Category Archives: Chemistry

Semester 1 2012/13: the first quarter (and before)

Hard to believe, but we are a quarter of the way through the Autumn Semester at Keele. Time for some reflection; a lot has happened since my last post which contained the Chemistry programme for the Science Festival!

The British Science Festival this year was my last one as Recorder; after 21 years of involvement with the British Science Association, and 12 years as Recorder, it seemed time to move on. Coupled with the fact that I have an excellent successor in Stephen Ashworth, who I am confident will respond to the new challenges that are confronting festival organisers (I discussed these in a post earlier this year). The Festival itself seemed to go well; Aberdeen was an excellent location, and our sessions were well-attended and well-received.

Almost immediately after the Science Festival I was off to London, Guildford and finally Oxford in quick succession, for a series of meetings and a conference. The conference in Oxford, for UK Academics involved in Nuclear Energy Research, was interesting, and held in the beautiful surroundings of St Anne’s College, Oxford. Having got back from that, I had a week to draw breath before the semester started.

So, how has it been going? I’ve been lecturing so far to the Foundation Year on General Chemistry (which I’ve been doing for a long time, and hope for a change next year), and to the Final Year Forensic Science class on Arson and Fires. As far as I can tell, the lectures are going OK, and certainly the classes are quiet and attentive, which is very much appreciated!

The main challenge has been in supervising 6 project students who are doing projects in my research area of Computational Solid State Chemistry. We have an unusually large final year, and I have previously had about half this number of project student, on average. It’s a challenge for them, because they have a very steep learning curve (unlike some other projects, they can’t use any of the things they have learned in previous years), and it’s a challenge for me to find interesting topics, and to keep all the projects running smoothly! Having never had more than 1 or 2 PhD students at any given time, I’m not used to this kind of subdivision on my time on research projects. But after 3 weeks, they are all up and running, and they will all produce sufficient results for their dissertations, which is important from the teaching point of view. And from the research viewpoint, all of the topics have the potential to lead to greater things, if time, funding and personnel permit.

So that’s where I am at the moment. I finish my Foundation Year lectures next week, while the Forensics one have some time to go. Final Year Solid State Chemistry will be the next challenge, and this year I’m hoping to use Transparent Conducting Oxides, and the latest developments in lithium ion battery technology as examples. I’ll hopefully post an update in 3 weeks or so!


Final Chemistry Programme: British Science Festival


Tuesday 4th September: New Medicines from Nature

(Fraser Noble Building, Lecture Theatre 3, University of Aberdeen)

10:00-10:35: Rob Nash, ‘Natural Medicines in Industry’

10:35-11:10: Alan Bull, ‘Medicines from Microbes’

11:10-11:30: Coffee break

11:30-12:05: Marcel Jaspars, ‘Drugs from the deep’

12:05-12:40: Jack Davison, ‘Modifying Microbes to Make Medicines’

12:40-13:15: Alex Johnstone, ‘Food as Medicine’

13:15-13:50: Ruth Ross, ‘Cannabis: the good, the bad and the ugly’

Wednesday 5th September:  Forensic Chemistry and Air Security

(Fraser Noble Building, Lecture Theatre 3, University of Aberdeen)

10:00–10:35: Roy Harrison,  ‘Airborne Particulate Matter: a Pollutant of Great Diversity and Extraordinary Toxicity’

10:35-11:10: Johannes Laube, ‘Revelations from atmospheric detectives’

11:10-11:45: Eva Krupp, ‘Mercury – a fascinating element, but why should we be concerned about it?’

Thursday 6th September: Scotland’s Energy Future: The Role of Chemistry

(Regent Lecture Theatre, Regent Building, University of Aberdeen)

14:00-14:45: Scott Lilley, ‘Charging Ahead with Electric Vehicles’

14:45-15:30: Laurie Peter, ‘Bio-inspired routes to using the sun’s energy to generate electricity and fuels’

15:30-16:15: John Irvine, ‘Delivering clean energy through solid state chemistry’

Chemistry Section events at the British Science Festival (Aberdeen, 4-9 September 2012)

Here’s a summary of our main Chemistry events at the British Science Festival at Aberdeen in September:

(i) Tuesday 4th September, Fraser Nobel Lecture theatre 3: University of Aberdeen, 10:00-14:00

New medicines from nature: speakers & titles

Rob Nash                     ‘Natural Medicines in Industry’

