Are you interested in pharmaceutical R&D? Which PhD skills are particularly useful in industry? We asked James Douglas, Director of Global High-Throughput Experimentation at AstraZeneca.
Tell us about your career path to date.
I currently have two roles, firstly as Director of Global High-Throughput Experimentation (HTE) within R&D at the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. I also work one day a week as a Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence at the Department of Chemistry in the University of Manchester. Both roles involve developing and applying methods and technology in chemical synthesis to facilitate the drug discovery, development, and manufacturing processes.
My journey to these roles began with a chemistry degree and a passion for running chemistry experiments in the laboratory. At the end of my undergraduate MChem degree at the University of York, I spent an amazing placement year at the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, working in drug development. I then went on to do a PhD at the University of St Andrews and postdoctoral research in the USA, both of which focused on developing new methods for synthesis.
My PhD was in collaboration with AstraZeneca and my postdoc was with the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, so I knew a lot about medicines R&D and wanted to start a permanent career in that industry.
Pictured above: James Douglas
When did you start working for AstraZeneca?
I started at AstraZeneca in 2015. Initially, I spent most of my time working in the laboratory, supporting drug projects across a range of therapy areas such as oncology, heart disease and respiratory treatment. Since then, I have gradually spent less time in the lab across multiple roles and more time working with – and leading wider teams – with a more company-wide focus.
I have remained closely linked to academic research and universities through collaborative projects. This ultimately led me to the Entrepreneur in Residence role where I am accelerating the translation of chemistry innovation from academia to industry, as well as helping provide students and researchers skills and networks relevant to careers in industry.
What is a typical day like in your job?
I spend about two days a week on site at AstraZeneca in Macclesfield and two working from home. As my main job is office based I can also work from home very easily. It has been this way for me since the start of the pandemic. I missed the general atmosphere of a busy workplace but this period coincided with the birth of my daughter, so I feel lucky to have been able to see a lot more of her growing up than I would have otherwise.
I work with many scientists across the company, not just in Macclesfield, such as in Cambridge (UK), Boston, and Gothenburg, so virtual meetings and calls are a big part of my day. When I’m on site, I prioritise face-to face meetings and discussion with the scientists in the laboratory. Very occasionally I get the chance to run some experiments myself, which I really enjoy.
Since 2022, I have spent Fridays within the Department of Chemistry at the University of Manchester. I talk to academics and PhD students about how their research could be applied in industry, discuss current projects, and think up new ones. I’m also preparing a lecture course and organising careers and networking events to prepare students with skills that are important for careers in industry.
Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?
I still get the most excited when faced with the challenge of solving difficult scientific problems. This has changed during my career from working individually in the lab, on relatively clear problems during my PhD, to now being part of much larger teams trying to solve highly complex longer term challenges.
Chemistry is always advancing but so are the standards that we must push towards in drug development – for example, finding ways to shorten the time taken to bring new treatments to patients, while at the same time significantly reducing the environmental impact. That’s a daunting – but exciting – opportunity for synthetic chemists like me.
Most of all, even though the timelines are longer on the projects I work on now, there are moments of short-term success that are exciting. This could be an experimental result from the team that opens up a new possibility, or provides important insight into how best to proceed.
>> Side projects can make large waves. Dr Claire McMullin shares the insights from her journey.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
I miss being able to dedicate my time to experimental work and really understanding a problem in detail. I have spent much of my career investing the large amount of time it takes to understand a problem and think about solutions. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case and not my main responsibility, but I still find this hard to accept!
I miss the level of detail and discussion I once had and find it a challenge not to spend all my time in the laboratory bothering all the brilliant scientists with questions about what they are doing.
How do you use the skills you obtained during your degree in your job?
Most directly, my degree gave me great general skills in chemistry, ranging from practical experimental techniques to chemical analysis and fundamental principles such as kinetics. These were the basis on which I built more specialised skills in organic synthesis during my PhD and postdoc, all of which are crucial for my career so far.
There are also lots of skills I developed that I didn’t appreciate at the time, such as time management, the ability to think independently, organisation, and teamwork. Like many others, my PhD and postdoc also taught me important lessons about resilience and perseverance.
What advice would you give others interested in pursuing a similar career path?
It’s not advice, but what worked for me was to do what I am passionate about. Don’t worry if it takes a while to work out what that exactly is. I decided to do a chemistry degree mostly because I thought I would enjoy the practical experimental side, which I did and still do. It was only during my final year placement at the pharmaceutical company GSK that I decided to do a PhD so I could learn new areas of chemistry.
Finally, it was only during my postdoc that I decided to try and solve the challenges faced with drug development in industry, rather than the more fundamental undertaken as a research group leader in academia.
I’m still finding out what things interest me and these interests keep changing. That’s the joy of disciplines like chemistry and drug development – there is always so much more to learn and challenges to overcome.
Growing your own fruit and vegetables is an enjoyable and rewarding pastime. Flavour and exercise are two immediate attractions. Work invested in a home plot or allotment improves both physical and mental health. There is an emotional reward in harvesting one’s own produce and the succulent flavours far exceed those of food which has passed through supermarkets’ cold-chain handling.
The soil required for crop growing needs careful preparation. Healthy soil produces healthy crops. This is achieved by building soil fertility through the addition of well-rotted compost or farmyard manure. These are incorporated by turning the soil with a spade. Digging mixes organic matter into the soil structure improving its biological life, drainage and opportunities for crop root growth. Frost action helps improve the crumb structure of soils hence winter-time digging is a forerunner for successful cropping.
