Friday, 21 October 2016

Adventures in Chemical Computing

On the evening of 20 October RSC Belgium members and friends welcomed our immediate past RSC president, Prof Dominic Tildesley to the British School of Brussels to talk to us about his chemical career and give us some insights on what the future holds for chemistry and computing. He also was able to present 'gold' RSC badges to three long term members of the society.

Prof Dominic Tildesley’s deep interest in computing, and software in particular, began in the summer of 1973. As a young undergraduate chemist at the end of his second year, he had the opportunity to take a summer job at IBM Hursley Park. Here he learnt to programme in their Development Laboratory and this experience captivated him and convinced him to take a PhD at Oxford University that would combine chemistry and his newfound appreciation of the computer.

In the 70s this involved a trek from the Chemistry Department to the Computing Centre in Oxford carrying a box of 500 punched cards as input for a 20 minute of run time overnight – and this was the state-of-the-art!

Following his doctorate Dominic went on to undertake postdoctoral research at Penn State and Cornell universities in the US before returning to the University of Southampton as a lecturer and then Professor of Theoretical Chemistry. He moved to Imperial College London in 1996 as Professor of Computational Chemistry.

Unusually Dominic then began an industrial career when in 1998 he took the role of Head of the Physical Science Group at Unilever Research at Port Sunlight. He remained there until 2012 when he was appointed Director of the European Centre for Atomic and Molecular Computation at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

Modelling first
Dominic was elected President of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2014. In his inaugural speech as President he suggested that:
"the speed and development of computers is now so rapid, and the advances in modelling and informatics are so dramatic that in 15 years’ time, no chemist will be doing any experiment at the bench without trying to model it first." 
The main part of Dominic's talk took us through his reasoning behind that statement that is based on four pieces of evidence he has observed over his career.
  1. The massive (continuing) increase in the power of computing - he has seen a 1011 increase in computational power and a corresponding increase in storage in his time. As an interesting aside Dominic said that a current top-end petaflop computer (a petaflop is a unit of computing speed equal to one thousand million (1015) floating-point operations per second) needs a 10MW power supply!
  2. The imagination of theorists has brought forth significant methodological breakthroughs (such as computations of force fields) realised through robust software applications.
  3. Big data trumps the Hamiltonian equation by which he meant the new paradigm of machine learning and the use of data models to capture trends in experimental and simulated output.
  4. The involvement of industry and their hunger to use these computational methods as a tool for economic growth.
Dominic believes that despite the fact that chemistry is essentially and absolutely an experimental science, from this point forward, it will always be decorated and enhanced by modelling. And following his talk I think his audience at BSB now believes it too.

Gold membership
Before the talk Dominic presented 'gold' membership badges to three long-time RSC members: Brian Sutcliffe (pictured on right below), John Swift (on left below) and Rita Woodward.

Gold badges signify over 40 years membership of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Congratulations to our recipients!

Friday, 7 October 2016

Do Scientists Dream of Synthetic Sheep?

On 27 September RSC Belgium members and friends were treated to a highly entertaining and informative presentation by Dr Jack Heal at the British School of Brussels. Initially a maths graduate Jack is now a post-doc researcher in a multidisciplinary group working on synthetic biology at Bristol University. But his presentations combine serious science and a stand-up comedy style. Jack has even starred at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The event also featured the prize-giving for the top scorers in our 2016 Chemistry Challenge. You can find more information on the winners here.

Jack took us through the history, issues and ethics around synthetic biology together with a glimpse of what this new area of science can do for us - and also what it cannot - introducing many of the leading personalities involved in the field with the aim of answering the question: Do Scientists Dream of Synthetic Sheep?

The large audience really appreciated Jack's broad overview of the recent history and development of synthetic biology and were taken from the Human Genome Project to CRISPR (or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) in 50 minutes. On the way, we considered important questions such as: What is a spider goat? Can we create artificial life? And why haven’t we made Jurassic Park yet? Jack's presentation was greatly appreciated and all agreed that they had been both entertained and enlightened. A lively question and answer session followed.

This RSC Belgium event was free to all, however there was the opportunity to contribute to a charity that Dr Jack supports: the 'Against Malaria Foundationthat helps protect people against malaria by supplying and distributing insecticidal nets. On the night we were able to raise over €280 for this great cause. Our thanks to all who donated! You can also donate directly to the charity via its web page.

The event was also the venue for the presentation of certificates and cash prizes to the winners of our 2016 Chemistry Challenge competition (see separate article) including the Keith Price Prize for the best overall performance in terms of chemical knowledge.

