Science and the general election

The UK will be voting for a new government on June 8th and already the media has been full of coverage about all sorts of policy topics, from housing and education, to defence spending and fox hunting. But not a word on science…

Perhaps it’s not too surprising that science has been left out of any pledges from the major political parties so far, given there are plenty of important, divisive topics to be debated (although fox hunting really is not one of them, Mrs May). But to have no mention of evidence-based policy, or reductions in science budgets, or even the effects of Brexit on research and academia, is a little disappointing.

As a young scientist, there’s a lot of other, more immediate, stuff for me to be concerned about too: Where is my research funding going to come from? What are my job prospects after my fixed-term contract is up? Will I have the disruption of having to move house again soon? Can I afford to have kids or buy a home? Are my family going to be ok?

In the short term, I’m ok. Together, my other half and I can afford the rent, my research fellowship is a relatively long 3-year contract and comes with enough money for my research and the university has other sources of money available in established internal funds. But others I know are definitely not so lucky. Other researchers my age are still having to house-share and, due to the insecurity of fixed-term contracts, can’t even start to consider buying or starting family life. That’s even without the huge housing problem in Oxford – rents and property prices are sky-high and the least affordable in the country. I dread to think about how teachers and nurses are surviving here on much lower salaries than most post-doc scientists. It’s no surprise to me that since 2010 homelessness has become very prevalent here.

Back to science though, and it was great to see so many people attending the March for Science across the world in April, and the media attention it brought. But the voices of science have gone a bit quiet when they could – and should – be loud! Policies should be being announced preceded by “Research shows that…” and “The overwhelming evidence says that…” and if they’re not, we should be questioning why not. As for policies directly concerning scientific research and education in the UK, we should be making sure that politicians recognise their importance to our society’s future and place them centre stage.

We’ve got just under three weeks to make our voices heard…

You can (and should) listen to your data

I spent last week up in Lancaster for the British Crystallographic Association’s Spring Meeting, where Briony Yorke gave a fantastic talk about her research on time-resolved X-ray diffraction (very cool) and experiments in listening to her data (even cooler)…

The experiments I do using X-ray diffraction work on the principle that you can calculate the structure of a material from the patterns made by the scattered X-rays after they’ve hit a single crystal of it. Nowadays the procedure is quite routine: there are more than a million materials’ structures recorded in databases like the CSD or ICSD. But it often happens that before you find a “good” crystal to collect data from, you try several ones that aren’t quite good enough. Maybe they’re too small and the scattering is weak, maybe they have impurities, or maybe they’re made up of multiple crystalline domains that scatter in different orientations. But you only really know they’re no good after sifting through the data, which can waste precious time and effort (particularly at the synchrotron).

Briony showed us various images of her data – beautiful symmetric scattering patterns – and played the soundscapes generated from the images using computer software (she’s put some examples up to listen to on soundcloud). The first thing that struck me is how musical it sounds; the symmetry and intensity contrast in the data translate perfectly into rhythm and harmony in a way I wouldn’t have imagined. It’s beautiful art in it’s own right!

The second thing that struck me, which was pointed out by Briony herself, was that this translation of visual images into sound could be useful. Perhaps it could be a way of screening the data to identify errors or abnormalities. With practice, it might be possible to use sound more effectively than images… And it turns out that researchers have been interested in converting visual images into soundscapes for a while.

There’s a paper called “Sound Graphs, A Numerical Data Analysis Method for the Blind” published in 1985 in the Journal of Medical Systems. I don’t think I’ve come across any blind crystallographers, so I wonder if anything came of it. But I do think there could be milage in this way of representing my data, and it might open up different ways of thinking about it too…

Hidden mechanics paper

I’ve just had a new paper accepted! It’s a result of an exciting new collaboration with Stephen Moggach at Edinburgh University, who’s an expert on science under extreme conditions. We studied crystals of a coordination polymer, lithium l-tartrate (polymorph number 9, for anyone following my previous papers), when subjected to pressures up to 5.5 gigapascals – the equivalent of 2 Statue of Liberty’s standing on 1 stiletto heel…


Ambient pressure structure of lithium tartrate polymorph 9

Most materials, when subjected to pressure from all sides, get smaller. While most materials do this more in some directions than others, there are a few exceptional cases in which the material actually expands in one direction. This is the phenomenon called “negative linear compressibility”, NLC. It’s generally a result the material’s structure: think about a collapsing wine rack and you’ll see how, when one direction is squeezed, the other has to expand. Materials with wine rack structures tend to exhibit NLC most at ambient pressure and the effect tails off gradually.

Using in-situ high-pressure single crystal synchrotron X-ray diffraction at Diamond Beamline I19, we have found that lithium l-tartrate exhibits NLC comparable to many of the most exceptional materials to date. What is unusual – and confirmed by variable temperature studies and DFT calculations – is that the NLC response is absent at ambient pressure: it only becomes active above 2 gigapascals.

By looking at the structure in more detail, we could explain this strange behaviour by the interplay between compression of the struts and opening of the “wine rack angle”, which gives us this rare example of “hidden” negative linear compressibility. This sort of property could be useful in new types of sensors, switches or even artificial muscles! The paper is published in the journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics, here. I’m looking forward to investigating more of this in the future…


Thanks Rebecca, Claire, Scott, Stephen, Tony and Dave for all your hard work and patience!

Appointment to Materials Horizons Community Board

I have great pleasure to announce that I’ve been appointed to the Community Board of the RSC journal Materials Horizons!

