Thank you so much for all of your votes! I can't believe that I won! I actually cried at work - what a big girl! I really hope that you've all enjoyed the project as much as I have, and really hope to keep in touch with you all and hear how you're getting on. Thanks also to my Team EnGen mates, who have made me cry with laughter over the last two weeks with our ramblings! A very well suited bunch of people thrown together from different areas, and all in the name of science :) Take care, and thanks again! Suze xxxx
Croydon High School, 1994 – 2001
University College London (UCL), BSc (2001 – 2005), MSc (2006 – 2007)
Brief stint on a Graduate Scheme, realising that I didn’t want to be an accountant (2005 – 2006)
Final year PhD student in Materials Chemistry
Materials Chemistry Centre, UCL
Favourite thing to do in my job: In a lab full of things to play with, my general scientific curiosity has always revolved around whether I can change the colour of things, make them go bang, or break them. It’s all learning!
My mission is to split water into hydrogen and oxygen using sunlight, so that we can store the hydrogen and use it as fuel instead of petrol, coal and other horrible polluting fossil fuels!
Let me tell you a little more about me. My name is Suze, and I’m a scientist! Don’t get me out of here too soon, as I want to answer as many questions from you all as possible. I’m 4ft 10in, so it is no wonder that I’ve stumbled into the world of nanotechnology. I am in the final year of my PhD, and I have a passion for science, and an insatiable curiosity when it comes to things that I don’t understand (I am a nightmare when magicians are involved, because I want to know how everything works!). In my spare time, I love listening to music, seeing live bands at gigs and summer festivals like Glastonbury and Reading, and I also still take ballet classes at the same dance school that I started attending when I was two and a half! I love spending time with my friends, and one of my favourite things is dressing up and heading out for a nice meal with them all. I also have a list of 101 things that I want to do / see / make / learn in my life. The list is pretty varied, and I only made it a year and a half ago, but I’ve already managed to tick off ten things on there. Although it’s not strictly science, let me know if you want to know about some of the funny things that made the list, and I’ll see whether I can send your teacher a copy of the list for you to giggle at in your spare time! This is a photo of me with Paul Smith, from the band Maxïmo Park. I was in one of their music videos with a group of my friends, which is my best claim to fame so far! Below that is a photo of me sunning myself at Glastonbury Festival.
I’m a Materials Chemist – more about that later. Basics first! I did my undergraduate degree in Chemistry at UCL, and have chosen to do my PhD in the same University. I fell in love with UCL when I came here for my UCAS interview. It is in London, which is my favourite city in the world. It is a twenty minute walk from Oxford Street which, if you are like me and you can’t resist buying shoes, is a definite bonus. Shopping is great in London, and is something that comes naturally to me, as you can see in the next photo! UCL is also a twenty minute walk from Camden Town, which is brilliant as it satisfies my other passion; live music. Admittedly during this final year of my PhD, I’ve had to curb my gig-going a little as I’ve had more work to do, however I chose UCL because it suited my location and my personality. UCL encourages you to work hard, but also party hard. Going to University is a huge challenge, and a big chunk of your life where you will find out who you are, and find people that will let you be that crazy and unique person, and complement that personality with their own. When you get around to choosing Universities, go and visit, and chat to other students who will be more than likely happy to tell you how much they enjoy it there, and why.
So why did I choose Chemistry? It was a subject that I really enjoyed at school. The subject is tough, and I won’t pretend that it isn’t, but I truly believe that with the right teachers, anyone can understand the weird and wonderful theories behind it all – if I can get it, I am sure that you guys will have no problems! I found that if I didn’t understand something straight away, the two best ways to get my head around a new concept was to ask my friends, or to be brave and go and ask my teachers. Sometimes, all it takes sometimes is for someone to explain something in a slightly different way, or to use a different analogy, for you to understand something. I know that sometimes it can be embarrassing, but at the end of the day, if you can get the best grades possible at school by working hard, you’ll be happily programmed for a brilliant University course, vocational course, or your first real job, meaning that you can then enjoy your chosen career path without having to play catch up in your spare time. I wish that I had listened more in Physics lessons, as then I could have played sport in my first year at University, rather than take the ‘catch up on A level physics’ module on a Wednesday afternoon!