2016 Chemistry Challenge Winners announced

The results of the RSC Belgium Chemistry Challenge 2016 have been announced and the talented prize winners picked up their winnings at a special RSC Belgium event with Dr Jack Heal of Bristol University on the evening of 27 October at the British School of Brussels (BSB). This year we received 103 eligible entries from international and European schools in Brussels and beyond for this testing challenge of young people's chemical knowledge and initiative.

The RSC Belgium Chemical Challenge has three sections:
  • A/ A chemistry multiple choice paper
  • B/ A structured questions on chemistry, and
  • C/ A 'Thinking Matters' paper that is not chemistry based

And the top results were as follows:

Section A: Multiple choice
First was Evan Dastin-Vanrijn from St. John’s International school (St. Johns). Joint second were Pratyusha Sahah of the British School of Brussels (BSB), Dominic Gray of St.John’s, Imogen Rivers from the European School Brussels I (EEBI) and Soham Sinha for the International School of Brussels (ISB). Joint third place was awarded to Akari Izumi and Alice Martin both from St.John’s.

Section B: Structured Questions
In this section first prize was awarded to Mattijs De Paepe of BSB with Pratyusha Saha from BSB, Caifang Du from UWC Maastricht (UWC) and Soham Sinha of ISB in joint second place. Third place was claimed by Evan Dastin-Vanrijn of St.John’s. 

Section C: Thinking Matters
Here joint first place was awarded to Gregor McAlpine and Jasper Parsons both from BSB with Griffin Sharry also of BSB in second place and Caspar Kenny of St John’s in third.

Keith Price Prize
Mattijs De Paepe of BSB, pictured below with RSC Belgium chairman Tim Reynolds, also received the Keith Price Prize for best overall score in the chemistry focused sections (A and B). First prize winners received €50, second €25 and third places €10 with the winner of the Keith Price Prize receiving an additional €100.

Well done to everyone that took part! Every student that entered the competition receives a certificate of participation. We will be running the Challenge again in 2017. And look out for our Top of the Bench International eliminator that will be held on 3 December this year at BSB!

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Namur and the Fete de Wallonie

On 17 September RSC Belgium members and friends were treated to a Saturday morning guided tour of the historic city of Namur. Assembling promptly in front of the city's main train station outside the Namur's Centre d’Information Touristique we were led around the Walloon capital's streets and alleyways by our favourite city guide: Sarah Strange.

Sarah Strange is a very experienced tour guide, author, and poet, and took us on a two-hour promenade through the centre of the city, viewing all the main sites such as the theatre, town hall, belfry, cathedral, Church of St Loup, as well as past museums and market places. There were also views of the famous citadel.

For added entertainment our tour coincided with the climax of the annual Fêtes de Wallonie festival so the city was parading Walloons including the traditional Giants, dancers, samba bands and medieval troops amongst others as our pictures attest. However this meant that there was plenty of entertainment and cultural events for us to take in during the afternoon including the delight that is Peket - the local juniper eau de vie that seems to fuel the Festival in Namur!

As ever Sarah's tour was both informative and entertaining and she also booked a restaurant for lunch, the Etna, for us. Altogether a very fine day out in the late summer sunshine.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Our Second Norman Lloyd Scholar completes Year

Rhodri Evans, the second recipient of the Dr Norman C. Lloyd Scholarship at Cardiff University, has just finished his first year at the university. Rhodri (pictured right), who hails from Caernarfon started his BSc degree in Chemistry at the end of September last year. At the end of his exams Rhodri was interviewed by Cardiff University’s Development and Alumni Relations office.

What degree are you undertaking and why did you choose the course here?
I am studying Chemistry simply because it gives a logical explanation to very complicated questions. I'm an individual who always likes searching for answers thus Chemistry seemed the obvious choice for me.

What’s the best thing about studying at Cardiff?
Clearly, the university itself is respected across the entire country, which alone is enough reasoning to be satisfied but I also love the city. It's such a welcoming place which makes studying here all the more better.

Do you have a particular career in mind after you graduate?
As I've only finished my first year, I don't want to tie myself down to a particular career path at this moment in time. There's a lot of different aspects of Chemistry I enjoy, from the physical aspect to biological applications, so any one of these routes would be an exciting career for me.

What’s was your favourite module during your first year of study?
As mentioned above, various aspects of Chemistry capture my imagination thus picking a favourite is very difficult. Having said that, the history behind Inorganic Chemistry and how different theories have been used over the years really makes me appreciate the importance of the degree.

Do you have any hobbies outside of studying?
As university life can get stressful at times, I do love taking my mind off things by doing any form of sports. A great passion of mine is football but since moving to Cardiff, I have been spending more time in the gym.

