Episode 4: The Future of Chemistry Education

The pharmaceutical and chemical industries have changed a lot in recent decades – has chemistry education kept up?

What skills are industry looking for now? Are universities and high schools meeting those needs? What do students need to do to be competitive in the chemistry workforce of tomorrow?

Join us in Episode 4 for insightful perspectives on the future of chemistry, as well as stories of how Lego can be used to teach programing.

Read the full transcript

The Future of Chemistry Education

Mimi Hii  00:00

You can look at a lot of industrial surveys, reports that’ve been done in recent years, all of them will say the same thing. There is a big skills gap between people graduating from university and people going to industry. And one of the key skills gaps are data science.

Charis Lam  00:34

It’s nearly September. And there’s always a sense of excitement about this time of year. Summer winding down, the school year approaching…

Jesse Harris  00:41

Yeah, and even for those of us who aren’t in school anymore, there’s always this sense of new beginnings in September, I find.

Charis Lam  00:48

Uh-huh, and a chance to look at what we can do even better this year. In this episode, we’re going to be talking about chemistry education: how well students’ education actually prepares them for the modern work environment, and what we can do to improve that.

Jesse Harris  01:02

For our first guest, we’re going to talk with somebody who studied that exact subject. Michelle Hill is a recent graduate of a Ph. D. program in chemistry education. Her research focused on helping chemistry undergraduates to be successful in the workplace. She is going to be talking with us about some of the findings of her field.

Charis Lam  01:19

Joining us is Michelle Hill. She’s a program manager at Career Ahead, an Australian firm that helps students and professionals with career management and progression. She came there from a PhD at Monash University, where she did research on employability skills among science undergraduates. And before that she had previously worked at a research and development chemist, so she has experience both in the industry and helping people prepare for the industry. Welcome, Michelle.

Michelle Hill  01:48

Hello.

Jesse Harris  01:48

It’s lovely to be with you. So we like to start off our interviews by asking people about what their favorite chemical is. It’s a great way I think to get to know people. Do you have a favorite chemical?

Michelle Hill  01:57

Well, my favorite chemical substance, if you like, is actually water. It’s a fascinating molecule. And it’s one I studied in my honors research many years ago. I love it because its ability to form a network of hydrogen bonds results in its unique properties, such as its low solid density, its high boiling point, high surface tension, high heat capacity, its ability to act as a solvent, which is amazing. And all of these properties give it the ability to support and sustain life on Earth. So it’s my favorite substance.

Jesse Harris  02:35

It’s a fabulous substance and delicious.

Michelle Hill  02:41

Indeed.

Charis Lam  02:44

All right. One of the things you’re expert in is improving chemistry graduate education and employability. How did you get interested in that topic?

Michelle Hill  02:52

Well, as you mentioned, you know, I started my career as a chemist and worked in the chemical industry for many years. But as I progressed through my career, and through life, really, it became clear to me that many science graduates, including chemistry graduates, weren’t achieving their potential. So I was hearing and meeting and talking to people that had graduated with their degree and then weren’t using it. They felt like they couldn’t get the job that they wanted. And so they kind of felt like, I’ve got nothing else to offer. And they’d sort of drop out and, and either retrain, or go and do something that was really well below their potential and skill level. And I felt very frustrated about that. And so this was kind of something that was going on, I guess, as a sideline.

Michelle Hill  03:43

And I’d gotten to a point in my career where I was ready for a change, I was ready for a new challenge, a new experience. And I’d been looking around for some time as to what you know, where should I direct myself. And just serendipitously I came across an advertisement for a PhD in chemistry education. And it was a field I didn’t know anything about. In fact, I didn’t even know it was a specific discipline that you could study and research. And as I started to explore that I got really excited. And I went to talk to a professor at Monash University about it. And one of the areas that she talked about and that we touched on was employability, improving the employability of undergraduates and graduates in chemistry.

Michelle Hill  04:32

And that really sort of tied in with this other, you know, pattern, this thought line that had been going on in my head and also a lifelong interest in education that I’ve had. So all the pieces kind of fell into place in that, I felt like yes, this is what I want to do. This is the direction I’d love to go in. And I’d really love to do something practical to help students to develop their employability and rise up to their potential.

Jesse Harris  04:59

One of the subjects that is very prominent in your thesis is around the concept of transferable skills. Can you describe for our audience what you mean by that and why it’s important in a field like chemistry?

