Postgraduate student: Amandeep Kaur
As a high school student I remember continuously pestering my high school science teachers with questions during class, and at the annual parent teacher meeting, they often commented on my ability to think beyond the course content and that I would excel in a science career. As a result of my teacher’s encouragement and my growing interest in science I took up a triple major undergraduate degree with chemistry, biotechnology and microbiology.
I had an excellent chemistry lecturer during my undergrad. Although in a developing country like India, access to laboratory and state of the art facilities is very limited, but every time my lecturer taught us I realised how much I loved the subject. This is what inspired me to follow my love for chemistry and take a further step ahead to pursue a master’s degree.
Being a female, and hailing from a conservative family in India it was quite a challenge to convince my parents so that I could study masters, but I was stubborn and knew exactly what I wanted to do in my life. I pursued my master’s degree at VIT University and secured a university medal. In addition to the course work and labs that were a part of the curriculum I was lucky to get an opportunity to work in research labs on various projects over the summer and winter breaks.
The first time I tasted the flavour of living an independent life and pursuing research independently was during my master’s research project for which I was selected to work at ENSCCF, France. It was a great learning experience and I enjoyed the high level of expertise and challenges I was surrounded with. I knew for sure that I had made the right career choice and wanted to further enhance my skills and expertise in the field of chemistry.
Without any hesitation I decided to pursue a PhD degree, so now I am a second year PhD student working with Dr Elizabeth New here in the School of Chemistry at the University of Sydney. Travelling to a new country where I knew nobody was a big commitment but I am very lucky to have a supervisor who is extremely supportive, encouraging and understanding, whether my problem is research based or personal. So, settling in was so much easier. My PhD project involves designing fluorescent small molecule sensors that will help decipher the role of oxidative stress in various pathological diseases. Tweaking the structure of these small molecules, one can tune the colour of their fluorescence as well their redox potential thus developing sensors for application over a variety of biological systems ranging from cell monolayers, 3-D cell spheres to whole animal imaging.
After having developed sensors for redox state during the first year of my PhD, we have since been using them in biological systems. This interdisciplinary facet of my research has been extremely beneficial, I have extended my skill set and gained valuable experience. It is really rewarding to see that something you have developed can be used effectively and gives impressive results when used in different biological systems representative of various diseases such as diabetes, cancer and obesity.
Our research group is a perfect example of a healthy work-life balance; we come together and contribute our expertise to solve each other’s research problems. Our group activities include daily group lunch, football once a week and bowling once a month, just a few aspects of our vibrant social calendar. Towards the end of my PhD I would like to get a flavour of industrial research, following which I would like to decide whether I choose industry or academia as my career for life!
Postgraduate student: William Brant
The story of my eventual choice to do my PhD begins back when I was much younger. Thanks to my father, I always had a strong interest in science and eventually developed a stronger interest in minerals and crystals and the technology that employed them. This general interest in science continued all throughout school and then into university. However, once at university there was a long period of time when there was not one thing in particular that drew me in. It wasn’t until my third year in university when I discovered that the materials chemistry course was essentially the overlap of my two greatest interests from my childhood – crystals and functional materials, and their technological applications.
Without hesitation I continued into honours where I undertook research into new ceramic materials for application in lithium ion batteries. The honours research year changed everything for me. For the first time in my life as a student I was working extremely hard not because I had to for good grades, but because I wanted to. I relished the opportunity to pursue my own unique and self driven research project. Ultimately I ended up gaining to much more in terms of skills and knowledge in those 9 months than I did during 3 years of undergraduate study. Thus, my immediate future was clear; I had to continue on into a PhD.
My PhD project was focused on understanding the structural origins of the extremely high lithium ion conductivity present in defect perovskite materials. Battery materials which exhibit fast lithium ion transport properties result in cells that can be fully charged in a significantly shorter time. In order to understand the structural mechanisms which influence ionic conductivity I developed specialised electrochemical cells for in situ diffraction both independently and in collaboration with researchers from ANSTO, the Australian Synchrotron, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany and Uppsala University in Sweden. These cells enable the complex structural changes taking place inside the battery to be monitored in real-time during normal battery operation.
The opportunity to travel around the world for conferences and to meet and work with collaborators has been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of my project. To date I have presented my work in New Zealand, Korea, Spain, India, Germany and also in Sydney and Melbourne in Australia. This international exposure has enabled me to gain an expanded view of the research environment on a global scale and also meet many amazing and highly intelligent people.
In addition to the valuable experience I have gained within research, I have also developed a strong interest in science communication and education. This interest began when I started teaching first year chemistry as a School of Chemistry Teaching Fellow and expanded into my desire to be able to effectively communicate scientific principles at any level and for any purpose, be it at an international conference or within the classroom. Since then I have written articles for newsletters such as the RACI Chemistry in Australia magazine, continue to write for the online blog Crystallography365, presented at multiple conferences and was selected as a Le Fèvre student lecturer.
Choosing to do a PhD, while at times was a truly challenging experience, was one of the best decisions I ever made. The skills and expertise I developed, numerous amazing people I have met and opportunities that have come about due to my research project were well worth the usual research hardships one encounters in a PhD.