Ripe desert gooseberries.
Early vegetable cropping tests gardeners’ skills in plant raising and protection. Transplants raised in greenhouses or under cloches provide an initial taste of future rewards. Depending on location, main crops are direct-sown from mid-March onwards into well prepared seed-beds. These are achieved by secondary cultivation with hoes and rakes developing a fine crumb soil which easily allows germination and successful root penetration.
Land used for fruit growing requires similar initial preparation. Fruit trees and bushes are carefully planted as bare-root plants into holes with sufficient space which accommodates the entire root-ball without congestion. Careful husbandry through the next two or three years ensuring the land is kept weed free and pests and diseases held at bay will result in rewarding finely tasting crops.
What to grow? For greatest pleasure avoid mundane crops generally found in supermarkets. Desert well ripened gooseberries are one of the garden’s finest and most delicately flavoured crops and provide considerable health benefits.
Similarly, blackcurrants boost health and make superb summer puddings. The cultivar Ben Connan is a heavy cropper with compact habit. Early potatoes such as cultivar swift are rewarding firstly because of their flavour and secondly as cleaning crops shading out weed growth, when initially starting a new garden or allotment.
Increasingly expensive shop-bought fruit and vegetables and of restricted supplies make successional growing of lettuce such as cultivar little gem very attractive. Courgettes planted out as soon as frosts have gone are quick growing, prolific and very rewarding vegetables. Additionally raising soil health increases its store of carbon and planting trees and bushes harvests atmospheric carbon dioxide, both actions are small but important steps towards net-zero carbon and reduced global warming.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
In ‘The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring’ from The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan were interpreting the seasons according to their 19th Century climate – but do these flowers still, indeed, bloom in spring? The Meteorological Office’s traditional definitions of the seasons in the UK are:
Increasingly, climate change is blurring these distinctions, and gardeners are seeing autumn stretching well towards January. Winters in maritime Great Britain are now most severe in February and March, and summer extends into September. The effects of prolonged warm autumns include accelerated growth emergence and flowering of plants which have been thought of as the harbingers of spring.
Phenological studies in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries established that the then-termed ‘early-spring flowering plants’ had accelerated blossoming by as much as four weeks. Now, in the second decade of the 21st Century, it seems this is an underestimate.
Pictured above: Iris unguicularis (styllosa); the Algerian iris
Iris unguicularis (styllosa), the Algerian iris, is renowned as an early flower of spring. It now comes into bloom in late November and very early December, making it an autumn and winter flowering plant. It originates from Algeria, Greece, Turkey, Western Syria, and Tunisia and requires freely draining, light soils with minimal nutrient value. Planted in a south facing border, Iris unguicularis is an undemanding and very colourful addition to the garden. Many early-flowering plants have highly coloured flowers which attract the widest spectrum of insect pollinators.
Pictured above: Cyclamen hederifolium
Similarly, Cyclamen hederifolium (hera meaning “ivy”, folium meaning “leaf”), now flowers vigorously from mid-December, providing colour in the garden in those darkest days prior to the winter solstice. It originates from woodland, shrubland, and rocky areas in the Mediterranean region from southern France to western Turkey and on Mediterranean islands. Once the corms are established it naturalises freely, spreading by self-seeding from explosive seed capsules which cast progeny widely in borders of light, sandy nutrient-free soil.
Pictured above: alyssum (A. saxatile)
The common rockery plant alyssum (A. saxatile), is a perennial herbaceous plant, which rapidly colonises borders and will spread down onto walls providing colour from early January. It is one of the ornamental members of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) with bright cruciform flowers.
Each of these plants is responding to climatic warming, indicating the loss of traditional seasonality. This impairs relationships between flowering plants and animal pollinators that have carefully evolved for mutual benefit over millennia. The full consequences of these losses will be apparent in years and decades to come.
Professor Geoff Dixon is author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
What effect do vaping and air pollution have on your heart, and how could a light-powered pacemaker improve cardiovascular health?
It seems that every day, scientists are learning more about the factors affecting cardiovascular health and are coming up with novel ways to keep our hearts ticking for longer. Here are three interesting recent developments.
One of the problems with existing pacemakers is that they are implanted into the heart with one or two points of connection (using screws or hooks). According to University of Arizona researchers, when these devices detect a dangerous irregularity they send an electrical shock through the whole heart to regulate its beat.
These researchers believe their battery-free, light-powered pacemaker could improve the quality of life of heart disease patients through the increased precision of their device.
The way existing pacemakers work can be quite painful for heart disease patients.
Their pacemaker comprises a petal-like structure made from a thin flexible film (that contains light sources) and a recording electrode. Like the petals of a flower closing up at night, this mesh pacemaker envelops the heart to provide many points of contact.
The device also uses optogenetics – a biological technique to control the activity of cells using light. The researchers say this helps to control the heart far more precisely and bypass pain receptors.
‘Right now, we have to shock the whole heart to do this, [but] these new devices can do much more precise targeting, making defibrillation both more effective and less painful,’ said Igor Efimov, professor of biomedical engineering and medicine at Northwestern University.
‘Current pacemakers record basically a simple threshold, and they will tell you,’ added Philipp Gutruf, lead researcher and biomedical engineering assistant professor. ‘This is going into arrhythmia, now shock, but this device has a computer on board where you can input different algorithms that allow you to pace in a more sophisticated way.’
