Everything we buy, whatever form it takes, features chemistry of some kind. From the lithium in our laptop batteries to the carbohydrates in our food and the compounds in plants, chemistry is ubiquitous.
‘Solutions’ is a word we have always heard in relation to science in general, and chemistry in particular. In recent years, it has also become increasingly prevalent in business, applied, with varying degrees of precision, to everything from software to gardening to sports equipment.
But one place where both definitions of the word have equal relevance, and accuracy, is the University of Strathclyde’s increasingly successful Chemistry Clinic.
It frequently requires specialist knowledge to understand exactly how chemistry works and, importantly, how it could be made to work better. If a company is not specifically science-based, this may well not form part of its day-to-day business and what are often vast opportunities for enhancing products and services could be overlooked.
Strathclyde’s Chemistry Clinic is here to bridge the gap, helping companies large and small to improve their offerings and enabling them to focus on business. Strathclyde’s Chemistry researchers have carried out consultancy work for many years but the Clinic was founded in 2013 by Professor John Liggat – now the Faculty of Science’s Vice-Dean (Knowledge Exchange) – to provide a structured framework for the activity.
The Clinic is currently run by Dr Sharon Ingram, along with Professor Liggat and Dr Brian McMillan, and a committee of four students: Jade Paterson; Lewis Kelly, Téa Steel and Scott Thomson. In the nine years since its establishment, 38 undergraduate students have worked for it as part of a credit-bearing module, gaining valuable experience to lay foundations for their future careers. It interacts with more than 40 companies every year and working with the clinic offers students on Strathclyde’s integrated five-year undergraduate Masters courses the opportunity to take the one-year industrial placement required for the course.
A wide range of products
Products the clinic has worked on have included: wax as an alternative to plastics in food packaging; a multi-surface cleaner for tackling kitchen bacteria; new materials for polyester film and the ingredients of dumplings. In the last case, the client, Michelle Maddox, of Perthshire-based Clootie McToot Dumplings, was more recently seen as a contestant on BBC One programme Gordon Ramsay’s Future Food Stars.
While its business consultancy work is the Clinic’s core activity, it is by no means its sole purpose. The students also engage in outreach with schools, where they act as STEM ambassadors and aim to help nurture the next generation of scientists. Pupils also make return visits to the department at Strathclyde and students working at the Clinic analyse materials for their Advanced Higher Chemistry projects.
Dr Ingram said: “As well as the scientific and industrial aspect of the Clinic, there’s a real social dimension to it. Our work pursues the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, particularly through our extensive work with recycled and biodegradable materials.
“During the pandemic, we had to suspend our students’ visits to schools, and school pupils’ visits to our department, but this is something we are planning to reintroduce, although we were able to host virtual visits which still gave pupils the opportunity to see an experiment and answer questions.
“The idea of our school outreach work is to show pupils that science is exciting and interesting and much of it is done with schools from SIMD 40 areas, which are among the most disadvantaged in Scotland. For our students, it’s an opportunity not only to impart their knowledge and share their passion but also to apply their skills, practise communication and enhance their confidence.
“Working with businesses also gives our students entrepreneurial experience. We learn a lot from a wide range of experts and they can come up with excellent plans which can lead to separate projects. We have had businesses who are repeat customers and others who have gone on to do larger scale projects or Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, or who have funded a PhD.”
A number of the Clinic’s projects have received funding through Interface Innovation Vouchers, awarded by the Scottish Funding Council.
Students at the Chemistry Clinic
I feel my decision to join the Chemistry Clinic has been one of the best decisions I have made in my life. It has given me the opportunity to further develop my practical skills and put to use the scientific knowledge I had previously learned on the Pure and Applied Chemistry course. The opportunity to work alongside PhD students and senior researchers on client projects was my favourite aspect of the Chemistry Clinic, this also gave me a great insight into the work I would be doing in my final year project, and it allowed me to explore the opportunity of a PhD. The past nine months have had a huge impact on my personal growth, I am now much more confident in myself and that is thanks to the constant development in my group working and presentation skills.
My year at the Chemistry clinic has definitely been a highlight of my degree so far. I’ve been able to learn and develop many skills for client meetings, presentations, and problem solving. My favourite part is that I have been given so many different opportunities during this placement that I’m not sure I would have received anywhere else. I would recommend the Chemistry Clinic to anyone who isn’t sure if they want to be in a traditional placement and wants to use problem solving and experiment every day.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Chemistry Clinic, it has been a fantastic experience and has outweighed any previous expectations I had about what my time on placement would be like. My favourite aspect of the Chemistry Clinic has been the technical projects where we get to collaborate with all sorts of different clients. A particular highlight of my year was when we got the chance to go on a business trip and meet one of our clients in person. As well as developing a wide range of practical skills through working on technical projects, I have also been involved in various outreach activities which have greatly benefited my communication skills, particularly public speaking. To anyone thinking of doing a placement year, I would highly recommend the Chemistry Clinic, it is a truly unique and memorable experience.
My time at the Chemistry Clinic was invaluable. I was able to gain a key insight into working as a scientist, while also being introduced to the business and marketing considerations. Working alongside PhD students also gave me a greater understanding of what to expect and why I should go down this path.
“We learned a great deal”: one company’s Chemistry Clinic story
Kirsty Morrison is the founder of health and beauty company Zing Organics:
“Ensuring the purity of our products and the wellbeing of our customers is paramount – that's why we were keen to commission third party purity testing. In 2014, I approached Interface, the organisation which marries up Scottish businesses with university academic departments for product research and development.
“With allergies and sensitivities in my family going back a couple of generations, I wanted to be sure that the products I was creating, principally candles at that time, were as safe as they could possibly be. Buying in all natural ingredients is one thing, but I wanted to be extra sure that they were genuinely as pure as possible.
“A fruitful telephone call with Professor John Liggat at Strathclyde, which is just by chance my alma mater, would be the start of a long relationship between Zing Organics and the Chemistry Clinic.
“Originally, I'd hoped to prove our candles were asthma safe. However, John explained that any study would have to be more specific, and we agreed on having our candles tested phthalates free. Phthalates are used commonly in synthetic fragrances but also find their way into 'natural' fragrances at times, and are highly injurious to health, including having associations with cancer, asthma, and endocrine disruption.
“The study was very successful, and the students not only tested the end products phthalates free, but also the individual ingredients, packaging and handling equipment. This meant that, when using the same components from the same sources in creating other products, we could be reasonably sure they were also free of this contaminant.
“Other collaborations with the Chemistry Clinic took place, and we learned a great deal about other aspects of quality control, including developing tighter relationships with suppliers. This led to new protocols being rolled out in our hands-on workshop.
“As a start-up business, it was a great benefit to have the support of the team at the Chemistry Clinic, and we are regularly invited to join in other programmes. This helps leverage Zing Organics as being truly committed to ensuring the wellbeing of its customers.
“As of 2022, our organic skincare is now our main product line, and we are in discussions with The Chemistry Clinic to be able to give us an early indication of outline SPF efficacy on a new tinted makeup cream. This is before we decide to take the product through potentially laborious and costly compliance.
“I would encourage any company of any size to run any research ideas past the management team at The Chemistry Clinic. If they can't come up with the precise approaches to the project you have in mind, they will have other worthwhile alternatives for you to consider.”