Michelle Hill  05:11

So transferable skills are skills that are acquired broadly across all kinds of jobs, roles, employers, organizations and sectors regardless of discipline. There’s been a lot of research done on them, and they are known to be critical for success in the workplace. And when developed, they can be transferred from one context to another, hence the name. Sometimes they’re called generic skills, soft skills, professional skills, employability skills. There’s lots of names, but I love the name “transferable skills” because it really describes what they do, which is you can take them anywhere, and they will help you be successful and they will help you–in the case of STEM students and chemistry students in particular, they’ll help them to be able to deliver on their science and actually turn it into something that makes an impact in the world. And in whichever organization they’re in.

Michelle Hill  06:02

You know, so examples of transferable skills are, like all types of communication skills, problem solving skills, analytical and thinking skills, independent learning, teamwork, collaboration skills, leadership, IT, digital skills, numeracy, creativity, innovation, organization, time management, project management, you know, researching information, interpersonal skills, business awareness. There’s just heaps of them. And they’re all really important and valuable, and I’m very passionate about them.

Charis Lam  06:35

We can definitely hear that. So in the course of your research on transferable skills, and helping students with employability, what were the most important findings that you discovered?

Michelle Hill  06:46

So my research focused on two main goals. Firstly, we wanted to understand whether chemistry students recognize that they were developing transferable skills during their university studies, and whether they valued those skills. And secondly, I wanted to identify some interventions that I could make, or that anyone could make, in the curriculum to increase student’s ability to recognize the transferable skills and articulate them in the employment process.

Michelle Hill  07:14

Because even if they have them, if they don’t recognize they have them, they can’t use them, right, they can’t apply for jobs that are going to require them. If they don’t know that they have them, they don’t have the confidence to do that. They don’t recognize all the different kinds of jobs they can apply for. And even if they recognize they have them, if they don’t know how to articulate them and express them in the employment process, then they’re likely to not be successful in obtaining the kinds of roles that they’re seeking, and that will use those skills. Research has shown that STEM students, including chemistry students, actually have a weakness in the area of being able to articulate their transferable skills. So those were the kind of two goals of my research.

Michelle Hill  07:57

And the key findings were, first of all, that whilst chemistry undergraduates did recognize they were developing some transferable skills, it was a very narrow view. The average student only recognized maybe three or four if they were lucky. I asked them what they thought employers were looking for, in terms of skills outside their chemistry-specific skills. And again, their view was really narrow, they can only name about three. Students have a really narrow view and not a clear and realistic picture of what employers are looking for, and what’s going to enable them to be successful. So that was one of the key findings.

Michelle Hill  08:35

And the second is around what we can do to help students increase that recognition. I tried out a couple of different kinds of interventions, and one was displaying icons on students’ tasks, and assessments, to show them which transferable skills they were actually developing in those tasks. Another was that I engaged students in reflecting on their transferable skill development during their degree. It became really obvious in my discussions with students and in the research that I did, putting the skills into the curriculum isn’t enough. Chemistry students are really disciplined focused. They’re focused on absorbing knowledge about chemistry, developing chemistry, technical, and laboratory skills, but a lot of other stuff is going straight over their head. So you have to point it out to them really front and center, you have to explain to them, we’re giving you this task, yes to develop your chemistry skills, but also to develop these transferable skills. It’s a package deal. And the reflection element helps students to practise and learn how to articulate their skills. So that also proved to be really powerful. So those were the, in a nutshell, the three minute version of my thesis.

Jesse Harris  09:48

Appreciate that. I understand that. It’s a big topic, but even zooming out a little bit, like this question about whether the skills are in the curriculum and they’re just not being recognized, versus they’re just maybe not there. Do you think that students are learning the technical, digital and transferable skills that are needed for the industry now? Either through what you’ve seen in your own research, or what you’ve seen generally, through the field of chemistry education?

Michelle Hill  10:15

Yes or no would be my answer. Like so many things, it’s not simple. Look, the in terms of, are they learning the skills that they need? I think they are learning a lot of the skills that they need, but not all of the skills. So if we look at the transferable side, there is actually a lot in the curriculum. It’s, of course, not the same in every university, and in every course, and some do better than others. People have become more aware, and universities are doing more to expand the kinds of tasks they give students. There’s been a lot of emphasis on digital skills, for example, in the curriculum, and of course, COVID exacerbated that, and brought it even more to the fore. So that I think that has improved.

