Graduate of Chemistry: The Lab Life

I didn’t choose the lab life, the lab life chose me…

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Since I can remember, I have always been captivated by the sciences from why the sky is blue to the complexity of the chemical reactions that are constantly taking place within our bodies. Although I was initially drawn to the physical sciences and astronomy, my love for chemistry grew when I first started my degree. Sceptical at what this seemingly lesser known of the science degrees entailed I was swept away be how intertwined biology and physics were. In my fourth year it had dawned on me that all that had been taught before had only skimmed the surface of the chemical world.

I studied an MSci in Chemistry – an integrated undergraduate Master’s degree rather than a postgraduate degree – at Queen Mary, University of London. At the start of my third year I was nervous about going forward with something that none of my friends were and it gave me anxiety – something that I had struggled with during university. Whilst it as a decision that I had eventually made on my own, the assurance from my friends and lectures gave me confidence in starting this new chapter. But for those that are in a similar position, feeling unsure or uncomfortable I highly advise you to seek support from family, friends or a lecturer you trust. Those fears are there for a reason whether it be from uncertainty of your potential to simply the added stress it will have.

My final year was a stark comparison to what I had experienced from my previous years. In those initial three years I had the luxury of having a strong friendship group uniting around everyone during the stress of the continuous work and lab reports that we had to complete as well as during the dreaded revision period. Looking back those years seemed blissful. The modules seemed so much simpler now that I have studied them in more depth, and the lab hours we had thought were so chaotic now seem monotonous and basic.

The start of my 4th year required another sort of resilience. No longer was I part of a family that rallied around during a crisis when someone was struggling, I had to do the one thing I feared. Start again. Where I was used to being taught my modules and participating in labs once a week, my final year was a refreshing welcome. Being given the independence to work within an academic lab truly opened my eyes to what a career in the sciences could entail. Rather than sitting behind a book and learning about ligand exchange with transition metals and the different properties the complex adopts as well as the types of transitions that occur within the complex. I could now physically observe how manganese chloride with the addition of tetrabromocatechol in methanol giving a yellow-orange solution, the addition of bipyrimidine in acetonitrile turned the solution an olive green colour, and when precipitated to give dark green crystals. I was finally able to utilise the analytical knowledge I had gained over the years, and use techniques that had previously been denied.

It wasn’t until my final year where there was flexibility of module choices that allowed you to tailor the chemistry to your own preferences. I was drawn towards physical and inorganic chemistry, was intrigued by how intermolecular forces differ with physical properties of the materials and applications of colloidal particles and lipids in drug delivery and the derivation of statistical thermodynamics of uncertain systems; as well understanding the medical and bioinorganic applications of transition metals that are essential to humans that allow for essential chemical reactions such as catalase enzymes that catalyses the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide to water and oxygen preventing oxidative damage from reactive oxygen species which can cause cellular damage. My project itself focused on manipulating this catalase reaction in allowing for the generation of hydrogen peroxide to find an alternative method for the antraquinone auto-oxidation process.

Some uses of Hydrogen Peroxide, H2O2:

I also decided to take a risk by opting to choose an organic module – something that has always been a personal challenge. Being able to recall the knowledge and basic organic chemistry from my previous years was indeed the real feat. However I finally had found the capacity to understand and deliver mechanisms, such as using a Schrock catalyst for the olefin metathesis used in petroleum reformation, and the use of chiral auxiliaries to control the stereochemical outcome of a product by attaching, for example, an Evans auxiliary to an organic compound and the chirality of which allows for enantiomer selectivity and can be removed when the final product is achieved.

Upon graduating I was misguided in the sense that having an MSci would set me apart from those who studied a BSc when it came to applying for a job. It all comes down to one important factor that can be difficult to achieve and that simply is experience. Where I had 6 months experience working within an academic lab and furthering my analytical and wet chemistry techniques as well as gaining new ones, employers are highly selective especially since the job market for the science sector has diminished for graduates, partly due to the implications of Brexit. Whilst I was despairing at the rejections after interviews due to the lack of experience I offered, I decided that accepting an entry level job at an e-liquid company as a Lab Assistant would be the best way to build my CV and make myself more attractive to future employers. Having only been working at my company for a month I wasn’t expecting to be allowed to work in the analytical chemistry department for at least 3 months, I was given the opportunity to work with techniques that employers so desperately desire.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my masters, I would recommend it only to those who truly wish to pursue a career in the sciences or utilise the skills, as it is highly intense and compact course and thus not suited to those that struggle with exams as it contain three level 7 exam modules and one pure coursework module as well as a 60 credit project, all with a 50% pass requirement in my final year; whereas typically undergraduate courses have a 40% benchmark through all years. For those that excel in their research, practical and writing ability but are not fond of exams, a Masters in Research Chemistry would be more ideal as there are only two 15 credit exam based modules (one of which is a level 6 module) and focused entirely on the project itself.

What the future holds for me is uncertain; perhaps studying further such as a PhD or a Masters in Medicinal research. The one thing that is clear to me is that I am determined to have more than just a job, I want a career that I could truly be happy and proud in, and it is a dream that I find well worth pursuing.

Madeeha Ahmed MSci

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