What difference has this scholarship made to you?
Without a doubt, the biggest impact that the scholarship has made is given me confident in my own abilities. I must admit, moving into a lecture room with nearly 200 students can be daunting at times thus I am thankful for the boost in confidence it gave me.

If you could say something to the donor who gave you this gift, what would it be?
From the bottom of my heart, I am truly grateful for the scholarship. It has enhanced my university experience and that is something I shall cherish.

We wish Rhodri all the best for the future and every success in his future studies at Cardiff.

The scholarship
The Norman Lloyd scholarship was set up by RSC Belgium in collaboration with Norman’s family and Cardiff University in memory of our old friend and supporter Norman Lloyd. Norman was himself a student at an institution that is now part of the university. The funds raised provide an annual scholarship of £1,000 for an undergraduate student, usually in their first year of study. The scholarship is given to new students to the Cardiff School of Chemistry who are of high academic standing and a resident of Wales. The next Norman C Lloyd scholar will be selected in October.

If you would like to donate to the Norman Lloyd scholarship fund follow this link and specify that you wish to donate to the Norman Lloyd Scholarship fund in the comments box.

Friday, 8 July 2016

St George's and the TOTB Dragon 2016

In November, St George’s School in Luxembourg City entered two teams into the RSC Belgium annual ‘Top of the Bench’ (TOTB) competition. This prestigious event is open to all schools in Belgium and Luxembourg region. 

The RSC Belgium ‘eliminator’ took place in unusual circumstances as the planned event in Brussels had to be cancelled at the very last minute (St. Georges were already on the bus from Luxembourg) due to a terrorist threat and the subsequent ‘security lock down’ of Brussels.

So instead of the 'face-to-face' event, each team was sent tests to complete and return to the section for marking. Team Hydrogen from St George's did really well and won the RSC Belgium regional heat! And as a result of this victory they received the Keith Price Cup and entry into the final of the TOTB competition representing RSC Belgium. The following is a short description of their experience at the RSC's main competition in the UK.

The TOTB final was held at Loughborough University, in the UK on Saturday 16 April. It was jointly hosted by the Royal Society of Chemistry and Loughborough University’s Chemistry department. In total 32 teams participated in the event, all of which had made it through their regional eliminator rounds to earn the right to compete against the best schools in the UK (and St George’s).

It was a great event, starting with an individual round – which was essentially a chemistry exam, followed by the main event which was a team round involving a series of very complicated chemistry investigations regarding batteries and energy (see above). To round off the day, students were invited to view interactive presentations from some of Loughborough University’s post-graduate chemistry students on the various research projects that they were working on. All the competing teams were used as a voting panel and asked to decide where they would like to see further funding utilised.

Despite the St. George's team not making it into the top six ranked places, this competition was an excellent opportunity for the students to challenge themselves and see the various avenues of research that university students are taking after studying chemistry.

This event certainly stretched their ability and provided a great insight into teamwork and working under pressure. Overall it was an enjoyable experience for all members involved, including the staff!

The St. George's team (pictured above) consisted of the following students: Ethan – Year 11 (Team Captain); Yi hua – Year 10; Alistair – Year 9; and Alexios – Year 9. The team were accompanied to Loughborough by their teachers Mr Stenton and Mrs Winter. Well done St. George's!

Conserving Historical Artefacts

The evening of 19 May 2016 saw RSC Belgium's last lecture before our normal break for the summer months with a good audience of RSC members and friends enjoying a talk on the 'Conservation of Historical Artefacts' from Dr. Rob Janaway of Bradford University. The venue for the talk was Rubens Hall at the British School of Brussels (BSB) and Dr Janaway explored the various scientific methods available to preserve and restore ancient artefacts retrieved from archaeological excavations around the world.

Rob Janaway explained the various processes that result in the differential decay and preservation of artefacts buried in the soil and also underwater. He then described how, once these materials have been excavated, the various scientific methods that are available to preserve and restore ancient artefacts retrieved from archaeological excavations around the world are used. His talk included case studies of both ancient artefacts and more recent material associated with World War 1 battlefields in Belgium.

Rob (pictured above) is Lecturer in Archaeological Sciences and has more than 35 years’ experience of Archaeology in both the field and the laboratory. He originally qualified in Archaeological Conservation and specialised in the relationship between materials degradation and their depositional environments.

He has worked on a range archaeological sites including, peat bogs, desert sites, and deep stratified urban deposits. He is a specialist on the taphonomy (the study of decaying organisms over time and how they may become fossilised) and has worked on material from cemeteries, crypts and mausoleums.

He has been involved in taphonomy and conservation of material studies for items from WWI sites in Flanders and he is deeply involved in research on the relationship between soil chemistry, land use and the survival of vulnerable metal artefacts from the medieval battlefield of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire. He has also worked on the analysis of textiles and clothing from the wreck of the Mary Rose - Henry the Eighth's flagship.