Another potential benefit is that the light-powered device could negate the need for battery replacement, which is done every five to seven years. That use of light to affect the heart rather than electrical signals could also mean less interference with the device’s recording capabilities and a more complete picture of cardiac episodes.
The device uses light and a technique called optogenetics, which modifies cells that are sensitive to light, then uses light to affect the behavior of those cells. Image by Philipp Gutruff.
>> See how Bright SCIdea winner Cardiatec uses AI to improve heart disease treatment.
We don’t know a lot about the long-term effects of vaping because people simply haven’t been doing it long enough, but a recent study from the University of Wisconsin (UW) suggests that it could be bad for the heart.
Researchers selected a group of people who had used nicotine delivery devices for 4.1 years on average, those who smoked cigarettes for 23 years on average, and non-smokers and compared how their hearts behaved after smoking (the first two groups) and after exercise.
The researchers noticed differences minutes after the first two groups smoked or vaped. ‘Immediately after vaping or smoking, there were worrisome changes in blood pressure, heart rate, heart rate variability and blood vessel tone (constriction),’ said lead study author Matthew Tattersall, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
The lack of long-term data means we still don’t know the effect of vaping.
Those who vaped also performed worse on the four exercise parameters compared to those who hadn’t used nicotine. Perhaps the most startling finding was the post-exercise response of those who had vaped for just four years compared to those who had smoked tobacco for 23 years.
‘The exercise performance of those who vaped was not significantly different from people who used combustible cigarettes, even though they had vaped for fewer years than the people who smoked and were much younger,’ said Christina Hughey, fellow in cardiovascular medicine at UW Health, the integrated health systems of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
We know that smoking and passive-smoking are bad for our hearts, but some overlook the effect of other environmental toxins, especially those common to specific geographical regions.
A collaborative study including US and UK researchers has found a divergence in the types of environmental contaminants that contribute to cardiovascular ailments in both countries, aside from the prevalent smoking-related heart disease.
Hopefully, the growth in electric vehicle use will reduce air pollution
The study found that lead-related poisoning is more common in the US, whereas air pollution has a more damaging effect in the UK due mainly to increased population density. The researchers found that 6.5% of cardiovascular deaths were associated with exposure to particulate matter over the past 30 years compared to 5% in the US.
The one plus is that research has found that there has been a steady decline in cardiovascular deaths stemming from lead, smoking, secondhand smoke and air pollution over the past 30 years. Nevertheless, it will be of little comfort to those walking in the trail of exhaust fumes in cities.
‘More research on how environmental risk factors impact our daily lives is needed to help policymakers, public health experts, and communities see the big picture,’ said lead author Anoop Titus, a third-year internal medicine resident at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Composts are artificial mixtures in which seeds germinate, cuttings root and whole plants grow. Their key feature is reliability of composition. The first such composts were formulated by the John Innes Centre in the 1900s. Researchers needed preparations which allowed reliable growth of plants for experiments. The main ingredients were loamy soil, sand and lime plus nutrients. John Innes composts subsequently became the mainstay of horticulturists and gardeners.
Colourful flowering in artificial composts.
Variability in the loam and its weight were major disadvantages. Scientists at the University of California solved these problems by preparing mixtures of peat, sand and nutrients. Air fill porosity characteristics of ‘UC mixes’, as they became known, allow healthy seed germination, root production, growth and flowering. Lighter weight is of major significance, allowing the easy movement of plants. Arguably, simplified transport also resulted in the advent of garden centres and freer international plant trading. As a result, the garden centre industry has become a regular social feature.
A peat extraction site.
Peat, while of major importance, is now seen as the ‘achilles heel’ of these composts. Peat bogs are very significant reservoirs for carbon dioxide and major participants in the drive for reducing the impact of climate change. The compost industry strips peat from the bogs and then mixes it into specialised formulations for seed germination or plant growth. The bogs can be reclaimed and will restart the processes of CO2 absorption, but there is still a significant environmental penalty. Social and political pressures are driving peat reduction and its elimination from garden and commercially used composts. Peat substitutes must have the key properties of adequate air fill porosity, light weight and minimal or net zero carbon demand.
A renovated peat extraction site.
One suggestion is using coir – waste arising from coconut harvesting. Like peat, this is a natural, biodegradable product. When shredded it forms a useful peat substitute, an alternative is well composted bark and fine wood chippings, which are mixed with sand. Both are valuable composts for growing ornamental plants and germinating their seedlings. Some manufacturers are also adding loamy soil into these formulae. Problems continue, however, with finding peat-free formulae for use in commercial transplant propagation. Germinating vegetable seedlings for large scale crops requires absolute regularity and reliability. Uniform, vigorous seedlings result in mature high-quality crops suitable for once over harvesting and scheduling which meets supermarkets’ specifications.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
Rarely have science and government been as clearly linked as the initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic, when politicians could be heard claiming they were being ‘led by the science’ as often as they could be seen doing that pointing-with-a-thumb-and-fist thing.
This Thursday, the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, will receive the Lister Medal for his leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic, and you can stream it live here, exclusively on SCI’s YouTube channel!
In readiness for Sir Patrick’s lecture, Eoin Redahan looks back at three ways science helped to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.
People will never look at vaccine development the same way. For good or ill, we have realised just how quickly they can now be developed. Similarly, we have realised what can be achieved when the brightest brains come together. These are two of the positive legacies from Covid.
