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

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Hi all,

Counting down the days now until I down tools, hang up the lab coat for the last time this year and fly back home to my beloved (albeit broke!) Republic.

In an admission that may stun you, I'm really looking forward to the traditional lab clean-up, mainly because the place looks like a bomb hit in every direction (not just backwards). I think Polly-Anna has described the fire-fighting role of experienced PhDs and postdocs better than I; and my lab has lacked either for two years!! Derek Lowe's In the Pipeline article in this month's Chemistry World also gives you a picture of what I face.

Before leaving you all for the 2011, I'd like you to put a note in your diary for the 2nd RSC's Younger Members Symposium, set for the University of Nottingham on the 13th of June 2012. It really isn't that far away, and I hope to see many of you there.

I'll surely be mentioning this again in the New Year, but until then have a great holiday.
Posted by David Foley on Dec 18, 2011 2:20 PM GMT
I attended a fantastic flash-bang show in Leicester the other day. It was given by Dr. Sarah Heath, who along with my PhD supervisor Prof. Pat Bailey, introduced me to this method of public engagement when I was studying in Manchester.

Since then, I have dabbled a bit in this area, and developed my own demonstration lecture incorporating some ideas from Pat's, Sarah's and other demo's I've been lucky enough to witness live.

During a chat with Sarah whilst cleaning up, I confessed to never having worked up the courage to try the infamous "Barking Dog" experiment. The closest I ever got to doing so was whilst helping Sarah with the lights in Leicester and that was pretty darn close!

Sarah made the point that she too felt nervous about this experiment, but was lucky to have been formally trained many years ago at Manchester by an experienced practitioner. She commented during her show, and I agree, that there are fewer and fewer people around with the confidence and experience to safely carry out some of the more dramatic experiments (the Barking Dog and anything to do with red and white phosphorous come to mind).

I know that the Internet is a fantastic resource, but for some of these experiments you need more than a You Tube video and a chemistry degree. You need to be hand-held the first few times you carry out the reaction (in the controlled environment of a lab) and even more so the first time your carry it out in the the uncontrolled environment of a public lecture.

Add to this the ever increasing regulation (which affects both what chemicals you can now buy and store in your lab, to what you are permitted to carry in your car, to what you can safely perform in an external and internal environment) and the time commitments involved (a days preparation before, the day itself and a half a day of clean-up after) and it is no wonder that there are fewer and fewer young chemists out there with the experience and ability to conduct these impressive demonstrations.

So I ask you to roll the calendar forward twenty years. Who will be available to perform these experiments, and will they even be allowed to? We all know how inspirational these demonstrations can be, so imagine the knock-on effect a decline in demonstrators/demonstrations would have on the uptake of our profession? I can't believe that You Tube (despite the best efforts of Martin Poliakoff and his team) can be a substitute for seeing the power of chemistry in real life.

I know the RSC takes pride in putting on courses for chemistry teachers who are struggling to get to grips with the practical side of the subject. Perhaps these courses represent an ideal opportunity to train a new generation of demonstrators, who are already in a ideal position (schools) to reach our target audience?

I for one have decided to overcome my fear of the Barking Dog, and have arranged to meet up with Sarah sometime in the near future in Manchester and learn from the best. I figure if I can conquer the Dog, I can go back and look at a few new You Tube videos and see what else I can master!
Posted by David Foley on Dec 11, 2011 3:34 PM GMT
Also just noticed that this blog is one year old!

Just wanted to thank everyone who contributed to the blog over the past year, especially those who wrote pieces or left comments.

I hope members are finding the content interesting. Please feel free to leave suggestions for future posts here.


Posted by David Foley on Dec 4, 2011 1:53 PM GMT
About a month late, to be sure, but the Novemeber issue of RSC News has a very good overview of the many ways the RSC supports members who wish to organise and run events. Hopefully it will inspire some of you to run the type of event you always wished the RSC would run!
Posted by David Foley on Dec 4, 2011 1:46 PM GMT
When I moved to Belfast, one of the things I knew I'd miss was this event! You'd think moving to Ireland would have increased my access to the drink of life, but regrettably Ireland falls far behind our Celtic neighbours in the distillery leagues!!

So after two years in the whisky wilderness, it was with a feeling of great excitment that I drove from Nottingham to Manchester a week ago. 26 people, 8 whiskies with some haggis at half-time, what more could you ask from a Friday evening?

A picture tells a thouand words, but one picture would do this event little justice, so I've uploaded a video on the YMN Manchester's Facebook page.