In addition to a traditional archaeological role he acts as a Forensic Archaeologist. He has worked on more than 25 criminal cases for a variety of British police forces in a variety of roles including excavator and taphonomy consultant and he has acted as an expert witness in court.

Jobs entertaining and interesting presentation led to some extended discussions after the talk.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Antibiotics Crisis

On the evening of 20 April 2016 RSC Belgium members and friends welcomed Dr. Laura Bowater from the University of East Anglia's Medical School to the Universite Catholique de Louvain (UCL) campus in Woluwe Saint Lambert. Dr Bowater talked about a very hot topic: the growing resistance of bacteria to today’s antibiotics.

Laura's lecture looked at the latest research in this area and how this impending crisis in modern medical treatment may be averted. Laura took us through a potted history of antibiotics from the serendipitous discovery of Penicillin by Alexander Fleming (pictured below) in 1928. In 1941 the microbiologist Selman Waksman used the term ‘antibiotic’ for the first time to describe small molecules that inhibit the growth of microbes and can be used clinically to treat a plethora of bacterial and fungal infections. Between the 1940s and the 1960s was the so-called 'Golden Age of Drug Discovery' with many new and effective drugs being developed.

However as early as December 1945 Fleming had sounded a note of warning in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech saying: “It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them […]. The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant."

He was right. Over the last eighty years bacterial pathogens have developed resistance to almost all of the known antibiotics. Laura explained how bacteria carry the information required for antibiotic resistance in their DNA and some bacterial species are resistant to certain antibiotics as a direct result of their genetic make-up, metabolism and cellular structure, while other bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics through either spontaneous mutation in their DNA or directly acquiring resistance from DNA that is transferred from a resistant bacterium. 

Education is key
The more we use antibiotics the more resistant bacteria are becoming. It is less than a hundred years since Fleming ‘discovered’ Penicillin and our reliance on antibiotics to treat life-threatening infections and prevent post surgery infections is at grave risk if we continue to use them inappropriately and with such casual abandon. Antibiotic use in modern agricultural practice and animal husbandry has increased dramatically and an increase in antimicrobial resistance has followed. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses yet antibiotics continue to be prescribed for viral infections and in some countries it is easy to purchase antibiotics without a prescription.

And, unfortunately the Golden Age of antibiotic discovery is long gone; most commonly found antibiotics have been discovered and the discovery of a novel antimicrobial with a clinical impact is now rare. Pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to invest in a drug that is at best prescribed for a short period of time, and at worst kept on a shelf as a ‘reserve antibiotic’ to be used only when all other treatments have been exhausted and ineffective.

Laura believes that effective education, communication, and engagement lie at the heart of any solution to the antibiotics crisis. Thankfully this approach appears to be working on a global basis and resources are being invested to examine the challenges and present potential solutions to the crisis and financial and regulatory incentives are available to initiate research for new antibiotics.

Dr Laura Bowater (picture above right with RSC Belgium Chairman Tim Reynolds) is a Senior Lecturer at the Norwich Medical School in the University of East Anglia and is a Microbiologist with a research interest in the growing problem of Antibiotic Resistance and the role of education in addressing this global concern. 

Thursday, 10 March 2016

The Road to Loughborough – The Belgian Top of the Bench Experience 2015

Every year RSC Belgium runs an eliminator competition for schools in Belgium to choose a team to participate in the RSC’s Top of the Bench competition in the UK. The eliminator is usually held in November in Belgium to select a team to compete in the TOTB final held in the UK in the following spring.

In 2014 the winning Belgium team was Team Boron (pictured below) from the European School Brussels IV at Laeken in Brussels. This was the first time that the recently opened school had competed in the RSC Belgium competition. This following essay was written by team member Carlo Stella and recounts his experiences of the competition in Belgium and at the final in the UK in April 2015.

The RSC Belgium team selected to participate in the 2016 final is St Georges School from Luxembourg.

RSC Belgium TOTB
The RSC Belgium section was established in the mid 1980’s and has over 100 members. The section organises lectures and visits every year with the majority of activities, including extremely popular annual demonstration lectures, held in or around the Brussels area. However, group expeditions, both professional and social, are also organised throughout Belgium and beyond!

The section is growing its links with schools, both in the Anglophone educational community and the wider Belgian and European language communities, through poster and essay competitions and other outreach activities. And the section runs a national elimination round to select a team from Belgium to attend the annual RSC Top of the Bench (TOTB) in the UK.