But there are others. Some of the innovations conceived to tackle Covid will now tackle other pathogens. Here are just three of the innovations that emerged…
As Oscar Wilde once said: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the genetic material in stool samples.’
Not many people would find inspiration in wastewater treatment plants when thinking about early warning systems for infectious diseases.
Nevertheless, during the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers at TU Darmstadt in Germany came up with a system that detected Covid infection rates in the general population by analysing their waste – a system so accurate they could detect the presence of Covid among those without recognisable symptoms.
To do this, they examined the genetic material in samples from Frankfurt’s wastewater plants and tested them using the PCR test. They claim that their measurement was so sensitive it could detect fewer than 10 confirmed Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people.
It is inevitable that Covid-19 variants will rise again, but this system could alert us to the need for tighter protective measures as soon as the virus appears in our wastewater.
UV light can reportedly reduce indoor airborne microbes by 98%.
Warning systems are important, as are ways to stop the spread of pathogens. To do this, a team from the UK and US shed light on the problem – well, they used ultraviolet light to remove the pathogens.
Using funding from the UK Health Security Agency, Columbia University researchers discovered that far-UVC light from lights installed in the ceiling almost eliminate the indoor transmission of airborne diseases such as Covid-19 and influenza.
The researchers claim it took less than five minutes for their germicidal UV light to reduce indoor airborne microbe levels by more than 98% – and it does the job as long as the light remains switched on.
‘Far-UVC rapidly reduces the amount of active microbes in the indoor air to almost zero, making indoor air essentially as safe as outdoor air,’ said study co-author David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. ‘Using this technology in locations where people gather together indoors could prevent the next potential pandemic.’
‘Physical mask, meet biological mask.’
Many moons ago, it was strange to see a person wearing a mask, even in cities with dubious air quality. Now, they are ubiquitous, and it would appear that mask innovations are everywhere too.
During Covid, researchers from the University of Granada in Spain were aware that wearing masks for a long time could be bad for our health. They devised a near field communication tag for inside our FFP2 masks to monitor CO2 rebreathing. This batteryless, opto-chemical sensor communicates with the wearer’s phone, telling them when CO2 levels are too high.
In the same spirit, researchers in Helsinki, Finland, developed a ‘biological mask’ to counteract Covid-19. The University of Helsinki researchers developed a nasal spray with molecule (TRiSb92) that deactivates the coronavirus spike protein and provides short-term protection against the virus – a sort of biological mask, albeit without those annoying elastics digging into our ears.
‘In animal models, nasally administered TriSb92 offered protection against infection in an exposure situation where all unprotected mice were infected,’ said Anna Mäkelä, postdoctoral researcher and study co-author.
‘Targeting this inhibitory effect of the TriSb92 molecule to a site of the coronavirus spike protein common to all variants of the virus makes it possible to effectively inhibit the ability of all known variants.’
The idea is for this nasal spray to complement vaccines, though during peak Covid paranoia, it might be tricky persuading everyone on the bus that you’re wearing a biological mask.
Covid disrupted scientific progress for many, but as we know, invention shines through in troublesome times. Plenty of innovations such as the ones above will make us better equipped to tackle air borne diseases – alongside the stewardship of leaders like Sir Patrick Vallance.
Watch Sir Patrick Vallance’s talk – Government, Science and Industry: from Covid to Climate – at 18:25 on 24 November
How do you forge a career in process chemistry, and how do you overcome the challenges of studying in your second language? Here’s how Piera Trinchera, Associate Principal Scientist at Pharmaron, found her way.
Tell us about your career path to date.
I am an Associate Principal Scientist in the Process Chemistry department of Pharmaron UK. I am based at the Hoddesdon site in Hertfordshire, where I develop synthetic routes for the manufacture of new drugs for clinical studies.
I’m originally from Italy. I completed my MSci at the University of Salento followed by a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Bari, focusing on new synthetic methodologies. Despite my complete lack of English at the time, I jumped at the opportunity of a six-month visiting PhD position at the University of Toronto.
This was a challenging experience initially as it was my first time living abroad, but ultimately it was very rewarding. After completing my PhD I returned to the University of Toronto to undertake a postdoctoral position focusing on organoboron chemistry. I followed this with a second postdoc at Queen Mary University of London working on aryne chemistry.
After eight years in academia, I wanted to apply the knowledge I had acquired to solving industrial problems that directly impact people’s lives. For this reason, I joined Pharmaron UK where I have been for the last three years and am currently a project lead and people manager.
What is a typical day like in your job?
I am involved in multiple projects each year and the overall aim is to provide synthetic chemistry solutions for our global clients. Depending on the type of project work, this can include either developing brand new synthetic routes to novel drug candidates or troubleshooting and improving existing chemical processes, making them suitable for large-scale manufacture.
Ultimately, the goal across all projects is the same: to support the production of large quantities of drugs that are needed for clinical studies with a line-of-sight to commercial production.
On a typical working day, I spend the majority of my time in the lab where I conduct my own experiments and lead a team of chemists who work alongside me. I am directly involved in the planning and designing of experiments, execution in the lab, and subsequent manufacture on multi-kg scale in our pilot plant.
Over the course of a project, a large part of the job is communicating to the clients the project strategy, scientific results, and timelines through regular teleconferences, emails, and written reports.
>> Read how side projects made large waves for Dr Claire McMullin
Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?
