Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Livingston to Singapore - My Chemistry Story

Early Life

Born in Livingston, a small yet rapidly expanding town just outside of Edinburgh, I had little to no exposure to chemistry growing up. My only encounters were the amazing technologies on display in the various crime investigation shows my mum would watch on TV. I became more and more enchanted by the idea of using such cool science to solve mysteries, and I quickly decided that I was going to be a cool dude forensic scientist when I grew up.

High School

Fast forward a few years and I was now very much more interested in playing football than anything else. Yet somehow I still had my dream career in the back of my mind. As much as I enjoyed school and I worked hard in classes, I look back and I realise that I didn't take it very seriously at all. I only did the mandatory homework that was to be handed in and graded, and come exam time I used the "study leave" period to keep practising my football skills!
I was fortunate enough to get through those exams keep proceeding through school, and then came my 6th and final year. This was the time when all my classmates were talking about which universities they were going to apply to, and the application period was approaching. I had never really thought about life after school, I had been too busy playing football and messing around with my mates. One day, the whole year group was sat in one of the computer labs and told to log in to the university application portal and make our profiles. This was step 1 towards us applying to our dream universities.
It was only then that I realised I had some thinking to do and a decision to make. Our teachers started talking to us about it, curious to find out our various plans for post-school life. My chemistry teacher, a woman who has turned out to be a huge influence how I got to where I am, asked me about my plans. I told her that I actually hadn't thought much about it until very recently, and that I was probably going to apply to a university in Edinburgh, Heriot Watt, which offered a Forensic Science course. I also stated that I had no intention of attending any university that I could not travel to and from daily by public transport - I was stubborn and didn't really want to leave home. She then gave me advice that I will forever be thankful for; she told me to apply to do a chemistry degree instead, it'll train me in many more areas than just those relevant to forensic science, and will give me many widely applicable skills that I will need in future. Should I get to the end of this chemistry degree and still wish to be a forensic scientist, I would be in a much stronger position to apply for such opportunities. However, should I decide that I did not want to be the next Gil Grissom or Horatio Caine, my options would still be wide open thanks to the skills and qualifications I'd obtain during my chemistry degree. Oh boy, she was so right! 
Having done her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Edinburgh university, she strongly recommended that I apply there as it's not exactly far from Livingston. She also still had contacts there, and used this to her advantage to send me there for 2 consecutive days to use some instrumentation I needed for my chemistry research project. I got to see the Edinburgh chemistry department, it was all very surreal and new but oh so fascinating.
So it was settled. My, perhaps a little naive, mind was now fully convinced that I'd be going to Edinburgh University to study chemistry. I applied to there, as well as 4 others since we had to have back-up plans. I applied to the next-nearest 4 universities, not paying too much attention to what I was doing as I knew for sure now - I was going to Edinburgh!
Despite all of this, I still carried on with my daily football routine and generally not caring about school outside of school hours. I received conditional offers from every university I applied to (seeing as my grades were not exactly great since I never really studied). Edinburgh had the toughest conditions though. Did this spur me into studying some more to make sure I got in? Of course not! Football was everything, and so "study leave" for my final FINAL exams came, and our games got longer and my skills got (slightly) better.
So, in May of 2009, exams came and went. I felt okay about my performance but wouldn't find out until August, with university starting in September, should I get in to any of them. Meanwhile, I now had a summer school to attend...
During our final year, a few of us from, let's just say "not very well-off" families, had been invited to apply to the LEAPS (Lothian Equal Access Programme for Schools) summer school. It would be held during June and July of 2009 at the University of Edinburgh. I had applied on a whim, pretty much because my head teacher made me feel like I had to. One of my classmates had also applied, and coincidentally also intended to study at Edinburgh university, albeit in Law. We both got accepted and so for 8 weeks we shared bus rides to and from Edinburgh and became much closer as friends. He would later become my flatmate for 2 years, and is still one of my best friends.
The summer school was a very rewarding experience. We had attended classes designed to improve our soft skills, those relevant to everyone no matter which degree or university you'd applied to, such as presenting, writing and referencing. We were also split into groups to attend some classes on subjects based on what we had applied to do at university, and so I was landed with maths and, you've guessed it, chemistry. During this time I got to see what I would really be like to be a university student, and even more specifically, a student in chemistry at Edinburgh! We got lectures from several members of staff, as well as short lab sessions with PhD students as demonstrators. It was awesome, so much so that I was now hoping so hard that my exam results would grant me entry to study here. I also wished I'd tried harder, knowing that more studying would've meant a better chance of achieving such a feat. However, I knew that no matter my exam results and which institution I would end up at, or not, I had had a great time during the summer school, making new friends and learning more new useful skills.