Michelle Hill  10:56

But the kinds of ones that really looked to be missing more broadly, are things like opportunities for creativity and innovation, initiative, exercising initiative, flexibility, and adaptability, commercial awareness. So just understanding the impact of what you’re doing in more of a society and business. But also, I think, open-ended problem solving is a gap for students. You get a lot of problem-solving and thinking skills in a chemistry curriculum. But often they’re very closed. You know, there’s a known solution that you’re trying to get to. But that workforce in real life is full of open-ended problems. And students are often very uncomfortable with that. The real world involves messy experiments, research that doesn’t work out all the time in a neat way. And students can have a real shock when they get into the workforce. And there’s these messy, open-ended problems. So we need to build more of that in the curriculum.

Michelle Hill  11:50

So that’s kind of on the transferrable side. I think, on the technical side, again, I think it’s really hard to generalize here. Because you know, across the world, it’s very different. From what I know, in the universities around me, universities don’t always keep pace with the technology that’s out there. You know, it’s expensive to buy new equipment, right. And there’s a lot of focus on, of course, developing deep chemistry knowledge and for example, you know, learning all the different types of organic syntheses that have ever been discovered.

Michelle Hill  12:22

Sometimes a bit more emphasis on the modern equipment and instrumentation that students are going to be using out in the workforce, students don’t always have a lot of exposure to that. I don’t think they should be trained in everything. It’s not practical. But if they’ve got some key core skills like that, then they’ll have the confidence to approach new instrumentation and new equipment in the workforce. And they’ll have a great starting base. And I think we don’t always do a good job of that.

Charis Lam  12:52

Yeah. And I think you’ve mentioned already some of the things that universities can do, for example, with the interventions that you tried, or with improving digital and technical skills. What other important steps do you think universities, businesses, or governments can take to help students adapt to the modern job market?

Michelle Hill  13:10

Yes, like you said, I’ve mentioned a few things like helping students recognize and articulate their transferable skills, which isn’t done really well, I have to say, broadly. They’re building more opportunities in the curriculum, but not drawing attention to them. That is a real gap. Because it’s kind of wasting in part, if students don’t realize they’ve got it, they can’t use it. So that’s a real one. That’s, I think, available. And it’s not, it’s not hard to do. And it’s not costly to do, right. It’s just taking a wee bit of time to add a small thing into the curriculum.

Michelle Hill  13:44

So I think, more opportunities for open-ended research and projects are really important for universities to build, as I said, to help them with that open-ended problem solving and also the creativity aspect. If they had, I feel like every student in their undergraduate should be doing a research project or an industry-based project or an internship. So that’s another topic, is giving students more opportunities from working with industry or completing internships, because those are known to be so powerful for improving students’ employability. They’re getting more attention. But again, different countries have different priorities from that point of view. So I think more opportunities for that.

Michelle Hill  14:22

Bit more opportunity an focus on data as well, analyzing and communicating data. It’s kind of, sort of there in chemistry, but we again, we don’t bring it to the top level of attention. It’s something students do learn, but they’re really not conscious of it. And we live in a data-driven world. And it’s so important that they recognize they have that ability to, to analyze and communicate data really well. I guess those are some of the things that through my own research, but also my exposure to others’ research, really seeing the power of all of those different aspects. And as I talked about, you know, that access to some of the key modern instrumentation and technologies and continuing the emphasis on digital capacity is really important. You know, exposure to lots of different kinds of software and forms of digital skills and communication is really, really important.

Michelle Hill  15:13

In terms of businesses… So the flip side of that is if we want students to get involved in internships in the industry projects, businesses need to provide those opportunities to students. So that would be one of my key initiatives that I’d love to see businesses doing more of. It, of course, does take their time. But you know, there are some really concrete benefits for them in terms of getting fresh ideas into their business, into their organization, but also gives them an opportunity to also find graduates that are going to really fit well in their organization. So I think it’s a win-win situation.

Michelle Hill  15:51

In terms of government, you know, there needs to be some planning for up-to-date technology in universities. They can’t provide that to students, if governments don’t give some support for that. And also funding in support for businesses to provide those internships and those industry-related projects, and research projects for students that I was talking about. So to help them you know, really develop those technical and transferable skills that they’re going to need. And that’s something we’ve seen here in Australia. The government’s been putting a lot more emphasis on that, and it has made a difference. So it’s a strategy that I think works.

Jesse Harris  16:27

So we are talking right now, right before the start of the school year. September is just coming up. So what advice would you have for chemistry students, either going back to school this year, or maybe starting for the first time in university? Like what do you think that they should be thinking about in terms of how to pursue their education?

