Name: Tom Screen
PositionOperations Director
Chemistry experience & expertise:PhD in organic chemistry, synthesising porphyrins and porphyrin polymers and exploring their chemical and physical properties. After a post doc in Germany developing imidazole based materials work in the synthetic chemistry industry including contract and parallel synthesis (Peakdale Molecular, now CLS), catalyst development (Reaxa) and for the last 9 years synthetic chemistry FTE and custom synthesis projects at Apex Molecular.

 

1. What made you choose synthetic chemistry?

I enjoy being able to use synthetic methods to organise simple starting components in to the right places in a final target structure. Sometimes, maybe often, it doesn’t go right first time and then you solve the problems and tweak the conditions or order of reactions. Finally, at the end of a number of steps you see the analytical data and it all fits beautifully. It’s great to be involved in a practical subject where you end up with something tangible in a vial for all your work. This is especially satisfying when you know you’ve made something no one else ever has before. Every so often I still get to go in the lab to do some practical chemistry and it reminds me of all the hard work, problem solving and skill our team of chemists use to deliver our customer projects.

2. What has been your best moment in the science to date?

In modern times the number of researchers around the world in every field and the diversification and complication of science means there aren’t many household names in science. Around the time Tim Peake was constantly on TV wearing his NASA jumpsuit and going on about him going to space, I remember making a chemical that I’m sure significantly fewer people in the world have made than have been to space. Take that Tim! Or course he is still well known while no one is talking about my achievement.A restaurant near me used to have a sign in the window claiming it was the only Bangladeshi restaurant on the A6 in Stockport with a 5-star food hygiene rating. Which goes to show you can always be the best if you narrow down the criteria enough. During my PhD I made a polymer which we tested for third order non-linear optical properties. These are materials which are transparent to low intensity light but opaque to light of high intensity and have been explored for applications such as blocking out strong bursts of light from reaching sensitive equipment or against laser damage to eyes. At the time we claimed a record for the highest off-resonance third order non-linear susceptibility in an organic material ever seen. I’ve not kept in touch to see how much the record has been beaten by since. Even if it has, I can probably just get the record back by adding some more criteria!

3. Which individual has had the biggest influence on your career?

Two of my cousins who are about 10 years older than me both studied technical subjects. I remember being impressed by how they always had an understanding and explanation for why things happened, discussed exciting and complicated sounding topics and I thought it would be cool to know stuff like them. I think that’s probably one of the reasons I went down a career path of science subjects. One of my cousins now runs his own IT company and the other is an astrophysicist so we can now all appreciate the scientific discussions. And I still enjoy finding out and understanding why things happen. Now I struggle sometimes to get the right level of detail when my 9-year old asks me “why” questions.

4. What is the most enjoyable aspect of working at Apex Molecular?

My job is very variable and every day is often different.

5.What do you think has been the most significant chemistry development of the last hundred years?

Antibiotics?

Analytical methods? NMR, X-ray, HPLC-MS

Metal catalysed couplings giving a hugely directed toolbox for chemists

I can choose one and elaborate depending what other people have chosen…

6. Which chemist do you think has had the biggest impact over the past hundred years?

Can I go back a bit further to William Henry Perkin? As an individual who was key in setting up the organic chemistry industry in the UK his influence in our area is significant. I admire the way chemists in the late 19th century were able to work out what anything they made was with the limited analytical and characterisation methods available. Perkin worked with waste coal tar from the coal gas industry to develop new uses for these by products, for example synthetic dyes such as mauve. He founded some of the UK’s major industrial sites which went on to form parts of ICI and its successors. I worked at the Blackley site in north Manchester, site of one of Perkin’s original dye works – part of an industrial heritage we should be proud of. I’d recommend his biography by Simon Garfield.

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