and desk work, with a healthy dose of procrastination thrown in. I’ve picked one of the things I do most often to tell you about.
9am I normally get into work between 9-10am. The nice thing about doing a PhD is that there’s a lot of flexibility in working hours (although sometimes that comes back to bite you- I’ve spent a lot of weekends and late nights at work).
I use E. coli to grow my enzyme (it smells like butts). We use the flasks at on the left to grow the enzyme in a kind of soup that gives it nutrients. When we want to extract the enzyme we use a centrifuge to spin the solid cells out of solution at extremely high speeds. Becuase the cells are heavier than the liquid, they fall down to the bottom and we can collect them. We use special tubes (on the right) that can handle being spun without crumpling.
11am While I wait for my cells to spin, time for a cup of tea!
11:40am Now I’ve got my cells, I need to break them open to get my enzyme out. I do this by vibrating them really really fast.
12:30pm Lunchtime! Labwork makes me hungry, so I always have lunch pretty early.
1:30pm Now it’s time to purify my enzyme! I do this using things that are like tiny tiny velcro – my enzyme has a teeny little ‘loop’ on it that sticks to a material. Everything else that was in the cell doesn’t stick and I’m left with lovely pure protein!
3:30pm Time for another cup of tea!
4pm Enzymes are living things, so they need to be stored correctly or else they die. One way of doing this is by freeze-drying them. This is my favourite thing to do because I get to use liquid nitrogen to freeze the enzymes quickly. It’s important to wear the correct safety equipment though, because liquid nitrogen can be very dangerous. Goggles (or a big helmet and visor) are a must!
5pm I tidy up all the things I’ve used and then have another cup of tea. While I’m having my cuppa I might read some scientific papers or catch up on emails. I’ll plan the experiments I’m going to do with the enzyme I purified and make sure I’ve got all the right things. Then I make a list of all the things I’ll need to do tomorrow so I don’t forget!
What I'd do with the prize money: I would use the money to develop a circus show about science
We have assembled a team of science communicators to build a cabaret style show with a difference. ‘Physical Education’ uses the aerial, circus and dance talents of our group to convey different scientific concepts, be they basic science or related to their research background. Current ideas for content includes understanding the physics of circus (gravity, friction), biochemistry and biomechanics, chemistry and materials science (what the materials are made from, how they support us), and more esoteric science, such as mathematical concepts demonstrated through trapeze and the movement of electrons in energy levels on rope.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Funny, Energetic and Sociable
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My A-Level Chemistry teacher, and the desire to prove that women can do high level chemistry jobs...
What was your favourite subject at school?
Drama and science
What did you want to be after you left school?
I wanted to be a doctor or an actress
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Nope! I was a goody two shoes
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I would be a comedian or join the circus
Who is your favourite singer or band?
So many to choose from! You can't go wrong with Queen though
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I went to Indonesia on a school trip and went up into the rainforest canopy and scuba dived with an octopus (separately of course...)
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I wish I could do a handstand, have enough money to go travelling and knew what career I'd like after I finish my PhD!
Tell us a joke.
Cashew: the sound of a nut sneezing