Schools were invited to select up to two teams of four students per school to compete to represent RSC Belgium in the Top of the Bench National Final to be held at Loughborough University in the UK on 25 April 2015.

The Eliminator Competition included individual tests of factual chemical knowledge and data interpretation with a team-based practical problem solving activity.

In the UK Final, prizes are given for the best overall school performance and runner up teams. The Jacqui Clee Award is given for an outstanding individual contribution to the day. Travel and accommodation expenses are covered by RSC UK for the selected team and one accompanying teacher.

Team selection
Before forming a group there was an internal elimination round to make up the two groups which will participate in the RSC Belgium eliminator that was held at the British School of Brussels. We started planning in November when our Chemistry teacher announced the possibility to join a team for a Chemistry competition.

TOTB teams are composed as follows: one year S5, one S4 and two S3 students. Only two teams from the European School Brussels IV at Laeken (EEB4) could enter.

There were about 10 candidates in S4 EN. We had to pass a preliminary test as only two S4 students could participate. I was very surprised when they told me I’d made it through. Two teams were formed: Team Boron (Samuil Iskarov S3, Kristian Iliev S3, Carlo Stella S4, Deyan Pehlivanov S5) and Team Argon (Leo Tyrpac S3, Daniel Spasic S3, Victor Elgersma S4, Timothy Rhein S5).

Belgian competition
To qualify to participate in the TOTB final in the UK, we had to compete against other schools from Belgium and Luxembourg. The competition took place in the British School of Brussels. There were a total of 15 teams from all over Belgium and Luxembourg. We had to complete a written test and then perform a practical experiment.

At the end of the day it was announced that team Boron was the first place winner! At first I couldn’t remember who team Boron was. Then they called our names and we received a cup. The other EEB4 team (Argon) was in third place. It was the first time EEB4 had entered the competition and both of our teams had done really well! We were all very happy.

Loughborough final
It was announced that the winning team had to go to Loughborough University to compete in the final. There would be 32 teams participating!

We departed on Friday 24 April on the Eurostar with our team and our exceptional Chemistry teacher Mrs. Mary Jaeger. Then we took an East Midlands Train Service to Loughborough town. The journey was quite long but we finally made it there.

The University campus was gigantic covering almost half of the town. On Saturday morning we got a briefing about the events. The topic of the tests was ‘Chemistry in Food- Organic Chemistry’. We passed a 30 minute individual test in a big university lecture hall. The test was extremely hard and contained topics which were studied in first or second year university courses. I saw many people leaving blank questions.

The second part of the test consisted of a group laboratory experiment. They made us visit the University labs, which were fabulously equipped. The material was set already for each team. The countdown started. Now, this experiment was really impossible. We had with us a 20 page booklet featuring the ‘Procedures’ and some apparatus on the table. However, in the pages they gave us, they told us what to do but not how to do it so we had to figure out how to perform the tasks.

Team work
There was a lot of team work required as it was a very difficult task and on top of that there were judges (senior chemistry teachers) walking around observing every action we made. We distributed out the roles. We were confronted with tasks and problems and we had no idea how to handle them. After a few tries we got the first part right, but then we still had to do the second part of the booklet. We got mostly through the second part but suddenly we were out of time. I am not supposed to tell you what questions they asked us, but I can tell you it was far too hard!  The experiment involved specialised university machines with light spectrum frequencies analysers… I guess the whole point of the competition was testing our ability to react towards unknown content.

I know we have done our best and I am confident that we will be in the first half of the teams. Unfortunately, we know we are not in the top six but we don’t know yet what rating we obtained. Due to the difficulty of the task I would be very content rating in the middle.

After missing the East Midlands train due to a slow taxi driver we finally managed to return back to Brussels a few hours later. We had a very brief stop in the Science Museum in London. I went straight up to the last floor to see the aviation part of the museum (the best part). Then we took the Eurostar back.

I encourage everyone to take part in the RSC competitions because you will never forget nor regret it! It has definitely been the BEST trip I’ve ever had! Special thanks to Mrs. Jaeger for promoting Chemistry throughout the Secondary students and of course for engaging us in competitions!

“Colour is Fun” brightens up Brussels

In the first week of March, RSC Belgium organised for Andrew Hanson from the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, U.K. to tour a number of schools and give a public presentation of his well-known lecture “Colour is Fun”. Andrew visited the European School Brussels II at Woluwe, St. John’s International School in Waterloo, the European School Brussels III at Ixelles, the British School of Brussels at Tervuren and the International School of Flanders (ISF) in Sint-Genesius-Rode, and gave an evening public presentation at the Université Catholique de Louvain’s Woluwe campus in Brussels on 2 March. At each location the lecture met with an enthusiastic reception from the audience, staff and pupils.

