Catch flights not feelings: London to Madrid
Ask me to reflect back and I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t captivated by science. From studying it at GSCE level in school to postgraduate level at university, my interest has only intensified. Studying chemistry has allowed me to simultaneously expand my knowledge of the world around us and learn to question more. I found it incredible that I could explain simple concepts using my scientific insight, such as the curliness of my hair – the presence of multiple disulphide bonds within hair fibres cause its curliness and straighteners work by heating these bonds causing them to break.
To me, chemistry labs are like cooking. It allows one to produce such complex materials from the most basic of starting reagents. I see making aspirin as a reaction between salicylic acid and acetic anhydride whilst making a cake is just another type of reaction between eggs, flour, butter and sugar.
As GCSE and A-Level Chemistry are more theoretically taught, labs were a minor aspect of my studies until I started my undergraduate Chemistry degree at Queen Mary, University of London. During my three-year course, as students we were expected to complete 4-hour practicals on a weekly basis. It was at point I realised my strengths in this area which lead to my current passion for laboratory based research. Though these were mainly trial and error processes and many experiments resulted in unexpected results, it only made me think “How could I have improved this?” “Is there a better way I haven’t yet considered to complete this reaction?”
As university students in the U.K we are given three months of summer between June and September between each academic year. In this time following my second and final year at Queen Mary, I gained work experience at the University of Southampton helping PhD students under the supervision of Professor Philip Gale. This demonstrated to me the real world of labs: completing experiments to find out new information, not just to get the highest possible grade for a module.
Following graduation, I moved to Madrid, Spain to start my first job within the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid doing (you guessed it) chemical research under the supervision of Professor Pilar Herrasti. Many young people find themselves lost after graduating as for the first time in 17 years we are the ones deciding the “next step”. I took this opportunity of being free, in terms of time and commitment, to do something new and rewarding. 9 months after the move, I came home with 2 publications, a basic grasp of the Spanish language and invaluable experience (plus a much more attractive C.V!). Without a doubt, the concept of leaving my family and friends to live somewhere where I didn’t even speak the language was terrifying. But as humans, adaption and growth are in our nature. How many of us say that we work best under stress and pressure? Of course, moving abroad may not be an option for everyone but my advice; if you can, then do.
I was drawn back to the world of education and started my Masters in Chemical Research at Queen Mary in September 2016. Whilst most people compare masters to the final year of undergrad in terms of stress and work load, they are mistaken. The stress and workload are ten-fold but the rewards are equally greater. My course is research based, not taught meaning whilst I only have two exams to take, 80% of my degree is graded on my lab project and 30,000-word dissertation. Firstly, for those whose strengths don’t lie in exams then a research based masters is perfect, I can’t recommend them enough. Alongside this, as a masters’ students I have learnt to become more independent with my studying and am conducting a project in an area that I have chosen, not been given. Though returning to education following work was slightly difficult it was not impossible. I am glad to have experienced both worlds of further education and full-time employment in such a short space of time.
Without a doubt, my experiences wouldn’t have been possible without science. It is such a vast field leading to so many pathways and professions. Anyone lost and unsure what where their interests lie, gain experience. Contact professionals in the field and ask for help/work experience opportunities or simply what their day is like and work and see if it appeals to you. If you know your passion, then studying it will seem like more play and less work.
Uzma Jaffry BSc