We aim to provide monthly blogs from MSG members on a bi-monthly basis, please come back regularly to learn about our community.

A week in the life of an analytical chemist - by Dr Alex Surtees

posted 16 Feb 2020, 12:06 by Molecular Spectroscopy   [ updated 16 Feb 2020, 14:01 ]

Analytical chemistry is boring! All we do is run samples for real chemists, generate some data and let excel churn out some numbers. So if the phrase “analytical chemistry” did not immediately put you off and you are still reading here is a brief description of a week in my job…

My week started with a man carrying a locked briefcase coming in and locking us in the vibrational spectroscopy lab. From the case he extracted a small painting. The style we would all recognise instantly, it is the style of the country’s most famous painting; The Hay Wain. The painting in front of me was believed to be by Constable and it was my job to help prove it. If it was by Constable it would be worth approximately £5,000,000, so naturally my first job was to take a scalpel to it and remove flecks of the paint- no pressure! Once removed I used Raman spectroscopy (careful with the laser power, we don’t want to destroy the only sample we have!) to examine the pigments in the paint. It transpired that the pigments were the same as the ones typically used by Constable, one-step closer to verification…

The following day saw a Detective Sargent from Aberdeen arrive with two evidence bags containing some wood and cloth for me. My job was to discover whether there was any trace of human remains on them by use of SEM looking for human hair and GC-MS looking for fatty acids and decomposition products. I can’t tell you the outcome- it is currently going to trial, maybe in my next post…

The next couple of days were fairly bog standard. Continued work on a drug trial, stability testing of a new formulation for the treatment asthma, some thermal analysis for a long standing client specialising in traditional building restoration, analyse some unknown tablets seized by the police and give a couple of lectures to the second year forensic science students.

Friday saw me packing up a car with some portable Raman instrumentation and driving down to Southwell to work with archaeologists and art experts on the preservation of a fresco in the Saracen’s Head Hotel. The fresco dates back to the English civil war and is in the room that King Charles I was in when he surrendered to the Scottish Commissioners. Our job was to identify the pigments used in the fresco to enable restoration and preservation of this important piece of English heritage.

So that was my week; busy, exciting and all in all quite stressful. Analytical chemistry can be exciting, cutting edge and fun. True, I use the same techniques week after week but what changes is the application- and application is everything. I could have talked to you about how we are leading the search into life on Mars, a multi-billion pound project across several countries and agencies, maybe I will next time.

A chemist walks into a bar, you should've seen the reaction.

posted 21 Jun 2018, 01:38 by Molecular Spectroscopy

More and more frequently as scientists we are tasked with engaging in outreach activities, connecting with people outside our usual circle of contacts. Typically the perception of outreach is going into schools, inspiring the 'next generation of scientist' or offering career advice; 'do physics if you want to be well paid'(1). Whilst this in itself is rewarding, there is a growing need for making science accessible to adults, scan the popular press for science articles and inevitably you'll observe inaccuracies, ill-informed opinion pieces or sensationalised stories about foods/objects that give you or cure you of cancer. The challenge is how to provide people with the tools so that they are better informed and can then make evidence based critical assessments for themselves, I mean does Facebook really give you cancer(2)?

There are now a number of groups and regular events that are actively seeking to increase science awareness, in ways that are accessible and enjoyable, often involving a pub. One of the most successful examples of this hybrid education/entertainment/inebriation models are the Pint of Science (PoS) (3) events which started off in Cambridge and London in 2012 and grew in both popularity and size. This year's PoS encompassed hundreds of events in 32 cities throughout the UK and is likely to continue to grow. PoS events typically have a series of themed talks/demonstrations in a suitable venue and these are ticketed, with the more popular programs selling out well in advance.

One of the challenges that scientists face is the task of explaining difficult concepts, ideas and data to non-experts, in a way that allows them to follow the narrative but maintain impact. We're often so embedded in familiar jargon that breaking out of this cycle can be fiendishly demanding. One of the popular regular events that is trying to bridge the gap between budding scientist and general public is the Pubhd movement (4). Here PhD students give a public lecture on their work and are typically recompensed in the beverage of their choice. These run regularly in university towns, are often student led and are very rewarding.