Michelle Hill  16:48

I guess there’s lots of things students can do themselves. And in fact, they need to take ownership of their own employability. That’s really, really important. No one else is going to care about your employability as much as you do. No one else, you know, knows your strengths and weaknesses, your desires, your goals. So you’ve got to be the master of that. You’ve got to be in the driver’s seat, because students can, and that’s kind of understandable, but just kind of sort of let themselves drift a bit. Or if something comes along, I’ll do it. But kind of if you want to really find career satisfaction, and even you know, joy kind of thing, you’ve got to be in the driver’s seat.

Michelle Hill  17:27

So the first thing is recognizing, I think, that transferable skills matter as well as technical skills. And that’s something that a lot of students haven’t taken on board. But both matter, like both are really important, not one at the exclusion of the other. Both are really important. And what they should be doing is seeking out opportunities where they’re starting to develop those skills.

Michelle Hill  17:49

So having said that, at the same time, you got to know where you’re heading. So it’s really important for students to start to think about, well, where do I want to head, and you might not have all the answers. But that’s where networking becomes really important. So, you know, start networking with people, talk to a wide variety of people, talk to other students, students ahead of you in the courses that you’re doing, students doing other courses, talk to people in industry, just in the community, find out what they do, what they love about it, what’s involved, what are all the different skills that are used, the technical and transferable skills, what are the career paths available. So just do a lot of networking and talking to people and kind of start to gather information. That’s really important to do throughout your degree and just do it from the start.

Michelle Hill  17:51

And then once you’ve got some sense of where you might be interested in going, really start to get an understanding of those skills that are going to be required, the transferable and the technical skills.

Michelle Hill  18:45

And I guess the final thing would be to try to keep just keep a little abreast of what’s going on out there in the world in terms of technical and environmental and industry trends. Just be a little aware. Find some, you know, podcasts or particular websites that interest you that will help you stay in touch and and help you see where the world’s heading and where jobs are opening up, where they’re not, where they’re shutting down. So you can kind of see where to head yourself and the skills that are being called on for those emerging technologies and trends.

Charis Lam  19:23

That was a lot of really great advice. Yeah.

Jesse Harris  19:26

I’m strongly in favor of them finding podcasts that are, you know, useful for them in understanding the industry. But yes, thank you so much for your time. It’s been lovely to chat with you. Thank you for joining us.

Michelle Hill  19:36

My pleasure. Thanks very much to both of you.

Charis Lam  19:41

Michelle gave us some great advice. Some of the things she talked about definitely helped me during my education. But also she mentioned things that I wish had been available or that I had done more of myself.

Jesse Harris  19:52

Yeah, there’s something in there for everyone: businesses, universities and students. Everyone has a role to play in making the improvements to make students better prepared for the workforce.

Charis Lam  20:03

Right. One of the things she mentioned in particular was giving students access to the technology and teaching them the data science they need for the modern lab.

Jesse Harris  20:11

And I know exactly who we can talk to to learn more about that subject.

Charis Lam  20:15

Oh, that’s interesting. Who?

Jesse Harris  20:17

Mimi Hii is a Director for the Center of Doctoral Training in Next Generation Synthesis and Reaction Technology. It’s a program at Imperial College London that is helping students to learn robotics, technology, and data science skills.

Charis Lam  20:32

That’s great. Let’s talk to her.

Charis Lam  20:34

Today as our podcast guest, we have Dr. Mimi Hii, who is a professor of catalysis at Imperial College London. She’s also an associate editor for the ACS journal, Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering. And she’s here today in her role as director of the Center for Rapid Online Analysis of Reactions and of the Center for Doctoral Training in Next Generation Synthesis and Reaction Technology.

Charis Lam  20:57

So let’s start with an icebreaker question, perhaps. Dr. Hii, what’s your favorite chemical?

Mimi Hii  21:04

Well, you know, as as this podcast is being recorded today, London is having an unprecedented heatwave, the hottest time of the year. So I will say for today, my favorite chemical is H2O, water. Got to stay hydrated.

Jesse Harris  21:18

Hi, Jesse. So that’s not actually surprising me. That is something that we have been hearing from our industrial stakeholders, the collaborators, for a very long time coming. And you know, to go back a little bit, that is actually one of the major driving forces for me getting these projects started in recent years to precisely address that. Being somebody who works basically in an academic institution, you know, such as Imperial, which like to think that we’re training, we are training the scientists of the future, it is up to us to meet that demand.

Charis Lam  21:18

Great.