There are many aspects of this job that I enjoy. I have always enjoyed solving new scientific problems, with the thrill of impatiently waiting for the results of an important experiment or the curiosity in trying to understand an unexpected result.
In addition to the science, seeing your day-to-day lab work translated to the production of kg-quantities of new pharmaceutical compounds that might, after clinical studies, further global health is very rewarding.
Projects are completed on much shorter time frames than in academia (three to six months) and there is no time to stagnate as one so often does in a PhD or Postdoc. I enjoy the large breadth in the chemistry and the different challenges that come with each and every project.
Last but not least, it takes many people from different departments (e.g. in analysis, quality assurance, or manufacturing) working closely together to manufacture a drug compound on a kg-scale.
Working so closely with people from different backgrounds has tremendously enriched me during these years in Pharmaron. It has allowed me to acquire new technical knowledge and given me a deeper understanding of not just chemistry but the overall requirements for synthesising pharmaceutical compounds.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Preparation of a synthetic process for manufacture on a kg-scale involves considerable development in the laboratory to ensure the chemistry translates from small to large scale. Part of this development is to identify potential issues and blindspots of the chemistry and processes and mitigate them by improving the process before implementation on a large scale.
Despite all these efforts, unforeseen complications do occasionally occur on the large scale and finding solutions in real time can be the most challenging aspect of the job. By keeping a clear head, the chemist can leverage both their deep knowledge of the process and the experience of their more senior colleagues to solve these problems.
How do you use the skills you obtained during your PhD and postdocs in your job?
As I’m in a synthetic chemistry job, I have benefitted enormously from the theoretical organic chemistry knowledge and practical laboratory skills that I acquired over the course of my PhD and postdoc years.
Additionally, in academia I became familiar and confident with other skills that I use on a daily basis. These include scientific communication through either written reports or oral presentations, conforming to good laboratory safety practices, and supervising and mentoring other people.In general, the overall experience of my post-graduate academic education has provided me with the competencies necessary to scientifically manage projects and lead a team in Pharmaron.
>> Get involved in the SCI Young Chemists’ Panel.
Which other skills do you need for your work?
Teamwork is a cornerstone of the job and company’s culture. The synthesis of pharmaceutical compounds according to our quality standards would not be possible without the contribution from, and close collaboration among, multiple people across several departments including analytical chemistry, process chemistry, process safety, quality assurance, formulation and manufacturing.
Is there any advice you would give to others interested in pursuing a similar career path?
Don’t be afraid to venture outside of your comfort zone and be open to opportunities, especially those that don’t come along as often. This will help you build your confidence and you will likely find that you can do more than you anticipated. If you are interested in process chemistry, I would recommend looking into internships and/or finding a mentor who can give you an insight into the job.
As with research, perseverance is an important skill you need to master. You will experience failed reactions and difficult purifications at some point in your career as a process chemist. Be open minded, ask questions and don’t be afraid to seek out support from your colleagues.
>> Read how Ofgem’s Dr Chris Unsworth creates an inclusive working environment and transfers his PhD skills.
What does clean smell like? What if the fragrance you want to create is that of a sweet-smelling, yet poisonous, flower? In his Scientific Artistry of Fragrances SCITalk, Dr Ellwood led us by the nose.
When Dr Simon Ellwood spoke about creating a fragrance, it sounded like a musical composition or a painting. The flavourist, sitting before a palette of 1,500 fragrance ingredients. Each occupies a different note on the register: the top notes, the middle ones, and the bottom.
To the outsider, this seems impossibly vast and daunting. The Head of Health & Wellbeing Centre of Excellence – Fragrance and Active Beauty Division at Givaudan mentioned that Persil resolved to come up with ‘the smell of clean’ for its detergents in the late 1950s.
But what should clean smell like? Should it be the green, citrusy aromas of this laundry detergent, the smell of mint, or the antiseptic at the hospital?
To make choosing smells slightly less daunting for flavourists and perfumers, they are at least split into odour families such as citrus, floral, green, fruity, spicy, musky, and woody. Some of these ingredients are natural, some are inspired by nature, and others come from petrochemicals and synthetic materials.
The delicious-smelling musk deer.
One of the smells you may have sprayed on your person – one sibling in this odour family – has peculiar origins. The pleasant, powdery smell known as musk was originally extracted from the caudal gland of the male musk deer and from the civet cat.
But as the Colognoisseur website notes, as many as 50 musk deer would have to be killed to obtain one kilogramme of these nodules. Now, killing a load of deer and cats for a few bottles of perfume may not have seemed unethical several centuries ago, but it also wasn’t sustainable or cost-effective. It became clear that a synthetic musk was needed.
When the synthetic musk discovery came in 1888, it was a chance discovery. Albert Bauer had been looking to make explosives when a distinctive smell came instead, along with the scent of opportunity.
>> Read about the science behind your cosmetics
Dior recreated the woodland notes of Lily of the valley.
Dr Ellwood’s talk laid bare not only the vastness of everything we smell, but also the ingenuity of those who recreate these odours. In terms of breadth of smell, neroli oil – which is taken from the blossom of a bitter orange – has floral, citrus, fresh, and sweet odours, with notes of mint and caraway. Similarly, and yet dissimilarly, jasmine’s odour families are broken down into sweet, floral, fresh, and fruity, and – jarringly – intensely fecal.