Andrew is Outreach Manager and Senior Research Scientist at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK's National Measurement Institute, and a world-leading centre of excellence in developing and applying the most accurate measurement standards available. For over 25 years he has been professionally measuring colour there, from evaluating the appearance of ornamental plants, to building the world’s first national standards telespectroradiometer to calibrate the colour of visual display units and a machine to measure the shininess of cats!

Colour measurement
His lecture tour brightened up a grey week at the end of winter for his audiences with its many colourful and animated slides. The lecture showed how colours are formed by splitting white light into the different wavelengths which we see as colour, how these are absorbed or reflected by the materials we see and the mechanism by which the eye transmits colour messages to the brain.

Equipment for colour measurement was described and how this enabled the definition of any particular colour, important for quality control in many different areas. Several demonstrations revealed how the eye can retain a reverse colour image when the image is removed – Andrew ‘magiced’ the Belgian flag from white, indigo and duck egg blue stripes. Drawing attention to how our perception of colour is determined by the surroundings of that colour, by the end of the lecture the audience was convinced that what had appeared to be four distinctly different colours at the start were in fact the same.

Whilst Andrew is a physicist, his lecture also highlighted the role of chemistry in determining the colour of materials, and in the development of new dyestuffs and colours.

Shiny cats! 
And, yes, there was an image of a shiny cat! And do not be surprised if the next lecture makes reference to the colour of the Belgian chocolate which Andrew took home with him…
In total, the Andrew’s lectures were enjoyed by over 600 students, staff and members of the public. ISF have reported the event on their Facebook page.

We have to thank the NPL for making Andrew’s time available to conduct this lecture tour, and the staff members at the schools who organised the event on the ground.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Changing Perceptions of Chemistry

What do the general public and policy-makers think about when they think about chemistry and chemists? Chemistry and chemicals are essential to life and our modern society - everything is chemistry! But we often see consumer products that claim to be 'chemical-free' and it can seems like chemophobia is widespread in society. Public perceptions of Chemistry and Chemicals and how we talk about chemistry have been hot topics for many years. But what is the real picture? What do the public and policy-makers really think? And how can we best convey the excitement, potential and benefits of chemistry better?

To explore these questions further the RSC Belgium 2016 Café Chimique was entitled “Changing Perceptions of Chemistry and Chemicals”. The event took place on Thursday 4 February in the relaxed atmosphere of the Auderghem Cultural Centre main bar.

RSC Belgium Chairman Tim Reynolds (above left) moderated a panel of three speakers:

  • Jon Edwards (above far right) who is Strategic Communications Manager for the Royal Society of Chemistry who outlined the main findings of the recent RSC survey on public attitudes to chemistry in the UK (#chemperceptions)
  • Dr Anna Gergely (above centre left) who is Director EHS Regulatory at law firm Steptoe & Johnson LLP. Anna talked about the regulatory environment in which chemistry has to operate and how policy-makers perceive chemistry and chemicals
  • Nuno Bacherel (above centre right) who is Editor-in-Chief of the Your Formula website and is Communication Manager, Public Affairs at the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC). Nuno talked about the philosophy behind the Your Formula initiative and his work to change perceptions of chemistry and chemicals

Great debate
As usual the three panel speakers gave short presentations of around ten minutes each before launching into an audience-led debate. Seating was in a café-style format and the usual free bar and nibbles were available throughout the event and afterwards.

As ever there was a very lively debate that lasted well over an hour.

Jon Edwards outlined the main findings of the recent RSC survey on public attitudes to chemistry in the UK. The results showed that the UK public's perception of chemistry and chemicals is far more positive than professional chemists believe, although there is some confusion in the public mind about what a chemist is and what a chemist does. Overall it appears that there is an appetite for people to know more about chemistry; but this will entail a change of attitude for chemists and experts working in the sector. You can find Jon's presentation here (3.28 MB).

Concrete examples and factual data are the added value that scientists and chemists bring to the table when discussing regulatory issues, and this value needs to be positively and widely communicated, without fear, stated Dr Anna Gergely. You can find Anna's presentation here (454 kB).

Initiatives such as Your Formula, bring together people to discuss key sustainability topics, and look to change the public's perceptions. The Your Formula platform is a Cefic initiative where young scientists and researchers with an interest in sustainability share expertise and experience. The platform allows a different way of communicating chemistry and science, with contributors sharing personal activities and high interaction rates through social media explained Nuno. His main message was to: "Be Passionate, Keep it Simple and Make it Personal." Changing public perceptions of chemistry will be a long road, but progress appears to be happening!