Jesse Harris  21:18

That’s a good one. Now to launch into a conversation around chemistry education, I actually wanted to start with a quote from Anders Holman. He’s the VP and Head of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Biopharma R&D, at AstraZeneca. And they were talking on the subject of data science and automation and robotics in the pharmaceutical industry. And what he said was, it’s hard to find that talent coming from university. There’s very little training in that space. I think we all agree, that’s something we need to work on influencing universities across the globe, to maybe include more automation and digital thinking into various programs. As an educator who works in this field, I wanted to start off by getting your reaction to this and what your thoughts were on these comments.

Mimi Hii  22:36

And if you understand, you know, the very founding principles of Imperial College, if we go back in the day, is to actually meet those needs. It is actually the first technical college here in the UK to address, to produce scientists and engineers who can meet the challenges of industrial chemistry. That’s how Imperial College was founded. And a lot of that still remains to this day. And I still think that is actually still very much one of our our missions these days, to produce the scientists and engineers fit for the 21st century. So it started with that.

Mimi Hii  23:12

I think chemistry itself is a very old subject, obviously. It goes back to alchemy, and you know, has a really long and illustrious, or checkered, depending on how you look at it, history of hundreds of years of evolution through it. So this is another time, you know, for us to embrace the next step of our evolution of chemical science. You know, what’s next?

Mimi Hii  23:36

And as much as this is not something just for the chemical sciences, it also has been a problem facing other industries, actually, the skills gap with increased digitization of our world around us We are surrounded by data. So how to actually use these data effectively, to improve our workflow, increase our workflow, is something all industry faces.

Mimi Hii  23:58

And in fact, you can look at a lot of industrial surveys, you know, or reports that’ve been done in recent years. All of them will say the same thing. There is a big skills gap between people graduating from university and people going tto industry. And one of the key skills gaps are actually data science, regardless of industry. So chemistry is of course not immune from that. So this is something that we also recognize a long time coming, that we need to be able to equip our students more with that. But being able to handle data is one thing. Chemistry being a practical science in itself, you know, that’s where the skills, the technical side of training, the idea of automation comes in.

Mimi Hii  24:43

Automation is a very disruptive technology. It’s different from the normal round-bottom flask thing that you know, we have been taught to do in undergraduate. It requires a completely different set of skills, you know, understanding, you know, the electronics and mechanical components to the extent of how to actually carry out a reaction mechanically and electronically, rather than just using bare hands. It’s a very different set of skills.

Charis Lam  25:08

It’s great to hear that institutions like Imperial are looking at this gap. What are the concrete steps that you see people taking to fill this gap in education?

Mimi Hii  25:18

Well, I can only speak on behalf of Imperial. A lot of our effort has gone into improving in that area. And, you know, we recognize that this is not something that we start only at postgraduate. It needs to go back earlier. So for example, in our very first year of freshman year, I guess you’d call it, one of our laboratory exercises is to actually build a UV spectrometer out of Legos, for example. So it’s a very nice, interesting thing, because first of all, it kind of teaches students, you know, the skills of actually constructing the spectrometer, the, you know, the various components that needs to go into that. But also along with that, for example, that’s the first time the students then, you know, they, they’ve been taught how to use Python, to do some programming. And it’s a very simple experiment.

Mimi Hii  26:07

And in a COVID year, particularly, that actually, that particular experiment has been adapted into what we call Lab in a Box. So while we all stayed at home, the students were actually sent the components, basically consisting of a Lego set, and actually, with their own personal computer, be able to control it using Python scripts. And it’s an experiment they could do at home. So we have to adapt to that.

Mimi Hii  26:30

And because of that, I think a good thing that emerged out of the COVID, lockdown is our students are actually returning to us now, all actually with more Python skills than they had before. So this is something we introduced right in the early years, in the first year. And it’s something that they you know, consistently get exposed to, so that hopefully, by the time they get to postgraduate, they can then bring it to the next level, you know, managing a big quantity of data, big volume of data, being able to clean up data, you know, that is something that’s very important that they need to learn. How to generate the data, analyze the data. So these are the skills and training. But much more importantly, how to interpret the data as a chemist. For me that’s the biggest, hardest challenge of this project. While it’s relatively easy to deliver those training and technical skills, it’s much more difficult to teach the student how to connect the dots together, and some will get it faster than others.

Jesse Harris  27:29

Excellent. So you’re talking about skills like coding and data science, and I’d be interested to hear a little bit about how initiatives like CDT and ROAR narrow the gap between academic study and the needs of the industry.

Mimi Hii  27:45

Yeah, so as I say, at the beginning of these projects, we didn’t come into it totally uninformed. Both of these projects are preceded by a very extensive survey of obviously, all the stakeholders, so that included stakeholders from both academia and industry. So we probably would have approached Anders at that point. But we certainly did approach his colleagues at AstraZeneca.

