Reflections on the Chemistry 4th Year
by Andrew Phillips
As a chemistry student in my final year, instead of attending lectures and tutorials, I work full-time in a research group in the Chemistry Research Laboratory (CRL).
For many people the "Part II" year is the best aspect of the course. It is a unique opportunity to carry out your own original research within an active research group. There are a wide variety of groups to work for with vastly different research interests, ranging from theoretical and computational chemistry to bioinorganic and organic synthesis. Some people even choose to collaborate with completely different departments such as plant sciences or even history.
Personally I am working under the supervision of Dr Ed Anderson, carrying out research in organic chemistry. For my project, I am working toward the synthesis of a biologically active natural product found in the Schisandra genus of Chinese medicinal plants (see image). One of which can be growing in the Oxford University Botanical Gardens. These molecules have been shown to give good levels of anti-HIV activity. Although several other groups have worked on similar molecules, no one has yet produced a ‘total' synthesis of my key target. It's exciting to potentially be part of and help the first group to successfully reach the target molecule.
A typical day in the lab usually consists of planning experiments, learning new techniques and analysing the compounds I've made. Working with graduate level equipment and facilities is big step up from the undergraduate teachings labs! It might seem daunting to start working independently on your own project but the whole research group are very supportive and a DPhil or Post-Doc, usually working on a related project, mentors each Part II student. You are really made to feel like a valuable member of the research group and are included in all group activities such as giving presentations and literature reviews in group meetings. I also regularly join my fellow group members at the pub for a drink (or two!) on Friday evenings after work.
Whilst the knowledge gained over the first three years of the course certainly comes in use, you develop a very different set of skills working in the lab. It is also a great opportunity to discover whether a career in research is right for you. In my case it helped confirm that I want to continue to PhD level after graduating.
The Oxford chemistry course offers a rare opportunity to spend the whole year dedicated to a research project compared with many other courses, which only offer a few months of the final year. It is an amazing chance to work directly with people who are leaders within their respective fields.