In my hometown of Barnsley I'm heavily involved in the Skeptics in the pub (SitP) movement (5) (purely for research purposes). Whilst not strictly science outreach, SitP has a heavy science content and the format of these evenings is that an invited speaker talks for ~45 minutes on the topic of their choice (in a pub obviously). There's a comfort break followed by an open ended Q&A, which can last anywhere between 15 minutes and two hours. The last time I presented at such an event I took an infrared spectrometer into the Old No7, described enough physics so that the audience knew how it worked and the Q&A involved participants collecting infrared spectra whilst we interpreted that data on the fly. It was a great night, the Barnsley SitP are an eclectic bunch including local musicians, teachers, hipsters, NHS workers, business owners and IT technicians in their ranks. We were able to see differences in the skin of hand-crème users versus those that don't lather-up, a huge variety in the composition of hair (beard hair, product loaded hair, coloured hair), we quantified the alcohol in vodka and we identified that Sean's silk tie was polyester.

 Remember, outreach….it's not just for the kids.

 Prof Chris Sammon






Molecular Spectroscopy and Process Analysis - A blog from our member Dr Allyson McIntyre

posted 25 Aug 2017, 01:16 by Molecular Spectroscopy

Hi I’m Allyson McIntyre and I am a process analysis specialist working in the pharmaceutical industry. My research focus was in the area of mid-infrared spectroscopy, although, I have worked across a range of spectroscopies during my time working in the process analytical field, however, mid infrared spectroscopy still has to be my favourite technique. I have always been interested in science and maths and loved problem solving so finding a degree in forensic and analytical chemistry seemed to be a great fit for me. It was through my placement year as an analytical scientist I really developed my interest in using analytical technologies to solve problems for process chemistry and I had the opportunity to apply this in real time using spectroscopy during my final year research project. I found the area fascinating and loved the idea of being able to understand what was going on throughout a process rather than at the end of a process as with traditional analytical methodologies. I was then lucky enough to secure a PhD in applying mid-infrared spectroscopy for in situ process analysis, where I got to further develop my spectroscopy and chemometric skills applying mid-infrared spectroscopy to many different applications. Some examples of the applications ranged from simple chemical systems and reaction monitoring of fermentation processes to development of a mid-infrared method to detect counterfeit whisky. The things you can study using spectroscopy are endless and can be achieved in real-time which is why it is so widely used for process analysis. During my time in industry I have applied different spectroscopies to help with problem solving and reaction monitoring of chemical processes. Quite often I will have to use a combination of techniques to help with the process understanding, which has lead me into the area of automation. I now try and use automation to enhance the data and information we can get from our experiments and using this extra information to couple spectroscopy data with process data to improve our process understanding. I feel very privileged to have been able find a career that allows me to fulfill my interests and help others understand their processes in more detail to allow them to make informed decisions about their projects.

Tales of a spectrometer salesman

posted 23 Mar 2017, 02:16 by Molecular Spectroscopy

Hi I'm John Andrews a member of the committee. My company sells a range of molecular spectroscopy systems, mainly for process analysis (PAT) applications and research.  Working in this market, rather than supplying “plain vanilla” laboratory instruments, means you never know what you will be measuring and what technique you will be using next time. I particularly enjoy the wide range of industries and applications that we find ourselves working with (or trying to!)  Over the past few months we've been looking at such diverse problems as which spectroscopic technique could be used to quantify the four ingredients in a liquid consumer product, monitoring and controlling the blending of two industrial polymers, improving the performance of a crystallisation and looking at the UV-Visible spectrum of inks without a dilution step, to mention but a few.

As well as the diversity of applications, working as a vendor gives you the opportunity of working with the latest instrumentation and sometimes even influencing it's development. Salesmen can play a key role channelling feedback from end-users to the people involved in product development. Then, when something new is developed, the salesman needs to understand what it can (and can't) do and get the message out there. Feedback from the early adopters of new spectrometers is important too, both from the point of improving a new product and also finding new applications for it.

For me the downside of sales is that travelling , especially by road, seems to be getting slower and slower as the roads become more congested. However, I’ve recently become a convert to rail travel and use trains whenever I can – I’m actually writing this blog on a train. My green credentials and my productivity are improving!

So life selling spectrometers is fun, especially when you don’t know what challenge the next e-mail or phone call is going to bring!

December Blog by Dr Ben Bardsley (Molecular Spectroscopy Group Secretary and NMR Spectroscopist)

posted 6 Dec 2016, 00:20 by Molecular Spectroscopy   [ updated 6 Dec 2016, 05:33 ]

What is ‘Molecular Spectroscopy’?  Well that’s easy isn’t it?  It’s spectroscopy applied to molecules – simple!  But of course it not as simple as that, nothing ever is. 

‘Spectroscopy’ itself has a very simple definition which is that it’s the study of the interaction between matter and light (light representing the electromagnetic spectrum).  Molecular Spectroscopy therefore is the interaction between molecules and light and that fits nicely with our original definition.  But the diversity that fits within this definition is great as I’ll go on to talk about.