August rolled around and it was time for the exam results. Summer school was over, and with no school I was back to playing football every day. On the day the results were expected in the post, I was out with my mates. None of us seemed too fussed. But then, I got a phonecall from my mum.
"The letter just came. Get back here and open it now!"
So that was that. I trudged home and opened it up. My mum - despite never being pushy about my studying and my results, always just very supportive telling me that my future was what I made of it - was more nervous than me as I read the grades.
"I got into Edinburgh" I said very nonchalantly.
My mum was over the moon! Exclaiming how proud she was of me, and calling my aunts and grandparents. She made me call my dad before I could go out and play football again.
This was, and still is, very characteristic of me. I'd just found out I'd been accepted into a very prestigious university, and had become the first in my entire family to go to university, but I was relaxed, calm, and fully intent on getting back out to play football. Perhaps it will sink in on my first day, I thought.


University was an amazing experience. I met so many new friends, had a lot of fun, learned a shedload of chemistry, and drank obscene amounts of alcohol. Over the years I discovered that, out of the three main branches of chemistry, my interest lay in inorganic, and more specifically organometallics and main group chemistry. It was this interest that influenced my choice of project for my final year dissertation. I joined Prof. Polly Arnold's (@ProfArno) group to work on a main group based project centred around the relatively new area of chemistry - Frustrated Lewis Pairs. I became rather fascinated by this field, and long gone were the days of dreaming about being a suave detective in a suit and sunglasses catching the bad guys thanks to an unrealistically intelligent GC-MS.
My mentor throughout my project was the brilliant Nicola Bell (@NickelCarbon) (now McFarlane - congrats!) Her intelligence and enthusiasm for chemistry, and her particular love of NMR, really rubbed off on me and kept me motivated throughout my first endeavour as a semi-independent researcher. I learned a lot from Nicola, not just about lab work, but also when preparing presentations and reports, and I will always be very grateful for her help.

Another member of Prof. Arnold's group was an Australian postdoc called Rowan Young. We chatted a bit, but not much, in the lab as we were working on completely unrelated projects. It wasn't until the inorganic department's big Christmas dinner that we really had a long chat. Well, actually, we didn't see each other that night until much later - in the nearby bar after a few too many drinks. Rowan inquired about my plans post-degree, seeing as I was nearing the end. I explained that I'd been applying to various chemistry-related jobs and companies, such as Shell, Syngenta, Diageo etc, but with no luck thus far. He asked if I'd been considering doing a PhD, to which the answer was yes, I had. I'd been asking around some groups to see if they had positions available, but nothing too far afield. Stubborn old me was determined to stay in Scotland, or at least the UK. He told me he'd recently been given an assistant professor position at the National University of Singapore (NUS), and would be moving there in a few months. He then asked if I would ever consider moving to somewhere further afield, the likes of Singapore. Stubborn old me promptly said no. Another drunken colleague overheard us and for the next 20 minutes or so I was berated by both of them for being so stubborn, and told I should consider all options. My soon-to-be Masters degree from a top institution would open so many doors for me, and having Prof. Arnold's name on a reference wouldn't look to bad either! I stumbled home that evening (early morning) with a lot to think about...if I could remember it in the morning.
Christmas of 2013 came and went, and remember feeling rather bored during the remainder of the holidays as most of my mates would be working overtime in retail, as was I. It was on the 28th of December, due to sheer boredom on a day off, I opened my university email inbox. There was an email from Rowan in which said he'd remembered our conversation from the pub (how?! he was sloshed!) and that he wanted to offer me the opportunity to come and do a PhD with him in Singapore. Stubborn old me immediately thought "pff, no" and that would be the end of that. However, I mentioned it to my mum and she told me:
"Don't be daft, that's a great opportunity - go for it!"
I was surprised she was so positive about it, I thought she'd be stubborn and want her son to stay - after all, where do you think I got my stubbornness from?!
So that was that, I responded to Rowan declaring my interest and we had a chat about the chemistry he was interested in once the semester started again. Our interests were very much aligned, and so it didn't take much more convincing for me to start applying to NUS.

