Wow! Thanks for voting me into the final - I've had a great time!
Education:St John’s Grammar School, 2000-2005 Flinders University, 2006-2009 University of Oxford, 2010-now
Qualifications:Bachelor of Science (Honours) with a major in Chemistry
Work History:I’ve been a research scientist for a Medical Biotechnology Lab, a research assistant at the South Australian Museum, and have run school visits and experiments for my old university
I’m studying for my DPhil (the Oxford version of a PhD) in Inorganic Chemistry
University of Oxford
Favourite thing to do in my job: I think my favourite thing in Chemistry is making new materials – cooking things up in the lab and realising that hardly anyone has ever made this before!
I’m trying to help make ‘green’ cars a reality by making and testing materials that store hydrogen – making the fuel tank for a car that runs on hydrogen.
I’m originally from Adelaide, on the south coast of Australia. I lived there all my life until just under three years ago, when I moved to start my research here in Oxford. It’s hard being far away from home, but I quite like living here, and I really enjoy the work I’m doing.
Hydrogen is the first element in the periodic table, and also the most common element in the universe. It’s the fuel that our Sun uses to generate all the heat and light that allows us to exist! We can also use hydrogen ourselves as a fuel (though obviously not quite like the Sun) to run a car. I research hydrogen cars because a car that runs on hydrogen instead of petrol doesn’t produce any of the carbon dioxide which causes climate change (it only produces water!). I really think we’ve got to do something to try and stop dangerous climate change, so that’s why I got into this area.
About My Research:
The basic idea is that you can make hydrogen from water, then use it in your car and make it back into water again! Of course, it’s all a bit more complicated than that, which is why we need to work on it.
Because hydrogen is a gas, it’s hard to store enough in a car so that you can drive as far as you’d like to before you have to refuel. So what I’m trying to do is make materials which are like sponges for hydrogen, reacting with lots of hydrogen so that you can store enough for your car. Once you’ve got the hydrogen in there, you can heat up the material to get it back out again.
My Typical Day
Making samples, heating them up, looking at results, drinking tea, chatting to other scientists!
Here’s a photo of my lab.
A fair amount of my time is spent at the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory in Oxford. Most of what I do here is making the samples which store hydrogen, and doing some basic tests on them. The lab I work in is the actual room where lots of the work was done in the 1980s developing the materials for lithium-ion batteries (the battery in your laptop and mobile phone), which is pretty inspiring.
Almost all of the materials that I work with are very sensitive to air and water (some of them explode!), so lots of what I do in the lab has to be in a “glovebox”, which excludes all air and water. It does make things a little more difficult, though.
Once I’ve made a material, I test how much hydrogen it has stored by putting it on a very sensitive set of weighing scales (see the photo on the left). You heat up the material, and watch it get lighter as the hydrogen comes off. This tells me how good the material I’ve made is.
If I make a material that I think looks interesting, then I take it to the other lab where I work, called the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Here, I use either neutrons or X-rays to find out how the atoms are arranged in my material, and watch where the hydrogen goes as it goes in and out of the material. Understanding this helps me to try and improve the performance of the material. I’ve put photos of some of the machines we use below. It’s great to get to use the really big pieces of equipment.
Of course, the day is not all work. It’s always good fun to chat with other people in my lab about work, life and everything in between. We also try and get out of the lab fairly often – sometimes we follow an Oxford tradition and go punting on the river, where you steer your punt (boat) down the river with a long pole. However, this can sometimes end badly!!
What I'd do with the prize money
I’d like to set up a day where high school students can come and learn about next generation vehicles, like hydrogen and electric vehicles.
I think it would be really cool to get people to come either to Oxford or the Rutherford Lab and experience some of the science of future cars!
As well as getting student to come and see what us scientists are up to, I’d like to give them a chance to get up close and personal with some experiments that show what we’re on about. I could get a little remote control hydrogen-powered car and an electric car, and well as some other smaller experiments to try out. It’s all just an idea at the moment, but it’s something I’d like to pursue.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Friendly, happy, Aussie!
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
I’ve had a few teachers over the years who inspired me, as well as some famous scientists, like David Suzuki and Linus Pauling (look them up!). But for me, it’s the idea that “somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known” (That’s a quote from another great scientist, Carl Sagan). It’s the wonder of discovering something new!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Nothing major. I remember getting told off in science class for taking some chlorine gas out of the fumehood. I didn’t realise it was very poisonous!!
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I think I’d either be a teacher or an actor.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Hmmm, probably Florence + the Machine at the moment. It changes often.
What's your favourite food?
Pizza. Absolutely. Pretty much any kind of pizza.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
That’s a tough question! It’s a toss up between two overseas trips – one to Indonesia and one last year to Japan.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
First, that I’m happy in whatever job I have. Second, that I could sing or play an instrument. Lastly, that I could get the chance to see the Earth from orbit – I’m sure it would be mindblowing!
Tell us a joke.
I’m a bit obsessed with cheese jokes at the moment, so here’s one of those: Which cheese is made backwards? Edam!