As with many people when they finish school, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I was little science fascinated me, and I had a kit with 101 experiments. In the later years of school I found myself pushed towards the sciences, but wanted to study the humanities, too. When I started my undergrad at the University of Sydney I chose the most flexible degree that I could find, and ended up with a triple major in Chemistry, Ancient History and French Studies (and took the odd English Literature and Art History subject for fun). Somewhere in third year chemistry I found that I was back where I started. I realised that I liked the research side of chemistry from lab workshops, and unlike exams, I was quite good at it. That led me to doing my Honours year in chemistry, and now I am nearing the end of my PhD.
My project involves using catalysts to develop renewable fuels and chemicals. I design sulfur resistant bimetallic catalysts that have potential applications in processing biomass into renewable fuels. I test other catalysts with green reagents to make valuable chemicals normally sourced from crude oil. I like to think that I am doing my part to save the planet!
My favourite aspect of my project is that it is very multidisciplinary. I love the materials/inorganic side, making and characterising novel catalysts, but I also like that I test my catalysts in real organic reactions. Not only does this mean that I have acquired a massive skill set and get to use heaps of different instruments, it also means I don't get bored!
The highlight of my PhD was the opportunity to spend twelve months working in a research lab in Venice, Italy. As part of the Cotutelle PhD stream, I had the opportunity to perform a significant part of my research at an overseas institution. My supervisors in Sydney have a close collaboration with a group at the University of Ca' Foscari, located in the lagoon of Venice itself (not on the mainland!), so you can imagine what an amazing experience it was walking through the city by the canals and over bridges to get to work each morning.
In addition to my year in Venice, I've had the opportunity to present my work at conferences in Sydney, Germany, and later this year in Taiwan. I've also travelled to the Photon Factory in Japan and to the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne. I find it pretty amazing that I can perform experiments on a machine that is about the size of a football field, that shoots electrons around in a circle at close to the speed of light, and enables me to see how the platinum and ruthenium in my catalysts are bonded together at the atomic level!
Joining the Masters/Maschmeyer research lab back in my Honours year was the best thing I've ever done. I've learned so much from being part of the group, not just with chemistry, and I've had so many opportunities that I didn't know existed when sitting in chemistry lectures as an undergrad. I formed friendships in my research group with European postdocs and former students that I know I'll have for the rest of my life. I think the fact that half my old group descended on Venice for one weekend is testament to the strength of the friendships formed in the lab.