From education to employment

Prize-winning female chemists deliver engaging outreach and community support

Three postgraduate chemists have won David Phillips Prizes for their significant contributions to science outreach and building community.

PhD students Tamzin Bond, Helena Dodd and Mikkaila McKeever-Willis were recognised for their work encouraging participation from under-represented groups in science and supporting the wider community.

The David Phillips Prize is named after Professor David Phillips CBE FRS who is a former Head of the Department of Chemistry (and remains a Professor in the department) and a former President of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Professor Phillips is a great champion of outreach and science communication and has given one of the prestigious Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Professor Phillips said: “Science outreach is essential if we are to engage the public and get young people excited about, and interested in, what we do. The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled scientists to talk directly to the public as never before, and I hope that this will continue in the future. I was delighted to help judge this year’s prize. I was very impressed by the huge commitment to outreach and engagement demonstrated by each of the prize-winners.”

The prize was established last year by Dr James Wilton-Ely the Director of Postgraduate Studies in the Department of Chemistry. Dr Wilton-Ely said:

“We were amazed by the range of activities and the very high level of engagement of the students in this year’s competition. This made it very difficult to judge, but what the three winners have done is truly exceptional. We were particularly impressed by their significant efforts to encourage participation from under-represented groups in science and support the wider community.”

De-mystifying university

Tamzin Bond was first involved in outreach activities during her undergraduate degree at the University of Manchester. Now in her final year of her Imperial PhD researching imaging and sensing in biological environments, she has participated in multiple outreach activities.

Tamzin explains: “I know from personal experience that outreach activities can really demonstrate the wonder of chemistry. For me, a visit from a local pharmaceutical company opened my eyes to how chemistry is used in the real world.” Tamzin has delivered the Royal Society of Chemistry’s ‘Spectroscopy in a Suitcase’ workshops that enable sixth form students to see expensive but commonly used technology first-hand. Tamzin said: “I really enjoy making chemistry exciting and interactive. I hope I have inspired younger students to study chemistry as well as demystified the university process.”

Tamzin has also volunteered for Sutton Trust Summer Schools and STEM Potential for several years. Tamzin said: “I don’t believe any student should be disadvantaged from higher education due to their socio-economic situation. For students that do not have support systems at home or school, reaching their full potential may not be possible through no fault of their own. I have been amazed by how some students deal with so many things pressing down on them and still do so well at school.”

Over the last year sessions have moved online, with Tamzin noting:

“As much as it was important to make these workshops educational, I also wanted to create joyful sessions that were able to provide students with some entertainment during the various lockdowns.”

Responding to winning a David Phillips prize, Tamzin said: “Taking part in outreach activities such as Imperial Lates, the Maker Challenge and Women in Chemistry: Making the Difference has brought me huge joy and fulfilment and I will be eternally grateful for the opportunities I have been given. I didn’t take part to win a prize, but it is really nice to see the Department of Chemistry is recognising the great outreach work it does. I hope this recognition will encourage more people to get involved.”

Free tutoring support

Mikkaila McKeever-Willis is a third year PhD student in computational chemistry, researching inter- and intra-molecular bonding in deep eutectic solvents for pharmaceutical applications. As a former secondary school teacher she had a good understanding of the challenges that lockdown and home-learning would present for students, parents and teachers. She explains:

“When the pandemic hit I knew it would be a big ask for teachers to teach remotely and for parents to step in. I wasn’t involved in the College’s COVID-19 response, but I still wanted to do something to help. I had the idea to try to matchmake those children who needed some support with schoolwork with individuals who had the time and skills to help them.”

Kotikoulu (Finnish for homeschooling) was launched in May last year, and so far has provided free tutoring to around 50 students. Support is provided in all subjects, from Latin to phonics, although for older students most requests for help are in STEM subjects. “Winning a David Phillips Prize and having some fantastic feedback from tutors and those using the service makes me feel like we have passed the proof-of-concept stage. The prize and ongoing support from the Department of Chemistry is a big boost for Kotikoulu and means that we help more families who can’t afford to pay for private tutoring.”

The importance of role models

Helena Dodd is entering the final year of her PhD in developing new nanomaterial based therapies for cancer immunotherapy treatment. Helena said: “Coming from a disadvantaged background, I had no idea a career in STEM was possible until I started university. While my parents were supportive of everything I wanted to achieve I am aware that many children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have this privilege, so I want to make STEM a more inclusive and welcoming place for them.”

Entering The Big Bang competition at the age of 16 when she progressed to the national finals was transformative for Helena. So much so, that after many years of involvement with the Big Bang Fair, she is now the head judge. Helena explained more about the judging process:

“I’m very aware that it can be very intimidating for children being judged by very senior scientists who are at the peak of their careers. I think having someone who is closer to their age chairing the judging helps them to relax, showcase their ideas and do the best that they can.”

“A real highlight of my outreach activity has to be the bath bomb making activity which ran with local families in Hackspace at White City. I delivered this twice during the pandemic. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the parents and students were really receptive and happy. We built bath bombs from scratch and did some fun science at the same time.” Alongside chemical engineering student Emily Xu, Helena also delivered an online session on the Chemistry of Colour which allowed children watching to do live experiments.

In her role as the President of the WOMENinSTEM@IC group Helena has been working with the Phoenix Academy in White City to set up a science mentorship scheme for girls interested in STEM. Helena has recruited mentors from Imperial and other English universities to provide students with a greater understanding of university life and studying STEM subjects.

Helena said: “I feel really honoured to have won this prize. I’ve always felt supported and encouraged at Imperial to carry out my outreach work; it is a wonderful environment where so many students and staff are really enthusiastic about making STEM a welcoming and inclusive place for future generations!”

The value of outreach

Professor Oscar Ces, Head of the Department of Chemistry, explains why outreach and community activities are so valued within the department.

“Chemists are used to having to build our profile compared to other more popular school subjects, but in the Department of Chemistry our ambition is to do more than that. We have staff and students across the department thinking creatively about not just how we encourage students to study chemistry at Imperial, but also how we reach groups that might not see university as a viable option for them. We are fully committed to finding the chemists of tomorrow, but above and beyond that that we want to inspire talented young people from under-represented groups to understand more about studying at university and hopefully take the next step and apply.

“Some of my most rewarding professional experiences have involved taking part in outreach and engagement activities, and I have been privileged to meet some incredible individuals through this work. I absolutely encourage my colleagues and students across the department to grab any opportunities that come your way to get involved in this exciting area.”

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