The ingenuity of flavourists is exemplified by lily of the valley. The woodland, bell-shaped flowers are known for their evocative smell, but all parts of the plant are poisonous. Despite this, French company Dior synthetically recreated the lily of the valley smell in its Diorissimo perfume in 1956 using hydroxycitronellal, which is described by the Good Scents Company as having ‘a sweet floral odour with citrus and melon undertones’.
Cyanide smells like almonds, but you might not want to eat it.
Of course, as Dr Ellwood noted, synthetic flavours can only ever get so close to the real thing – an imperfect facsimile. However, the mere fact that chemists have recreated deer musk, lily of the valley, and the prized ambergris from sperm whales to create the fragrances we love is almost as extraordinary as the smells themselves.
‘Fragrance,’ he said, ‘will always be the confluence of the artistry of the perfumer and the chemist.
Register for our free upcoming SCI Talk on the Chemistry behind Beauty & Personal Care Products.
In the second part of our chat with Bright SCIdea finalist Team Eolic Wall, we found out how they prepared for their presentation and judges’ questions, and what’s next for their innovative wind turbine technology.
The road from Eureka moment to finished product is paved with peril. Team Eolic Wall’s idea for small, modular wind turbines that use magnetic levitation to harness more power than existing turbines could bring wind power generation into our very homes. But bringing a groundbreaking product to market is not just about mastering the science. It must make business sense too.
As with the other Bright SCIdea hopefuls, Team Eolic Wall received free training from SCI in the form of online tutorials from experienced professionals including modules on structuring a business, financial modelling, branding, and marketing.
After completing the training, Eolic Wall rose to meet the challenge. The team qualified for the Bright SCIdea final and, with it, the pivotal presentation in front of a live audience and panel of expert judges.
Many of us take it as a given that we speak to people at work in our native tongue. The nuances of communication – the cultural subtleties and oddities of the English language – aren’t a concern. But Team Eolic Wall had to present in their second language.
‘This was not our first international presentation, but it was the first one in a foreign language,’ said Alfredo Calle, Eolic Wall founder, ‘so that's always a little bit intimidating until one gets used to it.’
The key to them nailing the pitch was in the spade-work. Calle and his colleagues rehearsed the speech until they knew it by heart. ‘It’s all about training and preparation,’ he said. ‘The more you rehearse, the more confident you feel when the presentation moment comes.’
Of course, the presentation is predictable but the judges’ questions are less so. Having undergone the rigours of competition, Calle recommends that this year’s entrants prepare by trying to predict the types of questions they will be asked. A cold rehearsal could help with the potentially stunning situation of someone throwing questions at you from strange angles.
That team Eolic Wall presented its technology online made theirs even trickier still, especially given a technical hitch at the beginning. But they had polished the presentation to a smoothness that offset such difficulties and came away as joint winners of the Audience Award.
The only lingering regret for them was that Covid prevented them from coming to London. ‘We wish we could have made it to the final,’ he said. ‘Facing the judges and audience live would have been a tremendously valuable and enriching experience.’
Since the Bright SCIdea final, the Eolic Wall is being built brick by brick. The team has received three grants in recent months including one from ProCiencia, the largest innovation agency of the Peruvian government.
Eolic Wall's wall-mounted wind turbine is designed to power homes and offices in situ.
However, perhaps the most exciting development is the technology itself. ‘We have accomplished a peripherally supported wind turbine that works with magnetic levitation,’ Calle said. ‘That's a huge milestone that makes us believe we are building something big.’
Calle hopes for more investment to develop the technology further. At heart, he believes the Eolic Wall will give regular people the chance to generate affordable wind energy from home.
‘We are working out a solution to democratise wind energy for the sake of this blue rock we call home.’
>> Find out how Team Eolic Wall’s innovative technology in part 1 of this blog.
Do you know how the Academy Awards came to be named the Oscars? What about the story behind the Nobel prize? Behind every award name there is a story, and the Julia Levy Award is no exception.
On the face of it, the Julia Levy Award is about innovation in biomedical applications, but it is the stories of the winners of this SCI Canada award, and Julia Levy herself, that really give it life.
But for a tweak of history, Julia Levy may not have ended up in Canada at all. Born Julia Coppens in Singapore in 1934, she moved to Indonesia in her early childhood. Her father uprooted the family during the Second World War and she left for Vancouver with her mother and sister – her father only joining them after release from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
Julia and her family moved to Vancouver during the Second World War.
After studying bacteriology and immunology at the University of British Columbia (UBC), the young Julia received a PhD in experimental pathology from the University of London. She went on to become a professor at UBC and helped found biopharmaceutical company Quadra Logic Technologies in 1984.
More important than confining her achievements in cold prose, Julia Levy’s work made a profound difference to people’s lives. She developed a groundbreaking photodynamic therapy (PDT) that treated age-related macular degeneration – one of the leading causes of blindness in the elderly. She also created a bladder cancer drug called Photofrin in 1993 and, according to Neil and Susan Bressler, the Visudyne PDT treatment created by Julia and her colleagues was the only proven treatment for certain lesions.
Levy thrived in the business space too, serving as Chief Executive Officer and President of QLT from 1995 to 2001. She has since won a boatload of awards for her achievements, but sometimes the best testimonies come from those who have been inspired by her achievements.
For Helen Burt, winner of the 2022 Julia Levy Award and retired Angiotech Professor of Drug Delivery at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Julia has been an inspiration. Here was this UBC professor who jointly founded this big, exciting company – creating medication that improved people’s lives and showing her what was possible.
