This year the prize will be shared between two outstanding researchers from the Department of Chemical Engineering.
Please join us in congratulating Dr Patrizia Marchetti and Dr Agnieszka Brandt-Talbot on winning this year’s Sir William Wakeham award, an excellent achievement! Congratulations also to Dr Sheila Samsatli who was highly commended by the awards panel for her outstanding contribution in research.
Sir William Wakeham is a visiting professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering, having first joined as a lecturer in 1971. He served as Head of the Department from 1988 to 1996 before becoming Deputy Rector of the College. In recognition of his contributions to Chemical Engineering, the Sir William Wakeham Award was instituted to recognise early career researchers who have made a significant contribution to their field and advanced their career development.
Dr Patrizia Marchetti joined the Department in 2009 for an industry-based PhD while she was an early stage researcher at Lonza. Following this, she continued on as a Research Assistant and then a Research Associate in the Department under the supervision of Professor Andrew Livingston. This year the award committee recognised Patrizia’s work in the field of organic solvent nanofiltration - especially the ability to estimate parameters for as yet uncharacterised systems and predict when the model parameters for a particular solvent-solute system are available – highlighted in significant publications in the Journal of Membrane Science (Performance of spiral-wound membrane modules in organic solvent nanofiltration - Fluid dynamics and mass transfer characteristics and Predictive membrane transport models for Organic Solvent Nanofiltration: How complex do we need to be?).
Dr Agnieszka Brandt-Talbot joined Imperial College in 2007 on a Porter Institute funded PhD scholarship. As a PhD student, she laid the foundations for her later work in the ionoSolv process, a unique method to produce renewable fuels and chemical feedstocks from woody biomass (lignocellulose). After gaining industrial experience, Dr Talbot returned to Imperial to continue her research developing the ionoSolv process under her supervisor Dr Jason Hallett. The awards committee recognised her pioneering work demonstrated in her paper – Structural changes in lignins isolated using an acidic ionic liquid water mixture – which was published in the journal Green Chemistry.
We caught up with Dr Brandt-Talbot and Dr Marchetti to ask them for some of their insights on their careers so far. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
Can you summarise your research in a couple of sentences?
ABT - I’m developing a new process that produces chemicals from waste wood biomass, such as straws and even construction wood. I want to replace chemicals and fuels derived from fossil resources such as petroleum and natural gas with plant derived chemicals.
PM - My research focuses on the development of molecular separation processes using membranes and their applications in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. At present, I am working on the development of a new manufacturing platform for making high value sequence-controlled biopolymers (oligonucleotides and peptides) and synthetic polymers, in collaboration with GSK (UK). These polymers are in demand by the pharmaceutical industry, where they are used as drugs or as parts of molecular assemblies to deliver and protect drugs.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
ABT - A mission and people. My choice of profession was inspired by the social and environmental concerns of the 90s, the accelerating extinction of species, problematic air and water pollution, large-scale poverty and deforestation and then climate change. I thought as a scientist I could learn how to make a least some of these problems go away (my other idea was to go into politics).
There were several inspiring people, such as passionate teachers from kindergarten onwards. My dad was important, he had made it his mission to not interfere with my choice of school subjects and degree. He encouraged me to pick whatever I liked best (there are no scientists and hardly any engineers in my family). My mum was working full-time since I can remember and is a successful entrepreneur in a male dominated field. She is real-life proof that women can have fulfilling careers. Another role model was a woman whose family hosted me in Australia for 3 months just before my A levels. She is a theoretical physicist and I developed a friendship and understanding with her lasting to this day.
PM - I particularly enjoyed studying chemistry and maths during high school, and this brought me to continue my studies in the field of chemical engineering. During my undergraduate studies at Politecnico of Milan, I had the opportunity to learn not only about the achievements of the chemical engineering discipline to address social and economic issues, but also about the potential that could still be exploited in that direction. At that time, I carried out two research projects to conclude my BSc and MSc degrees, respectively, after which I identified my strongest interest in the application of chemical engineering to pharmaceutical development and material innovation. Being awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship to carry out an industrial PhD at Lonza (Switzerland), under the supervision of Prof. Andrew Livingston at Imperial College, was just perfect to get started.
What is your favourite aspect of your job? What is your biggest challenge?
ABT - The thrill of realising a new promising idea/hypothesis or solving a problem we’ve been chewing on for some time are deeply rewarding. Challenging is the transition from post-doc to lecturer, especially dealing with the uncertainty of limited contracts and the low odds of successfully transitioning. I try to counteract this by enjoying academia while it lasts and telling myself that hardly anything in life is certain.