Alan Bull                      ‘Medicines from Microbes’

Marcel Jaspars            ‘Drugs from the deep’

Kira Weissman            ‘Modifying Microbes to Make Medicines’

Alex Johnstone            ‘Food as Medicine’

Ruth Ross                    ‘Cannabis: the good, the bad and the ugly’

(ii) Wednesday 5th September, Fraser Nobel Lecture theatre 3: University of Aberdeen, 10:00-12:00

Forensic chemistry and air security: speakers & titles

Roy Harrison               ‘Airborne Particulate Matter: a Pollutant of Great Diversity and Extraordinary Toxicity’

Johannes Laube           ‘Revelations from atmospheric detectives’

Eva Krupp                    ‘Mercury – a fascinating element, but why should we be concerned about it?

(iii) Thursday 6th September, Regent Lecture Theatre: University of Aberdeen, 14:00-16:30

Scotland’s Energy Future: The Role of Chemistry: speakers & titles               

Scott Lilley                   ‘Charging Ahead with Electric Vehicles’

Laurie Peter                ‘Bio-inspired routes to using the sun’s energy to generate electricity and fuels’

John Irvine                   ‘Delivering clean energy through solid state chemistry’

For booking information etc, go to here, and for queries about the Chemistry programme, e-mail me at

Teaching band structure to chemistry students

For some years now I have taught the basic ideas of band structure to our final year Chemists. I do this in an entirely non-mathematical way, showing how the bands are formed, and why metals and insulators have the band structures they have. It’s an entirely chemistry-based approach, which I haven’t found taught quite in the same way anywhere else. My lecture notes on this topic can be found here (lecture 2 has most of the relevant material), and my original inspiration came from Smart and Moore’s excellent book, which is one of the main references for the course.

My question is this. Does anyone else out there adopt a similar approach, and if so, would your be prepared to have a discussion about this, and possibly share good practice on this topic? I would also be interested to hear from anyone adopting different approaches, bearing in mind that the more physics-based, mathematical approaches won’t work for students with minimal mathematical background!

RSC General Assembly 2011, and Bill Bryson

On Friday and Saturday of this week I attended the RSC General Assembly, which is a kind of annual get-together of people involved in the RSC local sections and interest groups. From the Chemistry point of view it was interesting, with some good presentations giving food for thought, but the high point was meeting the author Bill Bryson. I have read all his books, and enjoyed them all, so being able to meet the man himself was a great privilege!

Research update, and more on lecture format

A quick post this morning, because I’m off for a few days holiday this afternoon!

I’m pleased to say that on Tuesday I heard from Optical Materials that the paper I mentioned in my ‘research review’ post had been accepted without changes. That’s a relief, because this is the paper that introduces the technique (the concentration dependence of doping in materials). So with this paper accepted, our subsequent papers have a more secure foundation.

The other thing I was going to mention was that,  when I visited the University of Bradford on Monday for a meeting about the forthcoming Science Festival, I had an interesting chat with some colleagues there who teach on their Chemistry course, and at least one said that he gives the students a couple of breaks during his lectures. This ties in with my view that a 50 minute lecture is no longer compatible with most students’ concentration spans. I’m thinking of doing something like that myself next year, and I’ve also had an idea for how to start my lectures rather than fumbling around with my laptop and the data projector for 5 minutes! But more of that in a later post.

I’m looking forward to a few days in Brussels, and then my annual ‘pilgrimage’ to the GBBF. I’ll be reporting on the GBBF in a future post.

Chemistry PhDs: progression from a first degree

I decided to post this following a discussion on Twitter with two Chemistry colleagues, from Liverpool and York respectively (@SimonHiggins_60 and @Dr_PaulC). It started with a Twitter advertisement for a PhD position, where a person with an MChem was sought to fill the position. I picked up on this because at Keele we don’t do MChems, but at the same time, our students go on to do PhDs at universities all over the UK, at no apparent disadvantage to those who have an MChem. I commented on this issue in an earlier post, which was in response to an EndPoint article by David Phillips.

The point for discussion is essentially this. Does doing an MChem make a significant difference to a student’s ability to do a PhD? Yes, I agree they will get a bit more research experience, and (depending on the course), some more chemical ‘knowledge’ (which may or or not be useful in their PhD). But from my experience with our students over many years, it makes no diference at all in the end. Comments, agreements and disagreements are very welcome!