Helen, an English native, moved to Vancouver in 1976 for her PhD and loved it so much that she stayed. As a professor at UBC, Helen would become a trailblazer in drug delivery systems – a field pioneered earlier by Julia Levy.
‘I was a new assistant professor when she was building Quadra Logic and I would go to talks that she gave,’ Helen said. ‘Essentially, the early technology for QLT was a form of very sophisticated drug delivery [...] It was getting the drug they developed into the eye and irradiating it with light of a specific wavelength.
‘It was very, very targeted. And so, you didn’t get the drug going elsewhere in the body and causing unwanted side effects. So her technology was a form of very advanced drug delivery technology.’
‘For me to win an award that honours Julia Levy and her achievements – I think that's what makes it so special to me.’ – Professor Helen Burt, a former student of Julia Levy, is the Award's most recent recipient.
>> Learn more about SCI Canada.
These talks chimed with the young Helen. If a microbiologist could develop this kind of technology, what was stopping her from developing her own?
She, too, became a pioneer in her field, developing nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems (including those to treat cancer) and a novel drug-eluting coronary stent. According to Professor Laurel Schafer, who put Helen forward for the Julia Levy Award: ‘[Helen] was a trailblazer in new approaches for drug delivery and in research leadership on our campus.’
Professor Schafer is a hugely accomplished chemist in her own right; and the University of British Columbia chemistry professor’s achievements in catalysis discovery were recognised with the LeSueur Memorial Award at the 2020 Canada Awards.
Julia Levy provided an inspiration to Laurel too, in her case as an exemplar for what Canadian chemists could achieve. ‘The achievements of Julia Levy show that it really can be done right here in Canada, and even right here in British Columbia,’ she said. ‘I grew up in a Canada where I believed that better was elsewhere and our job was to attract better here – a very colonial attitude.
Julia studied at and later became a Professor at the University of British Columbia – the campus is pictured above.
‘I now believe and know that better is right here. Professor Levy’s work showed that world-leading contributions come from UBC and from the laboratories led by women.’
She noted that the Julia Levy Award acknowledges Canadian innovation in health science, whereas Canadian chemistry has historically focused on process chemistry in areas such as mining and petrochemicals.
But Julia Levy’s influence permeates beyond science. ‘Julia is one of those people who has been willing throughout her whole career – even now, well into her eighties – to give back to the community,’ Professor Burt says. ‘She mentors, she coaches, she sits on the boards of startup companies, and she advises.’
‘She’s just got this incredible amount of knowledge… She was the Chief Executive Officer [at QLT], so she learnt all of the aspects: the complex and sophisticated regulations, knowing how to find the right people to conduct clinical trials, and how to do the scale-up. She really is a legend in terms of giving back to the community. And this is not just in British Columbia – it’s Pan-Canadian.’
Pictured above: Julia Levy
For young chemists, the Julia Levy in the Julia Levy Award may just be a name for now, but for those in the Canadian chemical industry and patients all over the world, her influence and her work resonate.
As Professor Helen Burt said: ‘For me to win an award that honours Julia Levy and her achievements – I think that's what makes it so special to me.’
>> For more information on the Canada Awards, go to: https://bit.ly/3VMwNKa
Imagine owning a small wind turbine that generates all of your home’s energy needs. As the clock counts down on entries for for the 2023 Bright SCIdea Challenge, we caught up with Team Eolic Wall, the Audience Winner for the 2022 competition.
Eolic Wall was always a nice fit for Bright SCIdea. The team spotted a problem in our renewable energy mix and came up with a scientific business idea to solve it. They saw that wind energy is generated for the public, but it isn’t generated by the public. This stands in bright contrast to solar power generation.
‘Today, 40% of all installed capacity in solar energy is based on solar panels installed on the rooftops of home and corporate buildings,’ said Alfredo Calle, founder of Eolic Wall. ‘The remaining 60% correspond to solar farms.’
Eolic Wall's wall-mounted wind turbine is designed to power homes and offices in situ.
The wind industry is different. ‘Only 1% of the installed capacity comes from households and businesses,’ he added. ‘That is, 99% of all installed capacity in the world comes from wind farms. That sort of concentration is a problem that hampers the energy transition.’
Calle believes this disparity hampers the move from fossil fuel dependency to clean, renewable energy. For many, micro-generation is key. We need to put power – renewable power – in the hands of the people. His idea is to make wind energy available in the home, just as solar exists on roofs everywhere.
The scale of this task is daunting. It turns out there’s a reason why we don’t all have wind turbines bolted onto our homes. The problem, Calle argues, is that a windmill must be large to be efficient.
He believes the Eolic Wall could change that – that this wall-mounted wind turbine is efficient enough to power our homes and offices.
‘We have created a technology that not only doubles wind speed to harvest more power from the same wind resources, but also has a wind turbine that works with magnetic levitation to almost eliminate any friction.’
So, how did a team based out of the National University of Engineering in Peru and Universidade Estadual Paulista in Brazil end up competing for the £5,000 first prize in the Bright SCIdea final?
Chance. Fortune. Happenstance. Calle and his colleagues came upon Bright SCIdea through a social media post that immediately captured their attention.
‘We thought that the Eolic Wall was ideal for Bright SCIdea because of the huge positive impact that this technology could have,’ he said, ‘and also because it perfectly fit into Bright SCIdea’s thesis of supporting ideas in the intersection of business, innovation and science.’