If you are interested in hosting your own version of this event, our resident expert on the brown stuff has written this instruction manual. Just be sure to invite me!!
Posted by David Foley on Oct 22, 2011 7:13 PM BST
Much has been written of late on the issue of the postgraduates (see here, here and here for just a taste). The ongoing debate over quantity and quality of UK PhD programmes has been stimulated again recently by the recent cuts announced by the EPSRC to PhD studentships.

It seems clear to me that one’s attitude towards these cuts depends greatly on where you are in your career. Already I have heard lecturers and professors bemoaning the effect the cuts will have on the productivity of their research groups. Yet simultaneously I have heard muffled cheers from within the labs of these academics as students, who are all too familiar with the competitive job market, celebrate the possibility of reduced competition from the next three years on.
As rumours of 80+ applicants for postgraduate jobs abound, it is difficult to understand and indeed believe the claims by industry of a skills shortage. We are not all hiding in academia, as it is simply not possible for academia to accommodate all postgraduates, even if all of them wanted such a career. Why then, can the other employers of chemists not find suitable employees?

The answer I believe is simple: Most PhD’s prepare the student best for an academic career. This is despite all the promotional materials that describe STEM PhD’s in particular as a comprehensive training programme providing skills suitable for a variety of careers. The reality of many PhD’s is far from this utopian vision, although I believe it is a vision we should aspire to.

And to achieve this, we must engage that most elusive of beasts: the PhD supervisor. In the end, it is his or her willingness to allow (or not allow) their students to develop both technical and non-technical skills that will determine if the student will do so. Let me make this very clear: We CANNOT expect PhD students to “stand up” to their supervisors and demand the hours of training they are already entitled to by most PhD courses in the UK. If a supervisor accidentally or deliberately gives the impression that he expects his students to be in the lab all the time, then that is what will happen in the majority of cases. And it is simply unfair that those fortunate students who win the lottery and get a “good” supervisor gain an advantage in the jobs market over their peers of equal technical ability.

A PhD student needs more now to get a job than ever before. Three to four years of research resulting in some posters, an oral presentation and a paper is insufficient. Examples of the student’s dedication and passion for science, their willingness to learn and be moved out of their comfort zone are just as important. And these skills cannot be acquired by just doing a PhD. Or at least you will not stand out to an employer if the only example of communication skills you have comes from your final year presentation. Unfortunately, every PhD graduate did one of those.

These skills can be exemplified in a unique and eye-catching way by moving outside the lab environment. Giving tutorials and demonstrating (although remember a lot of graduates will do this), writing blogs, visiting schools, volunteering with the RSC or any group are examples of the many easy ways to acquire these extra skills. But look what they all have in common: time away from the lab during normal working hours. And will your supervisor let you??

I believe the RSC has a vital role to play in engaging with universities to “educate” supervisors as to the importance of these “extra-curricular” activities to their student’s career development. To develop a system where a PhD student is encouraged to take time OFF (and I stress that, a PhD is tough enough without having to make up hours) to develop this skills in symbiosis with the needs of their PhD research. To develop a system where the quality of PhD graduate emerging from UK universities goes up, even if the quantity goes down. This I believe will make everyone happy. Doesn’t it sound simple!!?
Posted by David Foley on Sep 29, 2011 8:13 PM BST
As a response to some of my more “passionate” posts, I was invited to visit RSC HQ in Cambridge, both to discuss the various issues faced by the younger members in my experience, and to get a better feel for how exactly things worked within the RSC. This meeting was held at the end of May, but I did not want to post a follow-up until I had firmed up the various outcomes from the meeting and given the relevant staff at the RSC a fair chance to look at, asses and respond to our concerns and proposed solutions. I will discuss our concerns as raised at the meeting in sequence, along with the suggested solutions and what progress has been made to date.

1. The feeling amongst Younger Members that the RSC was asking members to do more whilst not acknowledging their efforts.

The debate on this point centred on trying to quantify and identify exactly where we felt staff and the RSC generally we letting down the Younger Members. It was made clear that the levels of staffing, funding etc had remained the same over the past several years. I attempted to explain that simply maintaining the status quo in terms of YM activities is no longer acceptable to most of the YM volunteers. We want and expect to be able to put on larger and more significant events, to both add to our experiences and raise the profile of YM’s within the society. A stagnant, boring, repetitive YMN is of no benefit to anyone; we want a dynamic, active and exciting network.
This means that the members of the YMN must be aware of the procedures and process that the RSC has in place for various events, which differ depending on the size and nature of the event. This is a fair point, but this information is not all that easy to come by. Therefore, staff at the RSC agreed to look at putting a “volunteer resource area” on MyRSC by September. I did have a look for this area before posting the blog, but can’t find it. I do think this area would be a major step forward and should be implement as soon as possible.
Regarding the issue of recognition, we suggested that placing a “volunteer of the month” article in Chemistry World may be a good way to highlight some of the best work being carried out by RSC volunteers. Further, the monthly “winners” could make up a short-list of candidates for a new annual award. We felt this was a win-win situation for both the profile of the RSC and the volunteers. Staff are looking into this, but I would love to hear your comments or ideas on the issue of volunteer recognition.