So obviously you all know what chemistry is about, and how it is taking place all the time, inside your body, in the air that you breathe, and all the time around you. Materials Chemistry is an area concerned with the physical things around us. It encompasses many things, from reinforcing materials like concrete and rubber, to self-cleaning glass, which is something that my supervisor helped to develop! Within our group at the moment, we are all working on different projects, from developing materials to store computer data on without generating excessive amounts of heat, to solar cells, to what I am working on, which is solar energy conversion to a fuel.
Let me attempt to give you a better idea of what it is that I actually do – if I achieve this, it means that I actually know what I am doing! Sometimes I do wonder…! There is a crazy statistic whereby the amount of energy that reaches the Earth from the Sun in one hour equals the total global energy demand of a whole year. If we could catch this energy, then we wouldn’t have to burn fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas. Supplies of these fossil fuels are running out fast, while energy demand is always increasing. Fossil fuels are also really bad for the environment, because they contribute to the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A greenhouse gas is a gas that traps heat within an area. In our atmosphere, there is a layer of greenhouse gases that hug the Earth. A small amount of greenhouse gases are good, because they keep the Earth warm, like a big round blanket, however if we have too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is like having a winter duvet wrapped around the Earth during the height of summer. The overall temperature of the Earth is slowly rising (a phenomenon we know as global warming), which can mess up the climate all around the world, resulting in extremely hot summers and freezing cold winters, as the normal seasons are disrupted. It is important that we try and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that we are releasing, especially by burning fossil fuels.
So, how am I helping out in this race to save the planet from overheating from global warming, and unusual seasons due to climate change? Well we’ve all seen solar energy panels on some buildings on the TV. These are good, because they are trying to convert some of that energy falling from the sun into energy that we can use. The problem with these panels is that the amount of energy captured is very small compared to the amount available, and that the batteries that the energy is stored in are very expensive, and not very good at keeping their energy charge. I am helping to develop a way of catching the energy from the sun, but then converting it into something stable where energy cannot be lost. As I am trying to find something that is not going to pollute the environment and add to global warming, I am making hydrogen fuel by splitting water, using energy from the sun. The molecular formula of water is H2O, which means that it is made up of two atoms of hydrogen, and one atom of oxygen. As oxygen and hydrogen are happiest when they exist in molecules of two atoms, O2 and H2, when we split water we get twice as much hydrogen as we get of oxygen. You can think of this as having double the amount of water molecules, 2H2O, to get 2H2 and O2. If you add up all of the molecules before and after, you have the same amount, and so this is a balanced equation. If that makes sense, you already know pretty much as much chemistry as I do!
Now I am sure that you’ve all had a glass of water to drink in the sunshine! You didn’t see any bubbles of hydrogen and oxygen fizzing up through your water, because the sunlight cannot directly split the water, because it is not able to catch the energy. Instead, I am developing a type of material known as a semiconductor that will catch the energy in sunlight, and push it over to the water molecules to split them up. As this material speeds up the overall reaction, it can be called a catalyst. As the reaction involves light, the semiconductor material can be called a photocatalyst. Photo just means light, like in photosynthesis, where plants make food using sunlight. There are similarities between these two processes, and so my work is sometimes known as artificial photosynthesis. As the materials are nanocrystalline (made up of a network of really tiny particles), the work comes under the umbrella of nanotechnology, which is another whole world of exciting research. I can tell you more about semiconductors in the live chats if you like, although it’s obviously top secret stuff, so you’ll all have to promise to keep the information to yourselves!