Mimi Hii  28:08

And they gave us some very important feedback as to … so the question was, what do you look for in recruits in five years’ time? If you had to recruit students in five years’ time, what sort of, you know, skills and training and background would you like to have on top of, of course, chemistry, and from that, we actually have a very useful set of … help us narrow down the areas that we absolutely have to deliver through our training program. And also help us to select actually the hardware that actually goes into ROAR, the physical facility. What they want our students with automation skills, who know how to, at the very first instance, how to know to set up and design an experiment in a high throughput manner, preferably using robotics, or using some of the new reaction platforms such as flow chemistry, rather than traditional batch chemistry.

Mimi Hii  28:55

And once you get into being able to use robots to generate high throughput or high-density data outputs, the next question becomes, you know, can you move beyond the Excel spreadsheet? You know, chemistry is a very high-dimensional science. In data science, we talk about, you know, continuous variables and discrete variables, you know, actually many different types of data. So to be able to visualize them in, you know, multi dimensionally, is actually a quite a significant challenge, as well. And this is not something that classic chemistry education would necessarily include, and this is what we’re trying to, you know, introduce. You know, what’s what’s really exciting for me, you know, we’ve been told to do keep everything else the same, just change one thing and see what the effect is. No longer is that, you know, valid. Now we can change several things at the same time and begin to see what the effect is, and try to unpick and delineate, you know, it’s not just one thing leading to another thing. We can start to look at combinatorial effects. And that’s really exciting for me because I think it will really lead us to look at chemistry in a very different way.

Charis Lam  30:01

It sounds like this is a really well-thought-out program. But I’m sure that there were some challenges along the way. So what challenges do you face when implementing something like this?

Mimi Hii  30:11

Thank you very much for saying that. I think we have a lot to be proud of in what we’ve done. It is a very young program. As I say, the CDT itself, the doctoral training program itself. has only been running for two years. We’re just about to welcome our third cohort. So you know, the most senior members of the team only started their journey two years ago. But even now, you can start to see that they are starting to do things that they weren’t able to do, that they wouldn’t even dream about doing two years earlier.

Mimi Hii  30:41

And one thing that actually surprises me is, even with a very traditional chemistry background with a, you know, first degree in what I call classical chemistry, almost all our students are able to embrace the data science of it. And we’re talking about learning some very complex data science, right? Even the principles of machine learning, Python coding. So you know, they can all now do things that I can’t do myself, you know, machine learning algorithms, you know, how to implement them. So they’ve really learned quite a lot.

Mimi Hii  31:11

Automation is the same story. You know, you introduce them to the automated plate platform. They embrace  that really, really quickly. I think the next stage of the challenge now is for them to link everything together. Because what we’re trying to do here, there’s no textbooks on how to do this. This is all, you know, uncharted territory here. How do you connect the engineering aspect with the chemistry aspect with a data scientist aspect, and create something new and exciting with that.

Mimi Hii  31:42

As I say, this area is so new, we’re all in the new exploratory stage. So I think that that’s the next challenge: not to turn a chemist into a data scientist, necessarily, but actually make a better chemist out of it. And I don’t think we know the answer to that yet. But I’m looking forward to exploring that with them over the year, over the next few years, for sure. Both the CDT program and the ROAR program, I like to think them as being co-created. Formally, I’m a director for them. I don’t really have a very defined vision of where it’s going, you know, because the field is so new. I think you have to be willing to work with all the stakeholders to define what the field will look like. In 5 to 10 years, it might be nothing like what I imagined it to be. What I can guarantee is that it will be really exciting.

Charis Lam  32:33

So you told us a bit about how you’ve already worked with industry to design the curriculum for the course or the program. What How else do you think industry can support academic institutions in changing chemistry education?

Mimi Hii  32:47

Good question. So in CDT again, we have a lot of industrial engagement. So I think offering the student opportunity, because let’s face it, you know, up to a certain stage, you know, if a student has been going through the normal educational system, for example, they wouldn’t have seen much of industry. You know, to open their doors, Let our students in, you know, the engagement with our students.

Mimi Hii  33:12

And we do actively invite our industrial advisory board. So we do have an industrial advisory board, and the members are very actively engaged with our program. By that, I mean, not only arranging industrial visits, reinforcing the message that what they’re learning is totally relevant to what they will encounter in industry, but also coming on board and helping us mentor the students. You know, because as academics, I can’t tell our students what it is like working in industry, you know, so that, that mentoring is important for them, and actually offering internships.