Applying was simple, although the business plan submission was intimidating at first. However, like all BrightSCIdea applicants they received coaching, and their brainchild found form.
‘The key driver to overcome that challenge was not to miss any training sessions and tutorials,’ Calle said. ‘The good news is that after going through the whole process you feel that everything was worthwhile. No pain, no gain.’
Check out fellow 2022 finalist Klara Hatinova from Team Happy BioPatch in conversation with the Periodic Fable podcast.
From government grants to analysing your own carbon footprint, energy-efficient measures could reduce the environmental impact of your SME and save you money. Retail Merchant Services explained some of the changes you could make.
The Smart Export Guarantee Scheme pays some SMEs for producing their own renewable heat and power. Not only will this allow you to generate your own electricity, which can be useful in the current climate of fluctuating costs, but you can earn money from this too.
The Clean Heat Grant is a government-backed grant that rewards companies who use green heating technologies like heat pumps, and the Green Gas Support Scheme is intended to increase the amount of green gas in the National Grid.
The amount that SMEs can benefit from these schemes may depend on the amount of money that they have available to buy renewable technology, or the space to put items like heat pumps. If this is likely to be a barrier, then they may find smaller local schemes more useful.
Do you have any tips for companies calculating their carbon footprints? What are the potential benefits of this?
Take your time – understanding your carbon footprint isn’t an overnight process. You may find it beneficial to use an online carbon footprint calculator, or contact a sustainability expert to help.
You’ll need to consider three types of emissions:
Understanding your carbon footprint is important to help you know where you can improve and cut down on your emissions. Not only does this help the planet, but it’s also a tangible demonstration that you care about the environment, which can be attractive to sustainably-minded customers.
The initial outlay for heat pumps and other technologies are steep, but this investment may pay off in the longer term.
What are the benefits of aggressively pursuing net zero and what are the drawbacks?
Of course, the primary benefit of pursuing net zero is that it helps the planet. Business waste has a huge impact on the environment and, as a result, any changes that can be made in this sector will have a big impact too. However, going net zero can also potentially make your business more profitable too.
Your profits may go up for several reasons. First, it’s more appealing to customers. As part of going net zero, you’re likely to adjust your products to be more eco-friendly. And with reports showing that 63% of millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable products, this could make your business more appealing.
Second, it could save you money. You may find that examining your processes and policies to make them greener will allow you to benefit from specific tax cuts, or simply improve the efficiency of your company. In time, this could save you from wasting money as well as energy.
Third, it could boost your competitiveness. Small companies often find they just can’t match big businesses for price, so it’s important to find a selling point that allows you to remain competitive. As mentioned before, customers are increasingly looking for more ethical products, so being able to say that you’re net zero could help you beat the competition.
Finally, it could prepare you for new policies. Governments around the world are under pressure to go greener, and so they’ll likely transfer this pressure to businesses. Going green now means you’ll be ahead of the curve and able to make these changes at your own pace, rather than having to rush and pay to make them all at once.
While these are all amazing benefits, one of the biggest challenges that SMEs face is the cost of going net zero. It’s not cheap in the current economic climate, especially if you’ve got big changes to make. According to research, 40% of SMEs said that high cost and lack of budget were the biggest net zero blockers.
Electric vehicles require less maintenance – and you don’t have to pay road tax.
What are the benefits of moving your vehicles to electric right now, and what are the drawbacks?
There’s no denying that electric vehicles are significantly better for the environment than conventional cars. For companies looking for a relatively straightforward way to go greener, electric cars can be a great choice.
As well as swerving rising fuel prices, EV owners don’t currently pay vehicle tax in the UK. Additionally, they have fewer moving parts, and so require less maintenance. All of these factors mean that while EVs can be an expensive initial investment, they generally cost less to run in the long term.
With the UK government banning new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030, investing in electric vehicles now means that SMEs can get ahead of the rush that is likely to come as we get close to the deadline. There is already a year’s wait time for some vehicles, so ordering your fleet now could mean that you avoid an even longer queue further down the line.
Of course, many SMEs feel unable to commit to electric vehicles right now due to the cost of living – they’re an expensive purchase. If this is the case, you could consider changing one vehicle at a time, and looking to see if you’re eligible for any local grants that can support you with the cost of this.
>> Want to turn your science into a business? This event will help.
How much have inflated energy costs undermined the push for net zero?
Unfortunately, rising energy costs have meant that small businesses are feeling the pinch, and might struggle to make new eco-friendly changes, as they are often costly. For many, their focus is simply remaining profitable.
However, what is also clear is that for those that can afford it, examining your business for changes that will allow you to move towards net zero can also be a way of saving money in the long run.
If you’re able to produce your own renewable energy (for example, getting solar panels on the offices), you may be able to mitigate some of the effects of rising energy costs, as you won’t be reliant on the National Grid.
Finally, apart from energy efficiency schemes, how could the government help reduce the carbon footprint of SMEs?
As well as energy schemes, the government can help by providing information and resources on sustainable practices. By sharing best practices widely with businesses, and offering them a place to go to get support, the government can help them develop more environmentally friendly operations.
Additionally, they can help by creating incentives for businesses to go green. By offering tax breaks or other financial incentives, the government can encourage businesses to adopt sustainable practices.
Written by Retail Merchant Services. The SME Environmental Impact Guide can be read in full.
Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can read more of his work here.