During my PhD, I’ve managed to patent some of my work, which means that I am an inventor! It is pretty cool, although no one seems to have bought it yet. Maybe I should promote it a little more! I’ve also published some of my work in research journals, and have presented talks on these papers to other scientists at conferences in lots of places around the UK, and also abroad. My favourite conference was in March of this year, and it was in Anaheim, California. My boss was very kind, and let me take a couple of weeks off after the conference before I came home, so one of my friends came out to meet me, and we travelled around Los Angeles, Hollywood, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and San Francisco. It was an amazing trip, and I can’t wait to go back there! I’ve put a couple of photos below. One is if the helicopter that we took over the Grand Canyon, and the other is of me on the rim of the Grand Canyon, which is a MILE deep! I was lucky enough to go to a conference in Anaheim, which meant that I could take a holiday and see all of these wonderful places. Conferences are also a great way of meeting people that do similar things to you, but in really exotic places, which is great because if you can do some work with them as part of your research, you might be able to go and visit them.
If there is anything else that you would like to know about me, my University, my courses or my work, I would be happy to answer your questions during the live chats, and on the website, so get thinking, and remember that no question is a silly question. If no one had asked those questions in the first place, no one would have thought about trying to explain the answer. It is the best way to learn new things – so watch out, as I might be asking you some questions too!
I really look forward to meeting you all during I’m A Scientist, and I hope that I’ve made you realise that scientists don’t have to be scary. We’re all pretty normal underneath it all!
My Typical Day
I normally wake up very slowly, lie in bed for a while listening to the radio (a few guitars and some drums help to wake me!), and then reluctantly leave my lovely, comfortable bed. I head down to breakfast, caffeinate myself, and head into London, which is where my Uni is. Once there, I do wonderfully scientific things in an attractive oversized lab coat and some fetching safety glasses, maybe a little analysis or (as is now the case) write up some of my lovely thesis. There are copious amounts of ‘cake and coffee’ breaks scattered throughout the day – after all, a girl needs her regular sugar hits if she’s going to take on the world and make some science! After work, I either head out to a gig, or a dance class, or else head home to have a lovely dinner, and watch something funny like Friends or Glee. After a little catch up with friends on Facebook or over the phone, it’s back to my gorgeous bed, ready to start all over again!
What I'd do with the prize money
I would like to spend the money preparing a nice chemistry demo that I could take to interested schools. As I work within the field of chemistry, I feel that people don’t see the exciting potential in the subject, mainly because the exams are scary, and lessons learning theory can be boring. I would really love to put together an interactive workshop that would allow me to share my passion for chemistry with people, and remind everyone about how chemistry has a place in every aspect of life, from baking a cake to cosmetics, and from how the human body works to how machines work, every second of every day. Making (and of course then eating!) ice cream using liquid nitrogen would make a nice end-of-lesson experiment, and it is always a welcome break from a ‘normal’ science lesson!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Small sparkly scientist!
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I have two favourites. My first is that I have patented some of my PhD research, and I am officially an inventor! My second is that I recently presented a paper at a conference in California, which basically meant that my boss paid for me to go to Disneyland! It really doesn’t get much better than that!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Absolutely not – if you’ve ever been on the angry side of my Mum, you would understand why!
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Matt Bellamy / Muse
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I took a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon in April, and it was awesome. Can’t describe how amazing it was!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) I’d love to be taller than 5ft! 2) I would invent something that could benefit the whole world – fingers crossed for the PhD then! 3) I would have enjoyed being born four decades sooner, to enjoy the musical revolutions, and witness Liverpool FC’s glory years first hand!
Tell us a joke.
A hydrogen atom visits the Doctor. The atom says ‘Doctor, Doctor! I think I’ve lost an electron!’ The Doctor asks ‘Are you sure?’ The atom replies ‘Yes, I’m positive!’ – OK, OK, it’s a terrible joke, but it’s about Chemistry! Please don’t judge me!