Postgraduate student: Carol Hua
Ever since I was young, I have always had an inherent fascination with science; however, it was my high school chemistry teacher that inspired my love for chemistry. Her enthusiasm was infectious; she could make chemistry come alive through her stories and showed me that chemistry is intrinsically wound through our everyday lives. It was this that inspired me to pursue a degree in science.
I undertook my undergraduate science degree at UNSW and was fortunate enough to work in a research lab from my very first year. I realised my love of research during this time, which made it a logical choice to continue onto a PhD. I wanted to further develop my skills and learn more about the many fascinating aspects of chemistry.
I am now in the third year of my PhD under the supervision of Dr Deanna D’Alessandro at the University of Sydney. My project involves the exploration of multifunctionality in redox-active metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). MOFs consist of organic linkers coordinated to metal nodes and can be highly versatile: one can potentially tailor the properties of the framework to suit a range of purposes and applications. The properties present in a redox-active MOF can be tuned such that they are turned “on” in one redox state and then turned “off” in another. There are many different applications, such as in sensors and the capture of gases, that this redox switching can be utilised.
Undertaking my PhD in chemistry at the University of Sydney has been a wonderful experience. As my project stretches over the areas of inorganic chemistry, organic synthesis and materials chemistry, I have been fortunate to learn about many different techniques ranging from electrochemistry and spectroscopy to crystallography and gas sorption. Later this year, I will be learning about electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) at the University of Manchester for three months with the support of the Joan R Clark scholarship. I have presented my work at conferences in Singapore, Brisbane and Canberra where I was able to learn and be inspired by some of the leaders in the field and interact with fellow students.
My appointment as a Postgraduate Teaching Fellow gave me the opportunity to tutor first year chemistry students during my PhD. This role has been immensely rewarding; to watch students learn and understand the concepts that are being taught – there is nothing quite like seeing a student come to that “light-bulb” moment.
After I finish my PhD, I hope to find a position as a postdoctoral researcher with the aim of ultimately pursuing a career in academia. This will allow me to combine two of my passions, research and teaching so that I am able to contribute to the integral part that chemistry plays in the world that we live in.
Postgraduate student: Jessica Stanley
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.
To read more about Jessica please visit here.
Postgraduate student: Ilyas Qasim
Science is crucial for any nation to keep up with the ever growing challenges facing the world which is why I chose to become a science teacher in high school. I have always felt a strong passion for science and in order to pass on this passion to my students, I used to run a chemistry group which we called "kurjuk". This involved conducting chemical experiments designed to challenge and engage my students. The aim was not only to inspire students but to teach them to search for new things - the world of the unknown! However, I needed more of a challenge and it became crystal clear to me that going back to university was the right choice.
I feel science is interesting - as it is quoted in "bilimning dengizi kaynak hem chongkur" (meaning: Ocean of knowledge is hot and deep). I've found real pleasure in doing science at the University of Sydney and I am fortunate enough to be working with my supervisor Professor Brendan Kennedy and other academics such as Associate Professor Chris Ling, Dr Siggi Schmid, Dr Peter Blanchard (XANES expert), and others. As my research progresses, I have had some really exciting results from my studies on transition metal oxide perovskite materials. We have published some of our results in various scientific journals but still have more findings to write and share with others. I think this is due to my supervisor's expertise in this field, our accessibility to world class advanced research facility such as the Australian Synchrotron for SXRD and XANES, neutron diffraction and the project itself. Perovskite materials with basic general formula of ABO3 are known to be the largest class of minerals and multifunctional materials on Earth. Besides, the materials are susceptible to partial replacement with other element at A, B , and O sites. This provides the possibility to design new materials with required properties. Our research group is called the Solid State Chemistry group, a small group in the School but a productive one.
I love observing how smart people tackle tricky problems and conferences and seminars are a good place to see this in action. I have had the opportunity to present my work at conferences in New Zealand, Adelaide, ANSTO and even as far away as France. These conferences are extremely rewarding and have given me the chance to talk, and to learn from, eminent scientists from around the world.
Aside from research, I was able to tutor first and second year students for a few semesters. This, in addition to my scholarship, assisted me in supporting my family. As English was not my first or second language, tutoring helped build my confidence to teach in English and has rekindled my passion for teaching. It was extremely rewarding to hear one student say "I wish I had a high school teacher like you".
Apart from more than ten years teaching experience, I studied extraction, separation, and chemical analysis of natural medicinal plant – Hypericum (also called St John's wort) for my Master's degree. Later, and just before I commenced my current PhD candidature in the School of Chemistry, I had some research experience in the field of zeolite and phosphors materials in Seoul, Korea. This could partially get me closer to my current dream, which is to teach at a university, but definitely I have to do more to prepare myself for this dream.
Now I am racing against time to finish my PhD thesis. As soon as I have finished, I hope to find a postdoctoral position and swim in the ocean of knowledge and science. This may not be easy, but I believe "where there is a will, there is a way".