Tiniest Happy Birthday Message to the Queen

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A team of scientists from the University of Nottingham have created the tiniest ever happy birthday message to the Queen – on a corgi hair!

The interdisciplinary team of chemists, physicists and engineers were demonstrating the power of the new £12m Nanoscale and  Microscale Research Centre at the School of Chemistry when they revealed the image, made on a Focused Ion Beam Scanning Electron Microscope (FIB-SEM) at the Centre.

The facility is directed by Andrei Khlobystov, Professor of Nanomaterials at the School of Chemistry, and who was on the team awarded the Guinness World Record for the world’s smallest test tube. When asked about the Centre, he said: “This centre will be one of the largest and most advanced clusters of instrumentation for nanoscale and microscale research in the UK. We anticipate it will have significant regional, national and global impact.”

Indeed, this fun image highlights the amazing activities which can be carried out on the smallest of scales, and results have already been obtained in the fields of engine oils, hair damage, satellite chip corrosion, paints and coatings and catalysis.

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Failure: why science is so successful

Today, Chemistry World have published the review of what appears to be a very interesting book that will no doubt interest all chemistry lovers – Failure: why science is so successful.

In his book, Stuart Firestein discusses that half of science is failed experiments and wrong hypotheses, and this is usually glossed over or forgotten completely.

We should not only accept the failures in our work, but appreciate and relish them – a negative result is still a result, and one which inevitably teaches us something and allows us to progress closer to the correct answer.

As a PhD student, I’ve encountered many a negative or unexpected result, and I agree that it would be a boost not only to researchers’ morale, but also the knowledge of our field, if failures were embraced and shared. How else can we learn from our mistakes and move on to bigger and better things?

We’re often told to ignore our failures, or even to hide them, and continue searching for the big break that’ll make our careers. However, this doesn’t help the field move forward, and it only serves to demoralise and demotivate students and Post-Docs whose hard work is being pushed aside and forgotten. I agree with Stuart that failure should be taken note of, and used in a positive way to benefit science and ourselves.

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Toxicity is a hazardous waste

Today I came across an opinion article in Chemistry World which highlights what I believe is a very important issue – chemists today are not being properly trained and prepared in reducing toxicity in their methods.

Now, this isn’t only an issue for the green chemists out there – as chemistry undergraduates and postgraduates we’re often completely unaware of how significant the toxicity of solvents, reagents and products are further down the development pipeline of a new material. We’re simply overjoyed if we manage to make the product we’ve been working on for months, and we’re thrilled if it exhibits the properties we’ve been hoping for, such as cancer killing activity. Never do we step back and consider the carcinogenic chloroform we carried out a work-up with, or the explosive starting materials which couldn’t possibly be used on an industrial scale.

And, why would we? I personally only remember the reduction of toxicity being mentioned in specific green/environmental chemistry modules I chose as an undergraduate, which often leads students to only considering these issues in this context. It’s a green chemistry issue, not one to think about in every day synthetic laboratory work, right? I have come across some of these issues in my PhD, as its industrially funded, so I have some appreciation of what solvents might not be desirable/scaleable, but this has only been mentioned in passing, and I’ve had no formal training in this area.

It’s a common problem throughout chemistry degrees/PhDs, which his highlighted throughout this article. Newly trained chemists give very little thought to the toxicity issues of their work and, crucially, it isn’t instilled in them by their professors or supervisors that they should be. Indeed, many supervisors are more interested in results which they can publish than whether or not their methodology would be commercially viable. However, when these students venture out of academia into the world of industry, this is something they’ll very much have to be aware of, and this knowledge would be extremely useful if taught beforehand.

Unless we want to hide in academia forever, it’s about time we opened our eyes to how our chemistry might affect the real world, and whether the work we’re carrying out would be remotely industrially viable. If we came together with engineers, process chemists and industrial chemists, we could all save ourselves valuable time, energy and resources by knowing what our final goals really are.

Of course, chemistry for the sake of chemistry is still something I advocate – we always need to learn more about the world around us – but, if we’re going to have a grand goal for our research, we need to take a step back and no our limits right from the beginning. Only then, will we reach a conclusion everyone can benefit from.

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