Mimi Hii  33:47

So rather unusually, in our graduate program, we will try to organize, if our students want, internship opportunities in the industry for up to a year, following their finishing the program. I think that will give them an opportunity to have a little taste of what it’s like, you know, transitioning from an academic research lab into an industrial one.

Mimi Hii  34:10

For industrial members, it will be a chance for them to road-test our students to see actually, you know, the finished product, whether that is something that meets their expectations. We’re not at that stage. As I say our eldest cohort is only in their second year. So I guess, in another two years’ time, they’ll be ready to make that transition. So that will be very exciting.

Mimi Hii  34:30

But in the meanwhile, we also invite various industrial speakers to come in and talk not just about the industrial R&D, but also about their career paths, you know, how they ended up where they are. Are they at a big company, a small company; are they being a research chemist or on the management side? I think these are very important aspects students need to be aware as well. And then how relevant are the skills that they will learn in our CDT program and how they would translate into these different roles. So we couldn’t do that without involvement. So you know, their engagement is absolutely vital for the program.

Jesse Harris  35:09

So it’s great to hear that their support has been there from the beginning. And it’s really instrumental guiding your program. But I’m wondering what else more needs to be done to change chemistry curriculums to prepare people for the future? Are we thinking like, going as far back as like high school education? Is that something you want to see? What is necessary to bring about the chemistry of the future, like 5, 10, 20 years in the future?

Mimi Hii  35:20

I think you know, that the old axiom is true. If you get them young, you get them engaged, I think, I think that’s not necessarily a problem. I think all young people now have, you know, very good grasp of computing stuff, right? I mean, programming stuff that they do come more across. But I think what needs to be changed is university level. A lot of times I do hear people talk about investment, you know, we really need to invest. I mean, robotics at the moment, are not cheap. You know, my dream is, you know, why can’t we have a high throughput robot in every single chemistry department? Why not? You know, at the moment, they are still prohibitively expensive. You know, I think the price will come down.

Mimi Hii  36:15

And as they are coming down, we also kind of explore cheaper options, maybe repurpose some of the robotics that has already been used in other fields, in biology for example, for chemistry, to kind of introduce them earlier on into the undergraduate lab. So our students are familiar with them, are not scared by them, to know that there’s another different way of doing things.

Mimi Hii  36:38

And if there’s anything I’ve learned running the graduate program the last two years, one thing I learned is, young people are amazingly adaptable to new technology. They are not the problem. The problem is actually us. We’re the teachers who actually need to embrace that and show them, you know, what is possible, and make those things accessible to them.

Mimi Hii  37:02

And particularly, you know, we’re talking about equality. So that equality shouldn’t be a story between the haves and the have-nots. You know, if I had the ability, I would like to open our doors, make everything accessible to everybody. I think, ultimately, that is the most sustainable solution.

Mimi Hii  37:20

So I think the challenge for the community is, how do we make these technology more affordable to the undergraduate laboratory, to every laboratory? So to be able to make this technology accessible will be the first step towards ultimately, to make this all possible everywhere, not just at Imperial College

Jesse Harris  37:39

Great. That’s a lovely note to end on, I think. So with that. I want to say that you’ve been generous with your time. We greatly appreciate it. And it’s been lovely to chat with you. Thank you very much. I really enjoyed myself.

Charis Lam  37:50

Thank you.

Jesse Harris  37:51

ROAR and rEaCt CDT program sound really fascinating.

Charis Lam  37:55

They do. And I want a Lego spectrometer set.

Jesse Harris  37:59

Oh, yes, me too. I’m sure my son would love one, too.

Charis Lam  38:03

Yeah. And I really look forward to a future where more institutions can offer students access to the tools used in industry.

Jesse Harris  38:09

Actually, we have somebody here at ACD/Labs who can tell us a little bit more about that subject.

Charis Lam  38:14

Oh, yes. Now, who is it we’re going to be talking to you?

Jesse Harris  38:16

Let’s, uh, let’s talk to Sarah. So joining us for our last interview today, we actually have Sarah Mather’s who’s a member of our marketing communications team. She has been working with our NMR products for the last year. And she’s going to tell us a little bit about Spectrus JS.

Sarah Mathers  38:32

Hi, Jesse. Thank you. And Charis. Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to talk about a new product that we have that I think will be influential in chemistry education.

Charis Lam  38:42

Welcome, Sarah. So let’s start with “what is Spectrus JS?”