2. Guidance and support for volunteers.

Following on from point 1, I highlighted some comments from colleagues in the YMN, including this gem:
“I am now the vice chair of our Local Section and have not heard a peep from HQ about what my role is or my duties. This also applies to our new Chair, we are both just as clueless as to what we are supposed to do!! Classic RSC! We’ll just keep plodding along until someone tells us off for doing something wrong!!”
Those I met with pointed out that such information was available on line and that handbooks are provided to all sections. I countered that I was sure that was the case, but obviously the information was not being properly disseminated. Hopefully this issue will be address by the “volunteer resource area”.
I then went a step further and asked that the RSC consider drawing up a code of conduct for its volunteers, including some record of training, CBR checks etc. This was to differentiate the duties, responsibilities and expectations of RSC members (code of conduct for practicing chemists), RSC staff (somewhere in their contracts) and volunteers (where there is no guidance). I suggested that volunteers perhaps commit to a certain number of events each year, in a similar way as to how the STEMNet Ambassador programme is run. The debate centred on whether such a contract would be considered too formal for our volunteers, and I’d love your opinions.
I also brought up here the idea that we record electronically all the acitivities carried out by volunteers each year. This would give the RSC a huge database of expertise and activities to draw upon as required, whilst providing the volunteer with evidence of his accomplishments and experience to present to prospective employers. Again this is borrowing from the STEMNet programme. Staff are looking into this, and the question is would you be interested in such a service? 

3. Some Younger Member Representatives find it difficult to secure financial support from their Local Sections.

Honestly, and I’m not being funny here, I don’t think the members of staff I spoke to really believed me when I told them this. They failed completely to grasp the levels of frustration and disappointment felt by the YM’s involved. It was made clear that staff were always on hand to help if asked, but it was made equally clear to me that they were asked and very little changed. Instead, a situation was allowed to develop where by the people closely involved felt the only way they could achieve their ambitions was to “take over” the local section completely. A process which requires a few years!!
I’m sure that the example that sparked this debate is one of the more serious examples, and I hope it is very rare. However, one incident like this is one too many. Not very many young people would have the tenacity and conviction to continue to work for change under these conditions. Most would simply walk away, feeling it was not worth the effort. As a society we cannot afford to alienate the younger members. We should be welcoming and open to their participation at all levels of the society, and give them the chance to shape it as they see fit.
We therefore proposed the possibility that the YMN be re-formed as an interest group or division, with their own budget, rather than having to rely on the passing whims and postcode lottery of the local sections. Again, being brutally honest, this idea went down like a lead balloon, and I do not have hopes of seeing it come to light in the near future. Or any future. But, what do you think?

4. The possibilty of formalising the Younger Member Forum as part of the RSC governance structure.

This followed on closely from point two above. If the YMN was to be re-formed as an interest group, who better to form the first committee than the members of the YMF? With a group of reliable volunteers supervising the network they “grew up” in, we felt rapid progress in the development of the YMN could be made. It would also make the YMF a genuine part of the RSC, rather than the nice little display case it often feels like. I’m a member of the YMF, but I have no power or influence in reality. I just talk. And hope somebody listens and agrees with me. That is, quite frankly, wrong. And I know I’m annoying some people, but I don’t care. If anyone out there can provide a sensible argument for why only the YMN is controlled (financially) by other groups (local sections) unlike any other structure (local sections, interest groups, divisions) in the RSC, I would LOVE to hear it. For now the RSC’s position remains quite clear: “At present the younger member network will continue to operate in the same way as it currently does.”

And there you have it. The "end" to what has been quiet frankly a rather exhausting saga. I believe I have made the psoition of the younger members on these issues quite clear. It is also clear that it is now up to the RSC to match our position, if possible, or explain clearly to the relevant volunteers why it is not possible/practical.

