The life and times of a younger member volunteer and medicinal chemist.

London (well, Dundee At Least) Calling

Usually, I am woken up by the unmistakable screeching of the seagull that lives on my roof, but last Monday morning I rose before him to give a talk to some students. The reason for my early start was not that this school was in some far corner of the Highlands and Islands, but rather to a school in Bucharest which was two hours ahead.

Now I've delivered presentations on medicinal chemistry to students of all ages (my toughest challenge yet was explaining drug discovery to six year olds! Seriously, try explaining medicinal chemistry without using the words synthetic, synthesis, synthesise or parameter!) and to classrooms of all sizes (300 students in Ballymeana, Northern Ireland is my record), so I was surprised to find I was nervous about this one.

I've only ever used Skype to deliver a presentation during an interview process in Switzerland. It must have gone well, because I got called for a face-to-face interview (but not the job in the end), but it was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life to date. This would be a level above that, because I was completely unsure as to what awaited me on the other end of the line.

I pride myself on delivering dynamic presentations, but these utilise a lot of body language, which was now rendered impossible. Additionally, I use jokes and colloquialisms, but would  they translate to a non-British audience? Come to think of it, what would the students level of English be and would they even be able to comprehend my Irish accent? Dropping a few jokes is easy, but six years in the UK has yet to rid me of my accent (thank God!).

Of course, setting up a Skype presentation takes two - and I have to give credit to the teacher, Mr. Thompson for going beyond the call of duty on this one. As an experienced outreacher (is that a word?), I'm pretty good for spotting the great teachers who will instantly reply to every email from the ones who will have you turn up at the school hoping someone will answer the door! Mr. Thompson was certainly in the former category.

As for the students, well I needn't have worried. After 20 minutes of waffle from yours truly, they proceeded to grill me for an hour on all aspects of the drug discovery process. Clearly inspired by "The Case of the Frozen Addicts" (a study they were working on in class), I was asked questions on purity and characterisation to toxicity and side effects. Some of the questions were clearly prepared in advance, and were really insightful. Others were more spontaneous, but by God did they hit on really critical points.

Led by the students we wandered far from the basics of drug discovery to discussions about innovation, the state of the patent system, the ethics of animal and human testing and even the future of the the industry itself. It's been a long time since I've enjoyed such excellent questions and hearty debate.

I'm delighted to have another feather in my cap and other experience and set of skills to apply in the future. I figure if I can hold a teenagers attention for an hour using NOTHING but my voice and facial expressions, then there's not much I can't do during a presentation! This experience ranks right up there with some of the aforementioned outreach highlights of my career to date.

I hope the opportunity to do something like this arises again, and I'd like to thank Mr. Thompson and his class for being such excellent guinea pigs (thankfully not for drug testing though, that would not be ethical!).
Posted by David Foley on May 2, 2014 9:20 PM Europe/London

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