PM - What makes me enthusiastic about research is the idea that we are doing something new, different and that can actually solve existing problems. Each research field is addressing a particular aspect of the bigger picture which is our society, and every researcher gives his/her own personal contribution to that. On a more daily basis, I like the “virtuous circle” of finding an issue you want to solve, formulating an hypothesis, trying to validate it with experiments, and … well, usually, finding new issues you want to solve based on your previous experiments! The satisfaction of solving a problem, finding the reason behind a determined phenomenon, or simply having a “Eureka moment” is priceless.
On the other hand, the same circle can lead to failures, which are part of research alongside success. Research usually starts with big questions, big unknowns and big risks, therefore one should expect that sometimes things can go differently from what planned. But don’t worry too much: you can learn also from “wrong” results, if you look at them from the right angle.
What has been the highlight of your career?
ABT - Discovering something that has commercial potential and realising that it’s quite likely that no one else would have spotted it.
PM - During my career, I have been awarded by the North American Membrane Society (2016) and the European Membrane Society (2015) for my contribution to membrane science and technology. I have also been highly commended (as a top-3 finalist) for the IChemE Young Chemical Engineer in Research Global Award (2015) and I have been recently awarded a Sir William Wakeham Award (2016) from Imperial College in recognition of outstanding research achievements and contribution to the promotion of the Department.
After this recognition, I think that the highlight of my career is the opportunity I had to deliver a keynote lecture at the 5th International Conference on Organic Solvent Nanofiltration (Antwerp, 2015), in front of the industrial and academic community of experts working on organic solvent nanofiltration.
How would you advise an undergraduate student looking to pursue research?
ABT - If you think you may enjoy being a researcher, do a PhD, you can always get a job later. There’s plenty of positions for PhD level researchers, inside and outside the lab. When you pick a research project, make sure you pick a research group that is good as well as supportive. If offered, use the opportunity to speak to existing members of the group to find out what daily life looks like. Do what interests you most, not what is convenient or other people tell you is a hot topic.
PM - A good researcher is usually curious, quick to grasp ideas and run with them, but also systematic, collaborative and motivated throughout difficulties. I would recommend reading a lot, questioning the status of the art, being sceptical and open minded. From a more practical point of view, I would also recommend getting some hands-on experience, for example by joining research groups for internships or using the final year research project as a “tester”, and talking to experienced researchers, such as academics, mentors and tutors in the department.
Is there some aspect of your research that you wish gained broader public interest?
ABT - I wish there would be more positivity towards the right kind of biofuels and more belief that we can do them at a large scale, provided research and policy work together effectively. Hopefully, as more and more issues are solved this will become a reality. The biggest threats to food security are war, ineffective governments, climate change and soil degradation, not biofuels.
PM - In my group at Imperial, we are very keen in sharing our research with the public audience, and I particularly like this aspect. I like explaining the implications of the specific work we do for people’s lives, although the connection is not always straightforward. This is often the case when the research involves work at micro- or nanoscale, which is not easy to visualise. I think that people like understanding what goes on in the labs and what all those people dressed with white coats and safety googles do all day (sometimes simplified as “mixing stuff”). I like outreach events such as the Imperial Festival, because they give us the opportunity to explain our work in simpler terms and entertain at the same time. We participated last year with the “Molecular Purification” booth, where we showcased how our purification technique using membrane works and how much energy is required to drive it. The energy was obtained by letting people cycle on generator bikes. Participation was great from both children and adults. If you missed the event last year, please visit the Imperial Festival this May (7th-8th) and you will find it again. Yes, research can be fun!
What is the next goal for you? Where you do see your field going in the next 5-10 years?
ABT - My next goal is to use create a larger range of products using the ionoSolv process. In particular I would like to research the production of wood-derived carbon fibres that can be used to build more light-weight fuel efficient cars. I think the renewable chemical industry has a bright future and will grow as scientists and engineers develop new solutions. The next 10-15 years will be a challenging battle against the established petrochemical industry, but there’s no alternative.
PM - Based on the promising development of membrane separation in recent years, and the still significant growth potential, membrane separation is a good candidate technology to make a paradigm shift in molecular purification/separation processes in different industrial applications. My next goal, within the field, is to successfully conclude the project I am currently working on and hopefully obtain the desired outcome.
After that, my career goal is to reach a position of professional maturity as a chemical engineer in a leading pharmaceutical company, where I could have the opportunity to benefit from the experience in membrane-based separation and purification technologies acquired during my academic research period.
Please join us once more in congratulating Dr Patrizia Marchetti and Dr Agi Brandt-Talbot for this outstanding achievement! We wish them all the best for the future.
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Department of Chemical Engineering
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