More information
You can find all the results and further commentary on the RSC's public attitudes survey on the #chemperceptions pages of the RSC website.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Luxembourg to represent Belgium in Top of the Bench!

The results of the RSC Belgium Top of the Bench (ToTB) eliminator for 2015 have been announced. And the holder of the Keith Price Cup (pictured right) for 2016 - and the Belgian representative in the TOTB grand final in the UK - will be team Hydrogen from St. George's International School in Luxembourg!

This year we were unable to hold our usual practical Saturday event - scheduled for 21 November - due to the Brussels security lock down that came into force on the morning of our event. Fortunately we were able to inform all our competing teams before any of them started to travel to the British School.

Unfortunately it was not possible to find a Saturday afternoon slot to re-schedule the TOTB Eliminator Round before the RSC HQ deadline date for submission of team details of 31 January 2016. So a modified form of the Eliminator was held at each competing school.

This consisted of a written question paper and a challenging Practical Problem Solving Exercise. Although the competition this year did not involve any 'hands-on' practical work the format developed by our resident competition guru, Rita Woodward, gave the students more than just a standard paper and pencil test of their chemical know-how. Students from the Oxygen team at the SHAPE International School are pictured above taking part in the competition at their school.

Members of Hydrogen, the winning team from St George’s Luxembourg, each received a RSC heat sensitive mug and the school will hold the TOTB Keith Price Cup during 2016.

St. George's School Principal, Dr Christian Barkei, was really pleased with the team's success and the win has been reported in some Luxembourg newspapers: 'Young chemists set eyes on prize in UK contest'  ( and 'St George’s Hydrogen Team Wins Royal Society of Chemistry Regional Event in Belgium' (

The Runner–Up team was team Calcium from the European School Brussels 4 in Laeken (EEB4) and Calcium team members each received a RSC phone battery charger as did those students who scored the top mark in the written paper for each of the three year groups that form the TOTB teams. Every student that took part in the competition received a certificate.

The winning Team Hydrogen from St George's are pictured above with the Keith Price Cup and their certificates. Pictured from left to right are team members Alexios Valsamidis, Alistair Reid, Yi-hua Lim and Ethan Utting.  Mark Stenton, Head of Science at St. George's said all the team were very pleased with the trophy, their certificates and their additional gifts!

Full results
Despite our troubles and tribulations the eliminator was, as ever, a close-fought competition with a total of nine from six schools taking part.

The full line up of participating teams for the 2015 competition is listed below:
The TOTB Finals take place in Loughborough in the UK on 16 April 2016 and RSC sponsors the travel arrangements for our winning team. The RSC Belgium team is the only competing school team not based in the British Isles.
Our next TOTB Eliminator Round will, hopefully, take place in November 2016.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

RSC Belgium 2016 AGM report

The section's Annual General Meeting (AGM) and Annual Dinner took place at Les Amis Dinent restaurant in Wezembeek-Oppem on the evening of Friday 15 January 2016. The meeting opened at 19:35 with 10 members and 1 co-opted committee member. In addition sixteen members who were unable to attend the AGM had asked the Chairman to act as their proxy for the meeting if a vote was required. This enabled a working quorum for the meeting to be obtained under our section rules.

Following approval of the minutes of the previous AGM that took place on 16 January 2015 section Secretary Becki Scott presented the Committee Report on the Section’s 2015 Activities.

2015 Highlights 
During the year the section organised five public events, two Saturday social excursions, and a visit from the RSC's CEO: Robert Parker. Total section membership stood at 132 – a net increase of six over the year.

Among highlights of the year were the Café Chimique on Climate Change, Prof Avril MacDonald’s series of demonstration lectures for schools and the public in February, a lively demonstration lecture by Prof Sir John Holman and two guided tours: one of the Waterloo Battlefield in May and the other of the WWI front lines in September. The 2015 Chemistry Challenge competition had attracted increased participation with the prizes given out at Peter Atkins’ event in October.

Feedback had been received from Cardiff University that Ms Dale Lyons (the first recipient of our Norman Lloyd scholarship) had performed exceptionally well in her first year and the next recipient had been selected: Rhodri Evans.

Financial aspects
Rita Woodward presented the 2015 financial report and accounts. In general, 2015 had been a good year for schools events. The section made a net deficit of just over 1200 euros with a remaining balance of c. 6000 euros. The committee aims to keep the account at around 7000 euros due to Belgian regulations meaning that the section officers are responsible for any deficit. A future grant of 9000 euros will be requested from HQ. The accounts had been signed off by the auditor Ralph Palim. Ralph had also a greed to continue as auditor for the section.

