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Your current job
I am one of two staff Science Correspondents for Chemistry World magazine. I am responsible for writing news and feature articles covering the whole range of chemistry research, industry, policy etc. I also edit two of our regular columns – Classic kit from the excellent Andrea Sella, and Totally synthetic, written by Paul Docherty (who some of you may know was once my lab- and flat-mate. It’s great when you can keep in touch with friends through your daily work.)
What you do in a standard “work day”
Like Carmen and a lot of others have mentioned, the nature of my role is very fluid. I can be writing and researching articles on anything from Rydberg atoms to Nobel prizes from one day to the next. That means I get to meet and speak to all sorts of interesting people, from the top researchers and industrialists around the world, to politicians and policymakers.
My usual day is spent hunting for news stories in journals and other sources (I read way more journals now than I ever did as a student), before our daily news meeting where we decide what we’re going to cover from what’s been found that day. Then I’ll be writing, researching or editing my latest pieces.
What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there?
I have a MSci in Natural Sciences (specialising in chemistry but including materials science, cell biology and pharmacology) from the University of Cambridge, and a PhD (or DPhil if you’re going to be picky) in synthetic organic chemistry from the University of Oxford. During my undergrad degree I spent time in both analytical and synthetic labs in industry, with a view to a career in med chem, which gave me a tiny insight into how Pharma works.
I have no formal training in journalism, but during my PhD I entered (and somehow managed to win) a writing competition run by the Daily Telegraph newspaper. On the back of that I did a bit more writing for the Telegraph and a few other places, which made me think I should consider it more seriously as a career. After writing up, I joined the Royal Society of Chemistry in Cambridge in a graduate communications role, and was fortunate that a job on Chemistry World came up a few months later.
How does chemistry inform your work?
Every day I am reading, writing and trying to understand chemistry of some kind. While my knowledge of the gamut of organic transformations may have dwindled, my general chemistry is stronger than ever, and I am constantly learning about new topics and applying my chemical understanding to see where they fit in to the bigger picture.
I also teach first year undergraduate chemistry one night a week in Cambridge, which is a great way to keep my basic chemistry ticking over.
Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career
During my PhD, which I began in Cambridge, my supervisor was offered a permanent lecturer position at Oxford. This meant we needed to move the whole lab from one university to another. While Jon is quite a young group leader, we were fortunate enough to have inherited a reasonably large stock of chemicals and equipment from his former supervisor, who had emigrated to Australia. But that meant we had to transport it all.
My boss got some professional quotes for the move, but the £30k quote was somewhat above our budget, so we hired a couple of vans and loaded up for a group outing cross country. Luckily, my father could advise on the legalities of transporting chemicals, so we packed up pretty much everything that wasn’t pyrophoric, explosive, highly oxidising, overly smelly, strongly alkylating or otherwise likely to cause problems in the event of an accident, and trundled off.
There were, of course, plenty of surprises when clearing out the cupboards and fridges. Arcane glassware that not even the venerable technicians could identify, useful stuff we never knew we had, not to mention the two litre bottle of phosgene in toluene solution…