EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Chemical Synthesis

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol


The traditional PhD programme begins with a student seeking out a PhD position early on in their final year of
undergraduate study. The time elapsed between a student choosing their project and actually starting is generally between
6-8 months - can a student really be sure that the right choice has been made under these circumstances? This choice is
probably the most important decision an aspiring professional researcher can make, yet students can make ill informed,
naive or simply unsuitable PhD choices based on their perceived interests and limited research experience.
Bristol Chemical Synthesis (BCS) is a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) that offers a different and much enhanced PhD
training experience to the traditional path. Crucially, students join the Centre in October but do not choose their PhD
research project until 7-months later. Students spend these 7-months completing a unique, multifaceted training period
called Postgraduate Advanced Chemical Techniques (PACT). The over-arching goal of PACT is to equip the students with
the tools required to make the best-informed PhD project choice, to develop a creative attitude towards problem solving
and to build self-confidence with presentations and by speaking publicly. PACT also provides a formal assessment
mechanism before students progress to their PhD projects. Brainstorming involves the students generating ideas on outline
research proposals which they then present to the staff members in a lively and engaging feedback session, which
invariably sees new and student-driven ideas emerge. By encouraging teamwork and presentation skills, as well as
allowing students to become fully engaged with the projects and staff, brainstorming ensures that students take control of a
PhD proposal before they start - 'Partners not Slaves' is our vision. Research Broadening Sabbaticals comprise three
successive 7-week lab rotations designed to include a period of "known" work, enabling the student to practice new skills
required for further research. Rotations are important in giving students the opportunity to learn new techniques beyond
their undergraduate experience, providing them with time to consider and reflect on their choice of PhD by offering "tasters"
in different areas of synthetic chemistry. Dynamic Laboratory Manual (DLM) enabled experiments allow students to
experience an interactive, virtual version of an essential experimental technique. Pioneered at the undergraduate level at
Bristol, DLMs consist of a mixture of simulations, videos, tutorials and quizzes to allow the student to gain a full
understanding of a technique and learn from mistakes quickly, effectively and safely before entering the lab.
Chemical Synthesis is an area upon which much of modern society relies as it enables the customised fabrication of
products that are the essential materials of our daily lives. Examples are wide and diverse from vital life saving drugs to the
chromic materials that make your iPad screen change in an instant. There are 15 key UK industry sectors in which
chemistry is an essential component, employing over 5 million people and contributing £258bn (21%) to the UK's GDP.
Pharma, agrochem, petrochem, fine & bulk chemical manufacturing and CRO industries are major players in these
industries and UK competitiveness here is unsustainable without the continued supply of highly trained & skilled chemical
synthesis PhD graduates. Our Centre will train the next generation of synthetic chemistry architects equipped to solve the
diverse molecular problems of the future.

Planned Impact

The students will be the key beneficiaries of this research as they will be exposed to and be able to exploit a new form of
PhD training in the chemical sciences. In particular they will be able to input to and shape their project before embarking on
it - this will make a key impact on the science compared to the normal PhD route and will produce students who are
motivated and engaged from the start. Aspects of the course such as Brainstorming, regular problem sessions, Outreach
and Public Engagement, and the organization and delivery of the CDT-Syngenta Award to a world-leading academic will
produce students who are more confident in their own abilities. This in turn will have a real impact on their future careers
when making presentations or when interviewed, as well as fast tracking their leadership skills. Other aspects of the
training such as IP, Entrepreneurship and Commercialisation, will help stimulate and prepare these students for developing
their own Start-up ventures based around their science skills. Science and Technology SMEs are increasingly vital to the
UK's economy and if we are to make an impact on the world stage our next generation of scientists must be empowered to
move quickly and flexibly in that direction. At an academic level the science that these students will produce will make an
impact right across the chemical synthesis landscape and will train a new generation of academic unafraid to cross
chemical boundaries. These students promise to contribute to vitally important areas of society such as healthcare,
medicine, energy and food production - all requiring new molecular entities to be produced efficiently and effectively. The
nations health both financially (eg GDP) and physically (eg antibiotics) desperately need innovative new directions. For
example, the Pharmaceutical industry requires a new direction for drug discovery. One ripe area is to explore new 3D
molecular space, a space that just a few years ago would have been avoided due to complexity and expense. If new drug
IP is to be created, and tax revenue thereof, then we must train a new generation of molecule makers who are unafraid to
take on the challenges of this unexplored space and, more importantly, be able to exploit it commercially. We believe that
our Centre will be able to train PhD students with this level of scientific skill and commercial aspiration.
Our industrial stakeholders are invaluable to the the patronage and direction of the Centre and will benefit greatly from
direct interaction with the various cohorts during their tenure in the Centre. For example, by providing the CDT students
with industrial placements, an effective two way knowledge and skills exchange will operate: students will get invaluable
insight into small, medium and large industries; industry will see first hand the highly motivated and skilled students the
Centre produces as well as get access to much of the unique electronic teaching material that the Centre has developed.
Finally the CDT will have a positive impact on supervisor behavior by ensuring collaboration under conditions that are not
forced or artificial. All potential PhD projects submitted for Brainstorming must have at least two supervisors. This can be
either academic -academic (home/away) or academic-industrial. We have found with the current CDT that these proposals
must describe real collaborations or the students are unlikely to select them. This provides the right encouragement for
collaborators to generate strong proposals that will interest all parties, which in turn is leading to high quality publications in
high impact journals.


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