Our Chairman, Tim Reynolds, thanked the committee for their hard work and support during the year. He highlighted the “Fantastic Plastic” events that had been taken to the schools, rather than all the schools visiting a set location. This had proven extremely successful and was something the section is hoping to repeat with Andrew Hanson’s “Colour is Fun” events in March 2016. The Chairman thanked Ian Carson for his input, hard work, and organisation with these events. Ian also thanked UCL, Fabio, and BSB for their help with the chemicals etc used in the “Fantastic Plastic” talks. Tim went on to report that John Holman’s talk had also proved to be a very popular event. He also acknowledged that the section had a disappointing end to the year, with the cancellation of two events due to the security situation in Brussels. He went on to say that a good programme was coming together for 2016 and he thanked all members for their continued support of the section.

Following elections the RSC Belgium Executive Committee for 2016 has the following membership: Mr Tim Reynolds (Chairman), Mrs Rita Woodward (Treasurer), Dr Becki Scott (Secretary), Prof Bob Crichton (elected committee member), Prof Brian Sutcliffe (elected committee member), Dr David Terrell (elected committee member), Mr John Swift (elected committee member, and Dr Ian Carson (elected committee member).

The first meeting of the new Executive will be on 17 February 2016 where co-opted members will be confirmed.

International issues
Bob Crichton brought to the attention of members the proposed regulations of the RSC's Outreach Working Group (OWG) which will affect the way international sections operate. Prof David Evans of the Beijing section who sits on the OWG had approached the Belgium section committee for their opinion and feedback on the proposed regulation changes. The section felt that the move to restrict the amount of the budget spent on outreach to 50% could be very limiting to the range of activities which we undertook. The discussions at the OWG indicated that all local section representatives were opposed to the changes. It is felt that these changes will undermine the work of the individual sections. We have also been asked to clarify the numbers of members and non-members attending events. This is a worrying precedent because many of our events have a large non-member attendance. Many local sections rely on the support of volunteers.

Tim, as the Chair of the International Steering Group, will communicate directly with HQ and the networks over this issue.

There being no other business, the meeting closed at 19:58. The AGM was followed by the 2016 Annual Dinner (see above) of the RSC Belgium section.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Second Norman Lloyd Scholar announced

RSC Belgium is proud to announce that the second recipient of the Dr Norman C. Lloyd Scholarship at Cardiff University has been selected and is enjoying their first year at the university. Rhodri Evans hails from Caernarfon and started his BSc degree in Chemistry at the end of September.

Pictured below in one of Cardiff’s chemistry laboratories Rhodri Evans, who originally comes from Caernarfon, is enjoying living and studying in the Welsh capital. The scholarship is given to new students to the Cardiff School of Chemistry who are of high academic standing and a resident of Wales.

Upon receiving this award, Rhodri said: “I would like to thank the Royal Society of Chemistry Belgium and the family and friends of Dr Norman Lloyd for this scholarship. As a student in my first year, [the scholarship] will no doubt be helpful towards achieving a successful first year at Cardiff University. With this money, I will most definitely expand my knowledge of the syllabus as a wider range of books/technology will suddenly become available. The most informative sources usually come with a significant cost and thus this money will be beneficial. I will also be able to participate in a number of Chemistry related activates which will give me much needed experience in the profession.”

“To be selected for this scholarship is an honour in itself, especially in class exceeding 180 students. From growing up in a relatively small town, moving to a capital city is a big step and was daunting at times. Being known then that I specifically have been selected will give me new profound confidence in my Chemistry studies and will give me a drive to achieve the highest possible degree. In addition to this, it has made me aware of the accomplishments of past Chemistry students at Cardiff University such as Dr Norman Lloyd. This then gave me a clearer idea of what I want to achieve later in my career,” he continues.

“After I finish my Chemistry degree at Cardiff University, I hope to work in a research based occupation. This truly captures my imagination as the learning process never ends and the life we live can be improved through chemical breakthroughs. I can only say thank you once again and will hopefully be active with the Society in the years to come,” concludes Rhodri.

I am sure you will all join Setsuko’s family in wishing Rhodri every success in his studies at Cardiff.

The scholarship
The Norman Lloyd scholarship was set up by RSC Belgium in collaboration with Norman’s family and Cardiff University in memory of our old friend and supporter Norman Lloyd. Norman was himself a student at an institution that is now part of the university. The funds raised provide an annual scholarship of £1,000 for an undergraduate student, usually in their first year of study, at the Cardiff School of Chemistry.

The first recipient of the scholarship was Dale Lyons who completed a very successful first year at Cardiff in last summer.

If you would like to donate to the Norman Lloyd scholarship fund follow this link and specify that you wish to donate to the Norman Lloyd Scholarship fund in the comments box.

More information on the scholarship itself can be found here.