Helen Pritchard-Smith

Phew first chat done

Favourite Thing: To make new things that no one in the world has made before and try and get them to do something important like renewable materials or save lives.



Notting Hill and Ealing High School 1997-2004, Queen Mary College University of London 2005-2009


Pharmaceutical Chemistry MSci

Work History:

Birmingham children’s hospital as a clinical observer, Paddington health centre as a phlebotomist

Current Job:

4th year PhD Student at Bristol Chemical Synthesis Centre for Doctoral training, University of Bristol


University of Bristol

Me and my work

I use carbon dioxide that would otherwise be polluting the atmosphere and turn it into a useful material like plastic

I am in the final year of my PhD. I am working on a new type of ligand (this is like a man- made enzyme) i am trying to change the environment around a metal centre so that it can perform a reaction that would otherwise not be possible.

My Typical Day

Cycle to work, get into the lab and check on my experiments, start new experiments, read academic papers, cycle home

I try to get into work at 8 as it is quiet then and i can plan the day ahead. Time management is really important, setting up experiments can take hours and some need to be left over night or over the weekend to react. There is a lot of cleaning involved, because i work with metals and phosphine all of the glasswear i use has to be cleaned in strong alkali then strong acid solutions before being put in a really hot oven (200 C).

All of the materials i use cannot exposed to air as they react with the water and oxygen that is present and wither fall apart or set on fire. Therefore all of my experiments exclude the presence of air. I use a different gas that has no oxygen or water in it: nitrogen. There is a piece of equipment most people have in their fume cupboards that is connected to a nitrogen source and a vacuum pump . So i take my clean, hot glassware out of the oven and attach it to the vacuum so any moisture that has condensed is removed then i fill it with nitrogen. I have to do this three times to make sure then i can use my glassware.

Another way is to use a glovebox, this time we use argon instead of nitrogen, there are ports on the side so you can remove the air using a vacuum then bring it inside and do you experiment with no danger of it reacting with oxygen or water.

I use a piece of equipment called an autoclave , it is also called a bomb by people who don’t understand it. I take it into the glovebox and put all of the things i want to react together in it then seal it up with a spanner and take it to my fume cupboard where i attach it to my schlenk line. I then fill the atmosphere in the autoclave with a high pressure of carbon dioxide (another one of the things i need to react) and put it on a large hotplate. As it heats up the pressure increases, it makes a large noise when i release the pressure. I will put a photo of it below.

What I'd do with the money

I would give it to the All trials campaign and Sense about Science

All trials is a campaign that wants to release all of the clinical trial data and make it available to the public. Each year pharmaceutical companies make thousands of new medicines which they test out in clinical trials (some of which are performed on people) if the result is not positive for the new medicine they have designed they keep it a secret.

Often they only release the trial data where their new product looks good. This can be misleading for Doctors when they read the trial data as it may make the medicine seem better than it is, so when they prescribe it to a patient it may not be the best choice. Without all of the trial information Doctors are not able to make the best decision possible to maintain the health of their patient which is unacceptable. If this campaign is successful it will be illegal to keep the results of clinical trials secret.

I have been a volunteer for Sense about Science for over a year. They are a charitable trust that works with scientists and the public to help scientists explain their work and it be understood by everyone and non-scientists to understand science and evidence present in newspapers and government policy. The respond to thousands of requests each year to try and tackle bad science that gets on to the TV and into newspapers and tries to change it so it is either correct or it is removed so people don’g get confused or misinformed on a certain scientific matter.


My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

dedicated, adventurous, thoughtful

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Mr Scruff, The cat empire, Caravan Palace, alt J, Bison

What's your favourite food?

Malaysian – salmon laksa

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Sky diving

What did you want to be after you left school?

A doctor

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Yes but not too much

What was your favourite subject at school?

English literature and chemistry

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Volunteered at science events

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

A close family friend dying of cancer so i became interested in anti-cancer agents

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

International woman of mystery

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Health for myself and my family, happiness = travelling around the world on my bicycle and getting people excited about chemistry, speaking several languages fluently

Tell us a joke.

Got any good jokes about sodium? Na

Other stuff

Work photos:

Is a picture of my fume cupboard, it doesn’t look that messy all the time i promise! The piece of glass with all the tubes coming off it is a schlenk line. That is what allows me to perform all of my experiments without air getting in.

This is a picture of the autoclave i use to do all of the high pressure reactions in. Can you see the bolts at the top around the sides? I need to tighten these enough before pushing a large amount (40 bar = ) into that tiny space and heating it up to 80 degrees. The pressure can go up to 60 bar which is very high, that is why some people call it a bomb. There is a pressure gauge so if it gets too high a valve will burst open and release the pressure – this is bad but it means that the gas can be released in a controlled way without bits of metal flying everywhere.

Here is a picture of an even more messy fume hood than mine, it belongs to another PhD student and he is filtering a solid under a nitrogen atmosphere .