Henry Powell-Davies

Developing ontologies for robotic chemistry: Automation, optimisation, discovery and design
University of Glasgow
Hi! Tell us a bit about yourself – what stage of your PhD are you in and what’s your project about?

Hi everyone! I’m Henry and I’m currently in the first year of my PhD in Chemistry in the Cronin Group at the University of Glasgow. When asked what my research involves, my usual response is “I use 3D printing technologies to design bespoke reactors capable of performing on-demand synthesis of important molecules”. However, the more I’ve thought about what I do, I’d say my research at its core is aiming to make synthetic chemistry more accessible and ultimately safer for those whom may encounter difficulties performing traditional glassware syntheses. Simply put, by utilising 3D-printing, programmable system automation and active sensor feedback, I hope to enable more chemists to embrace digital technologies in order to reduce the barrier to entry for those who may encounter difficulties using traditional methods, whilst also making these processes more efficient, safer and cost-effective.

What does a typical day or week look like for you?

Now, if you’d asked me this question 6 months ago, I probably would’ve said something along the lines of “a cup of coffee in the morning, before heading to the lab to do some synthesis, a bit of coding work and reading a fair few literature papers, whilst catching up with colleagues over lunch”. Of course as we all know this year didn’t quite go according to plan and due to COVID-19, much of this work for me has been done remotely from home since March, which has been both a good and a bad thing. Personally I’ve found the flexibility of WFH has allowed me to expand my knowledge in many different areas, for example since not being able to do much lab work, I have spent more time developing my coding knowledge (specifically Python) which has really helped with its applications to my research. However, being away from the lab, missing out on the usual day-to-day social interactions has been hard, even with regular Zoom calls, as I’m sure many of you can appreciate, it’s just not the same as grabbing a coffee and having a chat in office that it is over video. Outside of work I have developed skills in other areas including cooking and learning Italian. I’ve always been fascinated with cooking, after all it’s essentially chemistry which (usually) you can eat – what’s not to like – so being able to experiment with new recipes and also share these via Twitter has been great! We are now starting to get back into the lab on a more regular basis and I am very much enjoying being able to do more synthesis and importantly interact with colleagues in person, rather than over Zoom, for the first time in a while!

What’s one thing that you’ve enjoyed the most during your PhD?

Reflecting on this first year so far I’d say it’s having the opportunity to work with such a wonderfully diverse and friendly group of people. Not only that, but also the intellectual discussions are great and often can lead to trying new ideas in the lab which I would not have thought of otherwise! Also, being able to be part of the active ChemTwitter community is great, with such a wide range of people in different areas of chemistry, there’s always something new to see and having used the platform to discuss my research in various forms over the past year (for example taking part in the RSC Twitter poster compeititon this year), it has been immensely rewarding not only from a networking perspective to build recognition of my work, but also discuss other areas of academia including the stigma around mental health and the ways we can help to improve support for this, and having such an active community to talk about this and many other things besides is great for not only my personal but professional development too.

What’s been the most challenging part of it?

I think every PhD comes with its own set of unique challenges for each of us based on our experiences. For me, it’s been dealing with the feeling of imposter syndrome and the feeling of not being able to achieve what I’ve set out to do. Of course, the more I’ve worked to combat this, I’ve come to realise that at the end of the day, whilst it’s natural to want to succeed during your PhD, your health and well-being is far more important than any result in the lab or paper acceptance. Achieving a good work-life balance during this first year of my PhD has been far and away the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with. That means not feeling guilty for not working all the time, remembering not to constantly check emails/Slack and importantly not defining your self-worth based on if you get that high yield or your code runs flawlessly first time. It means taking time to exercise during the week, getting enough sleep and knowing when you need a break. As I write this, I’m back from a week’s holiday and I feel much better now, far more motivated and refreshed, ready to work smarter, not harder, to achieve my goals.

Where do you see yourself 5 years after completing your PhD?
I’m not usually one to look at the bigger picture, but I would like secure a postdoctoral researcher position in chemical automation, which could then lead on to a lectureship position in this area or another related to my PhD project. I have always been one who enjoys teaching others, especially because seeing that lightbulb moment when a student understands a concept you’ve been teaching them is always so rewarding and humbling. That’s why I do online tutoring alongside my PhD and so to be able to teach at a university-level, whilst continuing to research new and exciting ways to implement chemical automation, leading my own research group would be a great way to combine my love of teaching with the thrill of research and discovery!

What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer students that are thinking of doing a PhD?
It’s one simple piece of advice I wish I had told myself sooner: never be afraid to ask stupid questions. There’s no such thing as a stupid question, only those questions which are never asked. Without asking questions, we might never consider an alternative view to our own, which could lead to limited understanding of a topic or misinterpretation entirely, ignorance certainly is never bliss when it comes to the advancement of science and society in general. Never be afraid to fail, this quote always makes me re-evaluate my definition of success and strive to ask more questions: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” — Winston Churchill.

What makes your university a good place to study?

The University of Glasgow is a fantastic place to work, from the friendly people you meet, to the stunning architecture, there are many things to like here. As a city, Glasgow has many places to explore, I am partial to a walk in the Botanical Gardens (weather permitting of course, Glasgow is synonymous with rain!) and a coffee in Kember & Jones! For graduate students, the PGR community is great, with many social events held to meet people from other subject areas and enjoy time outside of work. Besides this, Glasgow is a very affordable city to live in, with excellent transport links (including the Subway) and places to eat and drink!

Lastly, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

In my free time I enjoy reading, listening to podcasts and cooking. More recently I’ve started to learn Italian on Duolingo and began to experiment with coffee using a espresso machine I acquired during lockdown! I also enjoy going to the gym and doing yoga as a way to relax either in the mornings before work or in the evenings after a long day. I also enjoy socialising with friends over a pint of cider or a G&T after a busy week of research.

Thanks Henry! How can our readers find out more about you and get in touch?

During my undergraduate degree (MChem at Cardiff University), I spent my third year in Quebec City, Canada. During this time I wrote a blog documenting my time there, so if you’re interested in what I did both in and out of the lab, have a look here: https://hpdchem.wordpress.com. This year abroad also resulted in my first publication based on the work I did there.

If you want to learn more about me and my research you can read my personal profile on the Cronin Group website here. I have also written a recent article for theGIST magazine.

If you’d like to see more about what I get up to in the lab day-to-day you can follow me on Twitter @hpowelldavies, where you’ll find my winning poster from this year’s RSC Poster competition.

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