It’s pure chemistry

The School of Chemistry is a crucial part of the University of Edinburgh’s history, with a lengthy list of prominent alumni including recent Nobel Prize winner Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart. The Head of School, Professor Colin Pulham, reflects on the impact of a recent legacy gift from a Chemistry alumnus and the world-changing influence the department has made over the last three centuries.

Chemistry graphic

Since its formation in 1713, Chemistry at the University has made significant contributions to our understanding of the world. Amongst the most celebrated alumni are Joseph Black, whose discoveries include carbon dioxide and latent heat, and whose work was integral to sparking the Industrial Revolution, and Alexander Crum Brown who pioneered drawings of molecular structures that are still relevant today.

Head of School, Professor Colin Pulham, says the Tercentenary year was an opportunity to celebrate the achievements and history of the School. “The 300th year anniversary in 2013 was a time for staff and students to come together and celebrate, through activities such as opera and a Burns’ Supper and ceilidh, which solidified our community spirit.” The School also held a 300 mile walk to the Highland village of Strontian, which lends it name to the element strontium.

Today, the department is committed to integrating real-world experiences into the teaching curriculum using cutting-edge chemistry apparatus. John Wilkie, a former Chemistry student, recently bequeathed a generous legacy donation to the School, requesting that this be put towards equipment for teaching and research. As well as vital bench-top scales and workstations, John Wilkie’s gift has been used to upgrade the department’s Inductively Coupled Plasma-Optical Emission Spectrometer, a critical piece of kit that uses chemical analysis to detect samples for elements in a wide-range of materials including soil and waters. This apparatus – based on differing flame colours – is used in research but also used to train students in hands-on experiments.

With John Wilkie’s donation, the School was also able to purchase a flame photometer, which is used in a wide-range of teaching experiments, including environmental chemistry, allowing students to detect trace metals such as sodium and potassium in groundwater. “The donation was absolutely crucial to upgrading and replacing essential equipment. As these pieces of apparatus are being used to teach our undergraduates students, many of whom will pursue careers as professional chemists, they are going to have a big impact on a lot of people”, says Professor Pulham.

Science is an international collaboration and we impress this on students from early on in their careers.

Professor Colin Pulham

Professor Pulham, who joined the department as a research fellow in 1992, says the School celebrates its past but remains future-focused, celebrating diversity and building a strong cooperative ethos. In 2015, the School was the second-ever recipient of the Athena SWAN Gold Award, a prestigious title that reflects commitment to gender equality in academia. This year, Crum Brown Chair in Chemistry, Professor Polly Arnold, was awarded an OBE in recognition of services to Chemistry and for promoting women in Science, Maths, Engineering and Technology.

The international ethos of the School is written in its history, with notable chemists including Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray a key part of our DNA. Edinburgh alumnus Ray is known as the father of Indian chemistry, having founded Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals in 1893.

Today, undergraduate chemists have a chance to study abroad with up to 40 students doing so in a given year, visiting chemistry laboratories and teaching institutions all over the world in countries including Singapore, the USA, as well as Hong Kong and countries in Europe. Incoming foreign students experience similar placements at Edinburgh from as far away as Australia. PhD students can take up laboratory placements, with students currently undertaking short term work placements in India and Japan.

Professor Pulham’s hope is that all students have an opportunity to spend some time learning overseas. “We very much value the experiences that Edinburgh students gain from studying abroad. Exploring other cultures and working practices makes students more capable and adaptable. Students often find that widening their learning experience through studying abroad makes them more employable at the end of the degree. Science is an international collaboration and we impress this on students from early on in their careers.”

My hope for the School is that our amazing students and staff rise to the challenges that the world faces.

Professor Colin Pulham

As well as studying abroad, students at the School of Chemistry have enviable opportunities to spend time working in industry, including a 13-month paid work placement. Professor Pulham says these placements are very competitive, but incredibly valuable. “Working in an industrial placement has real-world applications for the science and gives students a chance to think about their long-term career goals and what path they want to choose after their degree.”

Chemists are at the core of a vast array of industries, including fuels and lubricants, energy, consumer products, heat storage and automotives. Donations such as John Wilkie’s ensure the continuation of quality teaching, improving the opportunities and facilities for Edinburgh students and enabling them to  make real impact following graduation. During the School’s 300th anniversary year, the Chemistry Tercentenary Fund was set up, encouraging alumni to support current students in financial struggle, allowing them to continue their studies.

Industrial partnerships are woven throughout all levels of learning and research at the School, with PhD students in industry-sponsored placements and industry collaboration with post-doctoral scientists. Often, these relationships help academics find new research directions and establish strategic partnerships, as well as enabling the School to have a real socioeconomic impact by facilitating applied science. Many alumni are now also involved in commercial spin-outs, making valuable contributions to sectors such as medical imaging.

Professor Pulham says, “My hope for the school is that our amazing students and staff rise to the challenges that the world faces. Chemists are at the centre of efforts to tackle energy issues and to improve healthcare and I hope that we continue to change the world for the better.”

For more information on leaving a legacy to the University, visit our Giving website.

Leaving a gift in your will