Is it no longer enough to just teach good chemistry?

Dr Andrew Pike is a Chemistry Lecturer at the University of Newcastle. A senior lecturer within chemical nanoscience as well as undergrad and postgrad admissions tutor, program director as well as supervisor of a research team as well as Chief Technology Officer and founding partner of spin-out Nunabio ltd. I met him when my colleague Graham Hankinson let me in on a secret* event he was attending and Andrew invited me to come down to the Bedson Building and ask any questions I could think of. A bloggers dream!

Is it no longer enough to just teach good chemistry? It would seem not and I certainly asked questions to imply the same!

Firstly, What are you doing to help your chemistry students gain employment post graduation?

AP: I run a Professional Awareness event for stage 3 chemistry students. It’s an afternoon of meeting and chatting to Newcastle Alumni people who have gone into different directions with their career and can come back to talk to 3rd year students about what is out there. Not just lab-based alumni related companies attend, also financial employers, cluster organisations, other universities, medical communications. Not to mention the many manufacturing, testing or research organisations that were there.

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It is a great idea and a mutually beneficial process: the alumni get to promote their businesses to students and perhaps encourage them to apply post graduation. The students get a real life awareness of options and choices open to them.

Jessica Taylor-Steward, now working as a manufacturing chemist at High Force Research couldn’t agree more “Events like this allow me to stay connected with where I came from, to work on improving my communication skills, which I use in my current role in addition to the problem solving and lab skills I gained from this course.”

I asked Andrew why it was so well attended considering the patchy and varied attendance of other careers events I have been to in my short time at CY?

“There will always be 10-20% students who will attend no matter what, they are that engaged. Then 80-90% of the cohort will probably only attend if it has a mark associated with it and so to the students it is a Pass/Fail exercise”

Bam, great attendance. This is important and something students should expect from their degree course: not just the insight, but also the mental muscle to use it, apply it elsewhere and finally any other benefit to your career you can garner, be it awareness and clarity over direction or something more substantial. So no, perhaps it’s not enough to just teach good chemistry.

I then rather cheekily asked,

OK. what else are you doing?

AP: Next year sees a new module in stage 3 for analytical. A real promotion of the chromatography skills such as HPLC and GC as well as some structure elucidation using NMR and MS.

Great. This is something Graham has mentioned to me, as he recruits for clients with vacancies for chemists and finds “there is a real appreciation of analytical as well as synthesis skills out there in industry“.

Something Steve Byard from Quotient Sciences confirmed too (present at the event but shush, like me also not a Newcastle Alumni!), his reason for being there was to accompany his newest recruit Yasmin, who is a 2020 Newcastle Chemistry graduate “At the Quotient Sciences Alnwick site, the number of employees has more than tripled over the last five years and we continue to recruit high-calibre scientists with great problem-solving skills. I love how proactive Yasmin is, how she is a good team player and communicates well”.

I then quizzed Yasmin on the skills she thought she brought to the role “my lab skills, manual dexterity but also I find my time management skills are used a lot; fitting training around the busy schedules of others as well as asking for deadlines in advance to be able to prioritise my own workload” 

As admissions tutor Andrew sees the differences in recruitment onto the science courses: more in biology than chemistry this time round. A consequence of the pandemic, lack of outreach to schools as they also lost and are yet to replace their full-time outreach officer (another great career option for science enthusiasts who don’t want to work in a lab perhaps?). Also he feels that one of the issues facing chemistry at Newcastle is their lack of identity within the university. There is no school purely for chemistry, it is within the Natural Environmental Sciences alongside subjects such as marine science, biology, applied social sciences and agriculture. Chemical engineering sits within engineering.

Interesting. Let me leave it here as I reflect on this and the memories of university I have myself. Debates within my friendship group between a chemist, a physicist and a biologist. What are the boundaries and how does this relate to our identity post graduation and as we move on in academia or into industry. We know there is a trend to less linear and more squiggly careers.

In any case, I see the importance of showing career paths, not only at the pinnacle of peoples careers, but also at the beginning and in the middle. Particularly at stages when we have choices to make, and this is what Andrew is doing for his students.


*Not really a secret!

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