Let's fast forward a few months, where I now, thanks to Rowan's influence, have been awarded the A*STAR SINGA scholarship and accepted into NUS to do a PhD with the provisional start date being August of 2014. However, Rowan then suggested that I defer my PhD until the following term, starting January 2015, and that I be temporarily employed as a research assistant in his lab in order to help set things up. After all, he was just starting out and I was to be his first student. It also happened that his lab was to be relocated around December, and so there would be a fair amount of disruption and he thought it best that this didn't eat up my PhD time. So, I applied for this position and, again thanks to Rowan's influence and no doubt countless nagging emails to admin, I was to be employed by NUS for 4 months.
I graduated from Edinburgh university in July 2014, and then in August I packed my life in to one suitcase and a duffel bag and flew halfway around the world to start anew in Singapore.


It took a little while to adjust, particularly to the weather (I still haven't fully adjusted), but it really wasn't too long before I'd settled into life in Singapore and working in the lab. Unfortunately, the lab relocation was 9 months late (I know, right?!) and so my PhD got a bit disrupted anyway (not to mention the countless disruptions since, but I won't ramble). Nonetheless, the "RowDY" group was up and running with a few more postdocs and undergrad project students.
I'll refrain from talking too much about the goings-on here in Singapore, as not much of it is very interesting anyway. All day lab, go home and sleep, repeat. A bit of travelling here and there. Sound familiar? One highlight, however, was during my 2nd year when I got to go to Melbourne to attend the ICOMC2016 conference and present a poster. I went along with Rowan, he was giving a talk. We met Prof. Arnold in Melbourne, so it was cool to have a mini reunion of sorts, albeit only a brief catch up chat - we had conferencing to do! I really enjoyed my first proper conference experience, and I really loved Melbourne. So much, in fact, that I went again in 2017 for a week-long holiday, to do all the things I never got to do whilst there for the conference. Also, for all my fellow coffee lovers, the coffee truly is awesome in Melbourne. I can't wait to go back again!

Trip to the USA

Anyway, back to chemistry. I'll jump to my next big milestone in my chemistry career.
I took a punt at applying for the SciFinder Future Leaders programme, which I'd heard a little about thanks to the chemistry Twitter community. Some of the cool people that I follow had attended in previous years and were encouraging anyone and everyone to apply. I read the application requirements and saw that I had to write an 500-1000 word essay about my research and how I use SciFinder and other chemistry resources in my day-to-day work.
"Essay?!" I thought. Initially it put me off as I felt like "I can't be bothered, I've too much to do". But after watching the interviews with previous leaders, one statement by my fellow Scot Marc Reid (@reidindeed) really resonated with me:
"If you think it's for you, apply. If you think it's not for you, apply!"
So I put aside one Sunday afternoon in a Starbucks and bashed it out in one sitting, plus heaps of cutting and editing in the evening.
I met all the other requirements and submitted my application in time for the deadline in February 2017. I was assuming I wouldn't get it because all the previous Future Leaders seemed so much, I suppose, smarter than me. Honestly, I'd felt a bit of imposter syndrome when watching the interviews with previous awardees. I realised that I had been quite lucky up to this point in my career - scraping through my exams at school and getting a PhD because I knew a guy. I had a decent resume behind me, but I thought it paled in comparison to the calibre of applicants to this programme.
April came around, and I received an email confirming I'd been accepted into the programme. I was shocked. Surely not me? I couldn't believe it, really. But it was so, I was going to the USA in August! 
I soon found out that my old mentor, Nicola, had also been awarded a place in the programme. What were the chances?! Mentor and mentee reunited 3 years later on the other side of the world! With her still being a member of the Arnold group, it was like another mini reunion, similar to Melbourne in 2016. Prof. Arnold's empire knows no bounds!

