Lizzie, Synthetic Chemist



I work at Colour Synthesis Solutions. We do research for other companies and use synthetic chemistry to make dyes, so a project I’ve worked on was about solar cells where we were designing and making the dyes to maximally absorb light to be converted into electricity. There are so many different things where people use colour - one project involved designing a dye to go in glasses for pilots to protect their eyes from laser light - that was pretty nuts. Usually we would get a brief from a client about a process that they want us to investigate or a type of molecule they want us to make and we have to design it and then make it - my job this week is trying to get something I’ve made from 99.5 to 99.8% purity so it can be tedious sometimes. I guess I didn’t really plan to be a Synthetic Chemist, it’s just that when I saw this job advert I was like ‘ooh solar cells are interesting I’d like to work in that and I can do everything that’s on this list of the job specs so I should apply for this job’. Then actually I didn’t get it, someone-else got it and then they took me on a month later, so I did get to work on the project that I had applied for in the end and I got to feel like I did learn stuff on my PhD that was directly relevant.


Writing a thesis is so boring. That’s not what you’re meant to say but it is. I don’t know, I really enjoyed being able to do experiments with really cool machines and I got to do some really exciting stuff with lasers even though I’m not really a laser person. It’s a real privilege to just get to play really, and then when you get to measure a new compound that you’ve made, that’s quite cool like, wow - I made those graphs and measured this for the first time! So yeah, I was really lucky. I got to travel a lot during my PhD, I went to France and I worked in a few different labs, and I also did some computational chemistry, which - I’m not great with computers. My group used to think it was hilarious because I’d be swearing at my computer in Excel and they’d say ‘but you’re using a supercomputer which is in a cave in Finland or something’.


It was difficult to go back and do a PhD after being away from university for a while. You just feel like you’re the most rubbish person there - people who have just graduated know everything and I couldn’t even remember how to use any of the software we need to use or the equipment. I think that I struggled with thinking that my work was good enough. I went to a talk about impostor syndrome and the room was full - it was so over attended they couldn’t fit everyone in the room, there was people sitting on the floor because that many people in academia feel it. For me, I’m not great at maths and I would have cried if I’d have had to have done maths a level. I just didn’t enjoy it – but, it’s okay to just find some things difficult, not everyone finds everything easy and that’s okay. So that felt like the biggest step up that I had to make, but I’m proud to have made a decision to make a change of the direction that I was going to go in. To let go of a job where you are comfortable and which you’re quite good at to go back to Uni and not earn as much money - I realised that actually, that’s not what I want to value and I want to go back and do something different.


I work with some people who are much more experienced than me, but they still ask me about something that I’ve done, you know, we’ve all got experience in different areas and we all share our knowledge. I’m still learning, my next project will be totally different to the one before and I’m still going to take it on if I don’t know how to do it because I can read up on new things and ask one of my colleagues. So just don’t be disheartened by it being difficult. Pick subjects you enjoy, and be a bit resilient - just keep trying. Use the people around you to support you and don’t be afraid to ask for help, and do ask for help because it’s not always just going to be given to you- you have sometimes go and look for it. Science works by people having discussions, nobody works well in isolation. There are a few lone geniuses out there and there are some very brilliant people, but you don’t have to be brilliant, you just have to work hard and enjoy it.

To find out more about Lizzie's work, read this paper that Lizzie published during her time on her PhD in collaboration with her supervisor and colleagues in France.