It is also clear that the series of blog posts leading up to this meeting have been succesful in generating the required attention to actually make some changes and progress. As plans for the next Younger Members Symposium are gathering pace, I can already see both the younger members and RSC staff have learnt the lessons from the previous YMS, and are endevoring to avoid the mistakes made. I have high hopes that this will continue in the future and that the Society as a whole will benefit from it.

I'd like to thank the other major contributors to this series of blogs, Adam, Ben and Claire (if I'm going down...), as well as the all the members of the YMF and YMN who commented on blogs, emails and documents. I'd also especially like to thank Neville, Gemma and Helen for their open-minded discussions and williness to listen.

Furture posts will focus on profiling the activities of the YMN and it's volunteers as well as hopefully some "pitchside" reports from various YMN events, starting with a whiskey tasting in Manchester next week.
Posted by David Foley on Sep 24, 2011 4:25 PM BST
Did you miss me?

Sorry for being so quiet of late, but I do have a good excuse. I started a new postdoc position in England last month, and of course that brings a significant amount of hassle (not to mention a disruption in internet access) that has prevented my posting (or pontificating) recently.

So a quick summary of the highlights of my time in Belfast:-
  1. After only two years, I FINALLY found a hit against my target, a mere four weeks before I was due to leave. Of course, it is very early days for this project, but at least I wasn’t beaten by a teeney-weeney protein!! Unfortunately, there will be no papers from my research for the foreseeable future, but I did attend two major international conferences (ACS Med. Chem. in Minneapolis in the summer of 2010 and ISACS5 in Manchester in 2011) and presented a poster on my own independent project at one.
  2. YMS 2010. And everything that came from it. Definitely one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. Also one of the most stressful and frustrating, but every silver lining has a cloud. In one of lives little co-incidences, YMS 2012 will be hosted by the East Midlands Local Section, where I am now based. Not sure I have the strength to go through it all again, but will certainly lend a hand if asked.
  3. Becoming a STEMNet Ambassador. These guys helped my get into so many schools, and give talks and demonstrations. It was amazing fun, and a definite boost to my communication skills. I also have to acknowledge my employer (Queen’s) and supervisor (Prof. David Haigh) for letting me take the odd day off here and there to do these things.
  4. And finally, this gem of a picture!

The coolest chemist ever.... and Lord Kelvin!!

I know I owe you a post on the outcomes of the meeting with RSC staff, which I hope to have up by the end of the month. Until then, thanks for reading.
Posted by David Foley on Sep 11, 2011 4:31 PM BST
Networking works both ways!

A colleague of mine, who did me a favor by agreeing to speak at the YMS last year, has asked that I promote this prestigious award for final PhD students in Organic Chemistry. This friend was a former recipient of this award, and it has certainly done his career no harm at all! Not to mention, of course, the £2,000 total prize money for the 6 winners. Take a bow, Meja!

Full details in the attached poster, but in short you must be going in your final year at a UK university this November, and the closing date is the 2nd of September.
Posted by David Foley on Jul 6, 2011 8:10 PM BST
First of all, let me apologise for the silence on this blog of late. As my last post indicated, things have been more than a little hectic around here of late. I did have that meeting with the RSC staff to discuss matter relating to the Younger Member’s Networks. I’m following up on those discussions with some emails back and forth, and once the picture is complete I will blog in detail on this meeting and the outcomes from it.

 1a29eac08b20ff4c66e72f644572a9c5-original-img_0059.jpgToday, I want to talk about a major event I attended in Northern Ireland: The Sentinus Young Innovators Fair. As the name implies this event encourages school children around the province to take on an extra project, in the areas of science, maths and engineering. I’m not gonna lie, I did not have any time to even peek at the presentations, as my colleagues (Kerry & Sonia, in the lab coats) and I were busy dealing with the hundreds of students who came up to us throughout the day (perhaps attracted by the loud bangs emanating from our corner!). We faced some stiff competition, from the fire-brigade, the RAF and some kind of F1 racing thing... but I think we did chemistry proud! Although we did lose to some biologists (Phil and Ben in the CRUK shirts) in a “yeast versus potassium iodide catalyst” race (sorry!).

I thought I’d share what experiments we carried out (and what went wrong!). Our audience was mainly primary school children, so we tried to keep things simple and safe. The first few experiments require little in the way of equipment or skill, but some of the later ones... well let’s just say we brought the blast shield for a reason! Of course, you should always carry out risk and COSHH assessments in advance of the demonstration.

I'm sure lot's of people out there will have their own favourite demo's, and links to good resources so feel free to share!

Posted by David Foley on Jun 17, 2011 7:55 PM BST
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