August came and off to the USA I went. 3 flights later, one of them 14 hours long (0/10 do not recommend), I arrived in Columbus, Ohio, for the first part of the programme as CAS headquarters. Myself and the other 21 Future Leaders quickly became a close knit group, like we'd all known each other for years. It was a fabulous experience, but I won't divulge any details here, it's for you to find out when you apply for yourself!
We later flew to Washington D.C. for the 254th ACS National Meeting, where a few of the Future Leaders were also presenting, but most of us were just attending the talks we wanted to see. It was a huge scale conference, I had no idea there could be so many chemists in one place at the same time. We practically invaded D.C! I saw lots of excellent talks and learned a lot of new and exciting chemistry, and I was able to meet lots of new people.
Alas, the conference came to an end, as did the Future Leaders programme, and we all went home with heavy hearts knowing that we'd all just had an absolutely brilliant experience that will live long in our memories. We all became good friends, and I am sure we will endeavour to catch up whenever we are in each other's cities in future.
It genuinely took me about 2 weeks to settle back into routine in Singapore, I had had such a good time in the USA with everyone that I was longing to go back in time and do it all again. But sadly, no one has invented such a technology...yet.

It's early November now, and it's #RealTimeChem week! The whole reason behind this rambling life story that I've written. So now I just want to take a bit of time to promote the use of Twitter if you are a chemist (although I bet anyone actually reading this found it via Twitter!) 
I joined Twitter during my undergrad, but I never used it really. I signed up because I was procrastinating. It wasn't until sometime during my 1st year of my PhD that I really took to using it, and it's because I stumbled upon the hashtag of #RealTimeChem. I looked into it and found a cornucopia of fellow chemists from around the world, all tweeting about their day-to-day lives in research. Mundane as it may seem, it is a great platform to share your successes and failures in the lab, whether you got 99% yield, an amazing crystal, or your reaction accidentally exploded all over your fumehood! Being able to relate to this day-to-day stuff is very comforting because, I find personally, that it keeps impostor syndrome somewhat at bay. Long days culminating in failed experiments can be rather depressing, making you feel dumb and like you don't belong in science. But logging on to Twitter and seeing that many fellow chemists are suffering the same fate, can ease the pain a bit. We're not all infallible geniuses in the lab at all time, you know! Ha!
It's also a great platform to share other aspects of life in chemistry, such as the dreaded pain of writing - whether it be presentations, reports, manuscripts or reviews - and the long, drawn out process of submission, rejection and editing of papers. I've also seen teaching fellows consoling each other when their lectures don't go well or the students have written unnecessarily scathing feedback.
Ultimately, the "ChemTweeps" are like an extended family, most of whom you've never met but are still there to provide support, consolation and congratulations, whichever is appropriate at the time.

Well, I think I've covered my chemistry story in rather a lot of detail here. Apologies if you got bored, but if you actually read this far then thank you! I hope it can provide some sort of inspiration to you and make you realise that scientists aren't all Einstein-esque, super-smart total nerds, and that sometimes we just get lucky!

Be sure to get on Twitter and follow @RealTimeChem and start tweeting your chemistry with the hashtag #RealTimeChem and, for this week, #chemtogether. My personal Twitter handle is @ChemistCraig so be sure to follow me too!

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