The journey from undergraduate to PhD

Blaise Geoghegan tells us how his passion for chemistry has taken him from undergraduate studies to PhD research.

I began the BSc Chemistry course in 2012. I took a biology-themed route through the modules with F-block chemistry added in later on.

I chose chemistry because I was always good at it, beginning at school. Understanding the interactions and behaviours of the molecules that make up the world we live in somehow seemed rewarding. I think what is so attractive about chemistry is that one day you can be learning about magnetic anisotropy and the interaction between electrons and nuclei then the next day you are learning how the LCD (liquid crystal display) devices work. Both important, both chemistry but both so vastly different in both scale and application.

In my final year I met Dr. Gass to discuss his final year project title “single-molecule magnets”. I was immediately engulfed by Dr. Gass’ enthusiasm and passion for his field of work, which I shared an interest in. Within two months I was obtaining crystal structures and using Hamiltonians to calculate the fermion exchange in our metal-radical systems – quite immersive! I was hooked by Christmas and knew Dr. Gass had some funding for a PhD in a similar area of research. I interviewed in early March and by the Easter break was told I had been selected for the studentship award.

I finished my degree obtaining First Class Hons. and received the Downland Section prize from the Royal Society of Chemistry for the highest mark in my cohort. I began the PhD in October that year (2015) and have been making magnetic liquid crystals ever since.

Choosing to stay on for a PhD here was mainly due to the already present intrigue in the field of molecular magnetism that was established in my undergrad combined with the funding for the PhD becoming available at the perfect time. Working with Dr. Ian Gass and Dr. Marcus Dymond on an extremely interesting and novel project was enticing enough but having the financial stability afforded to me through the studentship award from PABS was what made it really appeal and seem possible.

In the Easter break of 2015 I was sitting at my desk in my bedroom and got an email from Dr. Gass saying that he was delighted to tell me I had been selected to do the PhD. The email said I needed to commit for three years and it wouldn’t be an easy ride but then he concluded with “Magnetism conference this year is in Japan and next year is Rio. Welcome to a wider world.” I don’t know what it was about the email but I was immediately filled with elation and got quite emotional. I called my mum and told her the news, she was probably more excited than me.

The main highlight here is the staff. They provide fantastic lectures and support, interact with students and spend time out of scheduled contact hours providing one-to-one support and discussions.

Another would be my research project in my final year. The standard and quality of the science that Dr. Gass had me doing was not much different to what I am doing now (although I understand more now). Having the responsibility of performing genuine research is exciting and rewarding, in that, your work can be used in high impact chemistry journal articles.

My research falls under the umbrella of inorganic chemistry as I focus on Fe(II). More specifically, my research is in the fields of molecular magnetism (spin-crossover) and soft matter (liquid crystals). My research aims to combine the spin-crossover phenomenon seen in complexes of Fe(II) with the lyotropic liquid crystal properties of amphiphilic molecules. We do this by synthesising amphiphilic molecules that are the product of complexing smaller molecules (ligands) with Fe(II) ions. Such materials may find application in drug delivery and as molecular transport vehicles to name a couple.

To date no one has reported a water stable lyotropic liquid crystal based on Fe(II) (and only a few unstable ones). As of July this year we believe we have synthesised and characterised the first water-stable lyotropic liquid crystal of Fe(II), which is pretty cool.

The course is accredited by the Royal Society of Chemistry, meaning the content is up to date and fit for purpose. The majority of the staff are research active and naturally their teaching will incorporate these research themes into the course materials. Hence, the content is diverse in both context and delivery (different types of chemists teach slightly differently) and the teaching staff are enthusiastic to share their interests with the students whilst ensuring the core themes and ideas are communicated in the lectures.

The practical classes teach core laboratory skills that are necessary for anyone looking to work in a lab environment. They also encourage practical team work as students always work in pairs if not larger groups. Obviously, the skills needed to work in a team effectively are developed this way and this is clearly good preparation for working in the chemical industry or research.

Once I submit my thesis (100 thousand words and counting) I will begin searching for post doctoral research associate positions. These are research staff positions in university research groups that are the gateway for recent doctoral graduates into an academic workplace. I’ll also write up grant proposals for funding to continue my work as an independent researcher at a university (in collaboration with the leader of a lab group).

University life is a whole package that is often influenced by factors that are not necessarily found by looking on a “best guide to universities” rankings or table. It is important to remember that only a small portion of your time is spent actually in the university and although it is highly important, so too is how you can enjoy yourself and have a positive experience outside of the academic environment. Having a good and positive experience living away from home will often translate to higher achievement in the course, in my opinion.

Brighton provides a course that is multifaceted, has diverse content, multiple pathways and modularity and a fantastic ensemble of teaching staff that have a passion for chemistry. If you want to do a chemistry course where you are well supported and have the freedom to choose which areas of chemistry you want to study in greater detail e.g. biological, geological, pharmaceutical etc. then Brighton could well be a perfect match.

And Brighton has a plethora of activities to offer which rival any major city but doesn’t come with the overcrowding of London.

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