Researchers in the Limelight

It all started with a leaflet. In 2002 my supervisor was sent information on the Pupil Researcher Initiative (PRI) and passed it on to me. PRI aims to make school science more inspiring, and one of the ways it does this is by sending PhD students into schools for a week to interact with the pupils. I've always been very keen on promoting science, so I quickly filled in my details and posted them off. A few weeks later, a briefing day in London led to a placement at a school in my local area, Altwood Church of England School in Maidenhead.

It was about 8 years since I'd left school and it was a great feeling to be back again, this time as a researcher in residence. During that week I got involved in leading poster sessions and giving career talks. But for me the most exciting activity was performing science in front of students from years 9 and 10 and lower 6th.

I started my show with a talk on how to synthesise aspirin (anti-inflammatory drug) and oil of wintergreen (muscle relaxant oil) from various chemicals. We then set up apparatus and got down to it ourselves. The pupils seemed to love getting their hands on practical chemistry, even recrystallising the products at the end, which as any chemist knows is soul-destroying as you watch your apparently reasonable yield vanish to microscopic quantities! They were amazed that in just a few hours they could make a commercial product. It was when I saw the smiles on their faces that I knew this was definitely a worthwhile use of my time.

And from then on, I was hooked. Next I headed to Harlow, to act as a facilitator for the Express Yourself conference organised by the local Set Point. This involves pupils giving short talks and presenting posters about their own scientific investigations. Then it was on to London to help at an annual conference held at the prestigious Royal Institution of Great Britain, where 20 schools from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland come to compete for the Young Scientists of the Year award. Here my responsibilities were to chair the talks given by various schools and to be part of the panel of judges.

With this important national competition coming up, I wanted to contribute something that would make this event very memorable for the pupils in the final. Having by now become a little creative, I had this vision of giving them something scientific to take home. I presented my plan to my institution, University College London (UCL), that I would design a compact, pocket-sized periodic table that could fold open like a map and also provide useful scientific formulas.

A pocket-sized periodic table

Having persuaded UCL to finance my project, I contacted some professional designers to help me bring my concept to reality. The whole experience became, for me, a great taste of project management, as my role involved leadership and being a good team player, as well as extensive communication. It also enhanced my ability to network, at both the professional and personal level. Most importantly, the conference was only a short time away so I had to develop my time management skills pretty quickly to make sure that the periodic tables were ready on time. The success of this project has gone further than I could have hoped, for these foldouts have now been supplied to many schools nationwide. I feel great satisfaction from encouraging the next generation of our citizens to experience the thrill of real science.

No matter what the personal rewards, it's also always very nice to realise that other people appreciate what you do. At the Royal Institution in October last year I was presented with the Science Communicator's Award from UK Research Councils, Collins Educational Publishers, and the directors of PRI. This award is given to a very small number of researchers each year in recognition of their outstanding contribution to promoting and communicating science to society at a national level.

Recently, I also presented my research at the House of Commons along with my supervisor. This gave me a rare chance to network with many MPs, including Gordon Marsden (MP for Blackpool South), Joan Humble (MP for Blackpool North), and Theresa May (MP for Maidenhead). I hope that I can count on their support in future for larger projects in delivering science to the community. My PhD is nearly at an end, but I certainly intend to continue supporting many schools at a national level!

Adam with Gordon Marsden, MP for Blackpool South

The PRI has been one of the best experiences of my PhD and it was a great honour to be part of the scheme. I would like to thank my supervisor, Professor Michael Abraham, for his sincere, kind support as well as the rest of the staff and all my friends at the department of chemistry at University College London. I would also like to thank the teaching staff and pupils at Altwood Church of England School for making my placement a very enjoyable one. And especially, big thanks to all the folks at Sheffield Hallam who run the PRI for your efforts in making the scheme such a success!

Please contact me if you would like to use free copies of the periodic table I designed in school activities.

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