Monday, 24 August 2020

Siobhan Wilkins - Summer STEM Virtual Work Placement Student - Weekly Reports


In April SATRO took the unprecedented (and sad) decision to suspend the Research Programme for this year due to COVID-19. We asked all our providers for a 'day in the life of' summaries to give the students a flavour of the many types of roles that are available in the professional environments. 

Following SATRO's hard work to develop an online policy. In May, we reached out to our wonderful providers to propose a virtual solution and to get around any social distancing rules. The response was amazing. We asked for suitable titles that the students could research over the summer and devise a short essay and either a PP or a poster with their findings. 

All students have been asked to provide a weekly update on their experience - please see below to see what Siobhan has been up to so far! 

 Week One

"When we consider the role of catalysts at GCSE and even A level, we rarely look beyond the role of enzymes in biological reactions, the Haber Process and it’s contribution to producing fertilisers to increase food production, and possibly at a push the role of catalysts within organic chemistry. We often gloss over them with the simple acknowledgement that they speed up reactions by lowering the activation energy without being used up themselves and are that they are often transition metals due to their variable oxidation states. Whilst these basic ideas are a useful starting point, I decided to undertake this project on the role of catalysts in the 21st century to improve lives as I wanted to explore their increasing importance particularly for the storage of renewable energy, conversion of carbon dioxide and food production in a climate where we need to focus on making processes financially and environmentally viable in the long term.

I have begun my research initially on areas of science where catalysts are already being used, and the properties of an effective catalyst to give me a grounding to then look at more complex uses that are even more relevant to the 21st century. For example, catalysts need to be able to adsorb reactants strongly enough that catalysis can occur, but not too strongly that they cannot break away afterwards, as well as being cheap and in plentiful supply to make their use beneficial. This has led me to explore new discoveries such as Spinel Oxides, which could help to decrease carbon dioxide emissions by catalysing water electrolysis rather than having to use lots of fossil fuels to provide fuel to extract the hydrogen, and this is something that I intend to focus on in my essay. I have been using a mixture of open access journals on the internet and the Royal Society of Chemistry’s website, as it is easy to navigate by keyword, and I have been able to find the most up to date discoveries in the field of catalysis, which is an essential in this project to maintain a focus on the future uses of catalysts. I also have found a thought-provoking article on transferring the principle of crop rotation to catalysis, and how a rotation of chemical reactions could regenerate the catalyst without having to heat them or use oxygen and hydrogen, which is very relevant to my future aspirations of studying biochemistry at university, as it shows just one of the many interdisciplinary links between Biology and Chemistry.

As I now start to write out my essay and prepare my poster/presentation, one of the main challenges is being selective with the information I choose to discuss, as well as ensuring I only use sources I fully understand, otherwise the way I communicate my ideas will not be authentic and accurate. This is always a challenge in terms of scientific research at this stage, as when searching the internet the breadth of information available isn’t always filtered to the level of knowledge you have, but using the Royal Society of Chemistry has definitely helped resolve this problem to a large extent, as their articles are intended to be accessible for a wider audience rather than university graduates. I am enjoying the research process, particularly having more freedom to explore discoveries that interest me than I would in my studies at school, especially as with an open-ended question like this. Once you start finding information, your whole perspective of the question may change and you may decide to explore a new line of argument, in the same way that I started out thinking about possibly looking at the role of catalysts in mass production of medicines, but now want to focus on applications in ‘green chemistry'." 

- Siobhan Wilkins

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