Continuing a fine legacy in chemistry
We spoke with Dr Jennifer Garden and Dr Amanda Jarvis, joint holders of the School of Chemistry's Christina Miller Fellowship, about their career paths and current research interests.
What is the Christina Miller Fellowship?
JG: Designed to provide career development opportunities for talented early career researchers, these research fellowships are named after Dr Christina (“Chrissie”) Miller (1899 – 2001). Chrissie was an outstanding researcher at the University of Edinburgh, and the first female chemist to be elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Chrissie prepared the first pure sample of phosphorous (III) oxide, showing that trace impurities of elemental phosphorous were responsible for the glow observed by other researchers. As a result of this work, Chrissie was awarded the Keith Prize from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, her DSc degree, and a lectureship with tenure at the University of Edinburgh.
What attracted you to this fellowship?
JG: I was attracted by the developmental nature of this scheme, which gave me the opportunity to establish a new area of independent research while receiving mentorship and advice from other academics in the School of Chemistry.
AJ: Pretty similar reasons for me, it offered an excellent opportunity to start an independent group whilst also having access through a host lab to all the equipment needed for my research.
JG: As well as being able to follow my own research ideas, I’ve received excellent mentorship on writing proposals, leadership training and advice on working with industry.
AJ: Additionally, it meant the end of three hours of commuting a day. As you can imagine this was quite a pull!
What came before this fellowship?
AJ: I followed a fairly traditional academic path, doing a MChem at the University of St Andrews with a year in the oil industry followed by a PhD at the University of York in synthetic chemistry. I then moved to France to do a postdoc looking at ways to make carbon nitrogen bonds. In 2013, I moved back to St Andrews to take a position looking at the use of artificial metalloenzymes in catalytic reactions such as hydroformylation. In 2015, I was awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship to study the use of artificial metalloenzymes as catalysts for the oxidation of alkanes to give alcohols.
JG: I received my MSci in Chemistry from the University of Strathclyde. During my undergraduate studies, I spent a summer doing academic research sponsored by the Carnegie Trust, and this was when I realised that I wanted to have a career in academia. I loved creating molecules that had never existed before, and exploring their applications. I received my PhD under the direction of Professor Robert Mulvey, where I specialised in the design of synergic mixed-metal complexes. After this, I moved to London to do post-doctoral research with Professor Charlotte Williams at Imperial College, where I developed catalysts for converting carbon dioxide into plastics.
I loved creating molecules that had never existed before, and exploring their applications.
What is your research topic?
JG: My current research combines elements of my PhD and my postdoctoral research, and focuses on upcycling renewable feedstocks into value added chemicals and polymer materials.
AJ: I am currently investigating introducing unnatural amino acids into protein scaffolds to create new biocatalysts that will be able to catalyse reactions that nature does not carry out, with the idea of being able to use these in cells to create cellular microfactories.
What has it helped you to achieve?
JG: It has enabled me to start my independent research, which has led to several publications in scientific journals. This research helped me to get a Ramsay Memorial Trust Fellowship, which has extended my time at the University of Edinburgh beyond the Christina Miller Research Fellowship.
AJ: Since starting the fellowship just over a year ago, I have been able to get in small amounts of funding to help start my group and expand it to include a postdoc. This enabled us to get our first preliminary results showing the incorporation of an unnatural amino acid into an acyl carrier protein.
JG: It’s been really exciting to start my own research group. One of my favourite parts of the role has been co-supervising some incredibly talented and enthusiastic PhD, MRes and undergraduate project students.
AJ: I second that, and I’ve had a great bunch of project students from across the world including France, Germany, the US, Switzerland and, of course, Scotland! I really enjoy helping them to develop into researchers and explore what the future may hold for them.
What advice would you give to future applicants?
AJ: If you have an idea, go for it – don’t feel you have to wait until you have 3 years’ experience or 10 papers. The process of writing a proposal really helps you focus on your ideas and what more experience you will need to get where you want to be.
JG: When writing your proposal, it will be key to highlight why your research is timely and important, why you are the right person to carry out the project, and how your research will fit within the School of Chemistry.
AJ: When preparing grant or fellowship proposals ask experienced colleagues and academics in your network for mentorship and for feedback on your proposal – don’t hold back on this, the sooner you do it the more help it can be.
JG: I also found it very helpful to organise a mock interview, which helped me to prepare me for the interview process.
If you have an idea, go for it – don’t feel you have to wait until you have 3 years’ experience or 10 papers.