Dr. James McGregor

Senior Lecturer and Director of Student Recruitment, University of Sheffield, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

I’m currently a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Sheffield and one of the co-investigators on the UK Catalysis Hub grant. My route into science and engineering was a fairly conventional one. I attended my local state schools in Ayrshire, and at primary school when asked what I wanted to do in the future I think I said, “inventor or author” – my current job perhaps allows me to do a bit both with creative research work and writing papers and grants! At secondary school I was lucky enough to have excellent maths and chemistry teachers which led on to studying for an MChem in Chemistry at Edinburgh. During my undergraduate degree my interest in research was stimulated by a summer placement at the University of Veszprém (now University of Pannonia) in Hungary using FTIR spectroscopy to study secondary cigarette smoke (spoiler: it’s bad for you) which led to my first published paper. My first real foray into catalysis was during my final year research project at Edinburgh working with Dr. Gordon McDougall on enantioselective heterogeneous catalysts; a project selected because at that time the mechanisms by which catalysts promoted reactions was something of a mystery to me, and one that I wanted to explore.

From there, I went on to a PhD, and subsequently a post-doc, in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Cambridge working with Prof. Lynn Gladden on heterogeneous catalytic hydrogenation and dehydrogenation. I was incredibly fortunate to be part of a large collaboration involving leading UK, other European and US institutions as well industry (Synetix, and subsequently Johnson Matthey). This gave me a fantastic overview of different areas of, and approaches to, research which was invaluable as I moved forward in my career. I also spent some time at the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin as a visiting scientist which was another great opportunity to explore a new environment. Working within different research environments and cultures is, I think, something very important that PhD students and junior researchers should be encouraged to do as much as possible. Getting out of one’s own bubble really helps with learning and inspiration for research. Even when attending conferences and interacting with other groups there’s always a lot to be learned, and it’s difficult to be a successful scientist without sharing ideas and working collaboratively. The experience of working with leading and varied academics and industrialists throughout this time certainly inspired me and influenced my career.

That inquisitive nature of always wanting to find out more is of course crucial to being successful as a scientist or engineer – it’s where new project ideas and solutions to problems in existing projects come from. Equally as important, as I’m sure most people will say, is a willingness to embrace failure and to learn from it; from an experiment (or even months of experiments!) in the lab not working out to rejected grant applications. An important lesson to learn (and one which I had to!) was that it’s important to keep a clear focus on how you want your research to develop. There can be a lot of pressure on researchers and junior academics to bring in funding, which often leads to chasing any and all available pots of money and hence a quite disparate range of research activities going on at any one time. Variety is certainly important; but there should be clear links and connections between projects and some vision of where the research will go in the future. Therefore, a little bit of resistance to that pressure at times can be a good thing. 

In my present role, I don’t spend much time at all in the lab (as my students will tell you!); but the process of having an idea and seeing it lead on, through a lot of hard work, to something new and successful is still a highly rewarding part of the job. The best part of the role, however, is not seeing the development of the work, but the development of the students – both postgraduate and undergraduate – who undertake that work and enhance it and move it forwards in completely new directions with their own ideas and insights. At PhD level, their growth into independent researchers with their own skills and expertise is really the highlight of my job.

Looking to the future, we’ve got a lot of really interesting projects on the go, and of course the UK Catalysis Hub project is prime among them.

Within that project there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on. Firstly, we’re using laser tweezers – the ability to hold a single particle in one location in space and to simultaneously monitor it – to understand the process of catalyst synthesis; while Kerr-Gate Raman spectroscopy allows us to probe systems that have previously proved difficult as a result of fluorescence, e.g. zeolites or catalysts with significant coke laydown. A particular focus is on dehydrogenation catalysis where coke actually plays an important role in the chemical transformation. Back in Sheffield, we’re working on numerous projects that are complementary to these, but also going off in some different – but related – areas. For instance, we’re now working with Nouryon on taking the fat from fly larvae fed on food waste and turning that into surfactants to go into personal care products or consumer goods. This would replace less sustainable sources such as palm oil.

None of this work would be possible without extensive collaboration. In particular, as engineers, the input of chemists to help us understand reaction mechanisms is crucial; biological scientists are key to rearing the larvae; and physicists and instrument scientists are intrinsic to the development of the techniques to make the measurements described above. The UK Catalysis Hub is unique internationally in bringing these groups of people together such that they can genuinely make a difference to society and the future of the planet, and it’s a community that I’m very proud to be part of.

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