The Community Board is made up of young researchers from across the globe in a range of disciplines relating to materials science, and I’ll be getting together with them over the next year to discuss all sorts of issues relating to science and publishing. It’s great to see a few familiar faces on it: Tom Bennett, Gregor Kieslich, with whom I worked in Cambridge, and Kosuke Minami at NIMS. Looking forward to getting to know all the others too!

The entry on the Materials Horizons blog can be found here and information about the journal here.

Part II projects available for 2017

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be supervising 1-2 Part II projects next year, working within the Goodwin group. Prospective students are encouraged to get in touch by email to discuss potential research topics. Projects are largely student-motivated and typical themes may include one or a mixture of the following:

  • Synthesis of functional coordination polymers and metal-organic frameworks
  • Piezoelectric, battery and sensing applications
  • Structural characterization by advanced X-ray diffraction
  • Investigation of phase behaviour and formation of solids
  • In-situ X-ray diffraction studies of crystallization

In addition to performing the main part of their experimental work within the Chemistry Department, students may get the opportunity to participate in beamtime at national facilities such as Diamond synchrotron or ISIS neutron source. Certain projects may also involve collaboration and visits to groups at Cambridge University and NIMS, Japan.

Started in Oxford

One week in and I’m starting to feel at home in Oxford. As with starting any job, there’s a certain amount of routine paperwork and setting up to do and I haven’t got into the lab yet. But so far, so good. I’m working in the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory, and it’s a pretty inspiring place:

ICL, Oxford

Those 3 blue plaques on the wall commemorate the invention of the Glucose sensor by Allen Hill, Tony Cass and Graham Davis, John B Goodenough’s Lithium ion battery, and Dorothy Hodgkin‘s Nobel Prize-winning work in crystallography. It’s exciting, if a little overwhelming, to follow in their footsteps!


New job!

I’m very happy announce that in October I’ll be starting a Glasstone Research Fellowship in Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Oxford, UK. Alongside continuing a few existing projects, for the next three years I’ll be studying the crystallography of flexible materials under variable temperature, pressure and electric fields. I’ll be working alongside the group of Andrew Goodwin, whose considerable expertise I hope to tap into, and I’ll also hold a Junior Research Fellowship at the Queen’s College, where I’ll get the chance to meet distinguished scholars in all sorts of academic disciplines. I’m really looking forward to this new job and all the opportunities that come with it!

Making links in Liverpool

I’ve just given a talk at Liverpool University Chemistry Department, where I’ve been visiting Prof. Andy Cooper’s group for the last 6 weeks. They make, amongst other things, some fascinating porous materials made solely from organic molecules linked together – like MOFs without the metals! Check out some of their recent papers if you’re interested:

Trapping virtual pores in molecular crystals

Structure prediction of porous organic crystals

In Liverpool I’ve been studying the formation process of some of them, in order to work out how and why they might crystallize into one form over another. This all depends on a complex interplay between the molecules themselves and the solvent that surrounds them and in some cases gets trapped inside the pores. Different crystalline forms can have different pores, or no pores at all, which radically affects their performance as gas storage, separation and sensing materials. Hopefully my research on their awesome Panalytical and Rigaku diffractometers will help to shed light on some of this…

Rigaku single crystal diffractometer, Liverpool Panalytical powder diffractometer, Liverpool

I’ve got to say how fantastic it’s been to work here and learn from Andy’s group. They are doing some really interesting work and have been extremely helpful, super-friendly and great fun to be around 🙂

Latest paper highlighted at Diamond

The results from my latest paper have just been highlighted on the website of Diamond Light Source, the synchrotron facility where we carried out the experiment! They interviewed Richard Walton, the other corresponding author on the paper, about it  and you can read the article here.

Mapping out crystallization

I have a newfound respect for cartographers. They map out landscapes with an amazing eye for detail and clarity, picking out the essential roads, hills and valleys with ease. In my latest paper, I’ve been trying to do the same for chemical reactions…

MOF crystallisation landscape

The “landscapes” of chemical reactions are the hills and valleys of potential energy, and the pathways molecules take to pass between them as they transform. To map out reactions, we can’t just measure them up like towns and cities (molecules are so tiny!), so instead we have to use other methods like spectroscopy to gauge how the molecules involved transform over time, and use that information in clever ways to deduce how much energy the transformations take. This has been done for decades for gases and molecules in solution – it’s the area of Physical Chemistry – but it’s not been done much for reactions that transform molecules in solution to solid materials.

The crystallisation of coordination polymers is one such reaction: one that I’ve been interested in ever since I started doing research trying to design them. But for any kind of predictability – to guide our choice of temperature, time, solvents etc. – we need to know something about their energy landscapes. So some of my collaborators and I went to Diamond synchrotron (more about that trip here) to try to do just that. And, by measuring the rates of formation and dissolution of three related materials, we have been able to work out the activation energies – the heights of the hills that the reaction system has to cross – to make each one.

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time anyone’s done this for more than one material forming from the same reaction. We now have the information to choose the reaction conditions best for selectively making any one of those materials. What’s more, the methods we used – in-situ X-ray diffraction and some simple kinetics modelling – could potentially be applied to formation reactions of lots of other materials, like MOFs and zeolites. The paper in Angewandte Chemie is here, or in my publication list here.

Thanks Yue, Sebastian, Tony, Dermot and Richard for being such great co-authors!