Sarah Mathers  38:46

So Spectrus JS is the first-ever browser-based NMR data processing application. And so what this means is that you have all the tools that you need to process your NMR data, whether it be one-dimensional or two-dimensional, right in your browser. So you can import your raw data, even perform Fourier transform, and then do all of your processing tasks, peak picking and integration, anything like that, and even create reports right in your browser.

Jesse Harris  39:15

So how do you see educators and students using a program like Spectrus JS?

Sarah Mathers  39:20

I see Spectrus JS giving educators the opportunity to allow students to process NMR data themselves. So a lot in a lot of cases, students are usually given a pre-processed spectrum, and it’s usually essentially just an image or a printout. Whereas now they can be provided with a dataset, whether it’s one that they run themselves, or one that is just provided to everyone. And they can actually have first-hand experience using Spectrus JS’s intuitive tools to perform the actual processing right in their browser. They can even do it from shared computers. It doesn’t matter whether or not the students have powerful computers themselves.

Charis Lam  40:02

So one of the themes of this episode has been modernizing chemistry education to fit the needs of the job market and of industry. How do you see software like Spectrus JS fitting in?

Sarah Mathers  40:14

So currently in chemistry education, for NMR interpretation, a lot of students are just given these either printouts or images of pre-processed spectra. But that is not the case when they move on to, you know, maybe a research position or a job within the chemical industry. And so I think that this will provide them with skills that they will actually use. And so entering the job market, having actually had hands-on experience with processing NMR data will be a huge asset to them, I think.

Jesse Harris  40:47

Great. Now, this, a lot of it we’ve been covering are a lot of functionalities that are in a lot of NMR processing tools. But that sort of software has been around for a while. What’s different about being a web-based application that makes it particularly good for academia?

Sarah Mathers  41:03

A web-based application doesn’t require any powerful processing on the computer where the application is running in the browser, because all of the powerful computing is done through a central server or computer. And so what that means is that there’s no requirement for students to have, you know, a certain laptop with a certain amount of space, because there are no downloads required, there are no updates that they would ever have to worry about. All they need is a fairly modern web browser, and they can just type in the URL, and then log in with their username and password. And they will have access to all of these tools, which were generally required in a big clunky download.

Charis Lam  41:48

That sounds really cool. So how can a user getting started access Spectrus JS?

Sarah Mathers  41:54

Yep. So as I kind of touched on, Spectrus JS would be hosted internally within a single institution through a central computer for a smaller deployment with fewer users, or a central server. This also provides an advantage in terms of data security, because then all of that data is still remaining within your institution. You’re getting into cases of research where there may be proprietary data. Then like I said, individual users, all they have to do is type in a URL and login.

Jesse Harris  42:25

Great. Now, where can we learn a little bit more about this if people have questions?

Sarah Mathers  42:29

Our website, the ACD/Labs website, is a great place to start. So we have some pages about Spectrus JS that you can read through. Or if you prefer to watch one of our NMR business managers talk about Spectrus JS and even give a brief demo, we have some webinars on there as well that you can watch. And then Spectrus JS is really just starting out. And so there will be lots of exciting things coming in the future for Spectrus JS. So if you sign up for our NMR newsletter on our website, you’ll get all that information right as it comes out.

Jesse Harris  43:02

Great. Well, we look forward to all of that. And thank you very much for joining us to explain a little about this new program.

Sarah Mathers  43:08

Thank you so much for having me.

Charis Lam  43:10

Thanks, Sarah.

Jesse Harris  43:12

Spectrus JS could really help students to learn some of the technical and analytical skills they’ll need an industry.

Charis Lam  43:18

Exactly. And academic institutions get a 50% discount before August 31, 2021. So it’s the perfect time to check it out.

Jesse Harris  43:27

That’s one of the things that we can do to help students and improve the future of chemistry education. Michelle, and Mimi gave us a lot of other advice and ideas as well.

Charis Lam  43:37

They did. And it’s all the more reason to be excited for September.

Jesse Harris  43:40

Yes, and if you want to get started in the school year by checking out ROAR and CDT and Imperial College London,

Charis Lam  43:47

or by reading about Michelle’s thesis findings,

Jesse Harris  43:49

or by learning more about Spectrus JS.

Charis Lam  43:51

check out our show notes.

Jesse Harris  43:53

Until next time.

Charis Lam  43:54

The Analytical Wavelength is brought to you by ACD/Labs. We create software to help scientists make the most of the analytical data by predicting molecular properties, and by organizing and analyzing the experimental results. To learn more, please visit us at www.acdlabs.com.


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