The student experience

I have found the whole experience highly interesting, and it has been rewarding to work with the support staff and collaborators.

Max Attwood

PhD Chemistry

"Since I left school three years before coming to the University of Surrey, I was initially keen to complete my degree in three years and enter the world of work. However six months into my first year, with the encouragement of my lecturers, I changed my mind completely and decided to embark on a longer MChem programme with integrated Professional Training.

Finding a placement was easy because the Department of Chemistry has a great system in place where placements are sought out and forwarded to students. The University has great links with many industry partners and because of this, a number of companies will specifically ask for Surrey students when it comes to placements.

I decided to spend my placement with PerkinElmer Ltd, a global company focused on human and environmental health because it sounded like a unique opportunity. It gave me the chance to step away from chemicals and get an insight into a technology-based profession.

I worked in the Molecular Spectroscopy Research Team at PerkinElmer’s Seer Green (Buckinghamshire) site, where I undertook several small sustainable engineering projects focused on improving the performance or value of a current product. Throughout the year I also worked on a large project which involved the construction and assessment of a prototype NIR (near-infrared) spectrometer, an analysis device used in the pharmaceutical and chemical sectors. During this project I was required to make up various samples to allow us to look at specific applications using company software, and was also given the opportunity to learn basic python programming for more customised analysis.

One of the things I found on placement was how important it is to branch out and learn different skills whenever you get the opportunity, and I also learned to tackle difficult tasks with a more positive attitude.

I got a great sense of achievement from my Professional Training year. Getting the chance to experience a real working environment was invaluable and thanks to the money I earned, it was great to be able to fund my own holiday with my partner and learn to ski – a long-held ambition of mine. Completing my Professional Training year report was also a major achievement for me because it was by far the longest piece of work I’ve ever done at almost 20,000 words.

My PhD is concerned with molecular materials capable of switching between two different useful states in response to heat and light. These materials have applications in next-generation information storage media among other things, and it was this crossover between chemistry and electronic technology which really hooked me on the subject.

During my placement year at Perkin-Elmer I came to understand the applicability of chemistry to future electronics and having studied this particular branch of inorganic chemistry as my final year undergraduate project, my supervisor Dr Scott Turner was good enough to allow me to continue my investigations into a PhD. Research in such a multi-faceted field of chemistry is useful to develop my professional skills and helps to diversify my potential career choices.

I chose to study at Surrey because I became completely absorbed into the project during my undergraduate degree, and although I applied for other PhDs, I opted for this one because I was familiar with the subject and it permits a certain creative authority to the investigations, which I find attractive. My supervisor is also an expert in these sorts of materials and I believe we can make some meaningful contributions to the field. 

I have found the whole experience highly interesting, and it has been rewarding to work with the support staff and collaborators.

Scott (my supervisor) is a magnetic materials specialist and inorganic chemist and has the expertise to help me develop my ideas. His knowledge of the subject means that he knows exactly what needs to be done to work through a project, and has contacts at other universities which have the highly specialised instrumentation. He is also extremely supportive and gives me the freedom to pursue worthy avenues, but also keeps me focused on the narrative of my PhD thesis, which I sometimes forget about. He maintains close links with collaborators at Nottingham Trent University, University of Hull, and the University of Osaka in Japan. In the future and if the work proves fruitful, we hope to collaborate with the engineering department to build prototype devices as well. 

The majority of my work is done in the laboratory. The Joseph Kenyon laboratory was refurbished a few years ago so I have the space and equipment to make almost anything. The materials laboratory, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer and other basic instruments are routinely used to characterise my materials, while we often have to send samples away for more detailed analysis.

We are currently working on a line of investigation which has so far returned promising results. If we make it to publication it will be a proud moment.

I work alongside some amazingly talented PhD students. Help and advice is always available and they make each day a funny and enjoyably unique experience. 

If I continue enjoying research as much as I am I hope to find a post-doc position in a similar field. I also find the prospect of working in a start-up company attractive, but only if it’s based in chemistry and science."

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