What to do with Chemistry

It was a sense of adventure that led Eva Weatherall to study science at university, rather than law like all her school friends, or medicine like her father.

“I wanted to do something where I didn’t quite know where I was going to end up,” she said.

Now, three and a half years later, the decision of what to do next is looming. Where does a young Kiwi with a sense of adventure and a degree in Chemistry go next? Will she stick to science? Will she have to go overseas to find a job? Will she find a job at all?

It’s not uncommon to hear postgraduate students pessimistically questioning their future. These are some of the most intelligent and capable people in our country, with many years of hard work behind them. That’s depressing!

At this critical point in their careers, it makes all the difference to be shown a new possibility. This is what the MacDiarmid Institute is doing by funding students to do a diverse range of summer projects with New Zealand nanotech company IZON.

IZON specialises in making research tools for counting and analysing nanoparticles. Their signature device, qNano, was developed by New Zealand scientists. It has an enormous range of potential applications, such as DNA sequencing and disease diagnosis, and is used by researchers in top universities all around the world.

Last summer, Eva was lucky enough to spend three months working with IZON developing a series of experiments for a qNano undergraduate lab manual. Her work will help IZONbreak into the educational market. The manual will be distributed with the instrument to universities and will be used in undergraduate lab experiments.

QNano is about one-third of the price of, and more effective than, other particle measurement devices, putting it within the budget of most university undergraduate programmes. It also gives students a real feeling for nanotechnology.

Eva was flown down to Christchurch, where she learnt to use qNano with the IZON team. She then developed the experiments in the labs at Victoria University.

“This kind of summer project is really formative at a stage when students are not sure what they want to do,” said Victoria University chemist Justin Hodgkiss, who supervised Eva’s project. “The hands-on experience helps them to figure out what they really enjoy and want to pursue.”

“It was so different from the chemistry jobs you see at uni,” Eva remarked. “The atmosphere was exciting and everyone was really friendly.”

She could see herself doing a job like that!

Hans van der Voorn, Executive Chairman of IZON, encouraged Eva to continue with honours chemistry this year.

“He said he was far more likely to hire me with an honours degree than without,” she explained.

“We like young people,” said Hans. “They’re the future of New Zealand! When a student has done a project with the qNano, they quite like to come and work for us as well.”

Eva found that all the young IZON employees with PhDs in chemistry were branching into other areas like marketing, computing and sales.

“We don’t say, you’re a chemist so you go in that little box,” Hans remarked. “People do what they can. We live by what we sell. There’s an immediacy having to get a product to market and make sure it works. That makes it quite exciting.”

Over the last few years the MacDiarmid Institute has developed a close partnership with IZON.

“We get on really well,” said Hans. “MacDiarmid does early stage research (which we couldn’t afford ourselves) and we do product development and sales.” There is a constant interchange of students, ideas and knowledge between the two. Last summer Eva was one of three students doing summer projects with IZON; one at Industrial Research Limited and one at the University of Auckland.

IZON has connections all around the world. When students leave the Institute for top overseas universities like Harvard and MIT, they are often employed part-time to promote the instrument while they continue their research. Others work full-time from New Zealand or overseas. The company has employees in the United States, Europe, United Kingdom and Asia.

Eva’s experience with IZON has changed her view of the future. Her advice to school leavers was, “Don’t do what you think you should do because everyone else is doing it.”