There are the ‘classic’ molecular spectroscopies such as infrared, Raman and ultraviolet.  These exhibit diversity in themselves in that they involve either the scattering or absorption as different modes for obtaining information about molecular structure.  Then we have nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy which relies on magnetic fields as a means of inducing different energy levels which can be used to enable electromagnetic radiation to cause a transition which can be measured and which gives information in solution, or solid state about all manner of materials, organic and inorganic.  Then we have fluorescence spectroscopy, EPR spectroscopy, Terahertz spectroscopy, circular dichroism, vibrational circular dichroism, laser spectroscopy, Mössbauer spectroscopy and so many more I don’t have space to list them all (my apologies if your favourite is not one of those listed. 

Those are the spectroscopies, but what about the molecular side of things?  Well applications for molecular spectroscopy are even greater than the techniques themselves.  Ranging from new inorganic materials to nanoparticles, to paintings from the old masters, pharmaceuticals, bulk chemicals, clinical diagnostics, security and again, so many more, the variety is infinite.  Spectroscopy can be run at the microscopic or macroscopic level, providing real time or offline data to give insight into almost any process you can think of. 

Molecular spectroscopy even goes beyond spectroscopy.  Mass spectrometry and ion mobility spectrometry, for example, are not even spectroscopies in the true sense of the word, going back to our original definition.  But these techniques fall squarely into the realm of ‘molecular spectroscopy; because of the overlap with all those other spectroscopies and the fact that they so beautifully complement them in delivering understanding in whatever field.

And what links all these techniques and applications?  Well the Molecular Spectroscopy Group does.  The Molecular Spectroscopy Group is interested in all these areas of science and the combination of many of these, looked at holistically and in partnership can be used to solve so many problems.  The power that comes with bringing these together is why a group spanning this breadth has such a role to play, alongside all those necessary technique-specific groups you may also be a member of.  It’s one of the things that makes it such an interesting group to be a part of and why, if you’re not a member already, I’d recommend that you join up and find out more…

My name is Steve and I’m an NMR Spectroscopist…

posted 28 Jul 2016, 01:39 by Molecular Spectroscopy

In my previous blog entry (see here) I briefly described the role of the Molecular Spectroscopy Group (MSG) and indicated we would follow up with a series of entries from the committee members introducing ourselves – so here we are. I’m Steve, the chairman of the MSG and I’m an NMR Spectroscopist working in the Pharmaceutical industry. My particular interests in NMR are mainly focussed around the elucidation and identification of small molecules and the use of NMR for reaction monitoring. I never thought I’d become an NMR spectroscopist, and really didn’t even know you could earn a living as one (think that page must have been missing in the careers book I looked in as a teenager!). I’ve always loved science and built my interest in Chemistry during my A-levels and subsequent degree, but it wasn’t until doing my PhD in natural product chemistry that I became intimately familiar with the power of NMR and how it can help you out as a chemist. Obviously, as with most natural product chemistry(!) it didn’t go as planned, and rather than spending most of my time doing reactions and modifying potential anti-cancer agents, I spent a lot of time down in the basement, running NMR’s and learning about acronyms like COSY, FLOCK and DEPT. To be honest, the names meant absolutely nothing to me at the time, but I knew that by learning how to “read” the results I was able to figure out what had actually happened in my reaction, rather than what I’d hoped to have happened. As a youngster, I’d always loved doing logic problems and puzzles, and interpreting NMR data just seemed to be another logic problem, where all the answers were there somewhere, you just needed to find out how to figure it out. And that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing for the last 15+ years ever since. I think I’m incredibly lucky to have found a job doing something I love, which is both mentally stimulating and challenging, and ultimately plays a key part in the development of drugs which help to save and improve patient’s lives.

Come back to our MSG blog next month to find out more about my fellow committee members and their areas of expertise and interests


Our updated blog by MSG chair - Steven Coombes, 29 April 2016

posted 28 Jul 2016, 01:34 by Molecular Spectroscopy

“Knock, knock”

“Who’s there?“

“The interrupting cow”

“The interrupting cow wh......


Well, not the usual start to your science blog, but hopefully it might make you read a little bit more... That by the way is my 6 year old son’s favourite joke at the minute, he told it to the on Saturday morning when he and his 3 year old brother were doing “Science like Daddy” in the shape of a child’s Chemistry kit they got for Christmas. I love the fact that the pair of them are showing signs of an interest in science at such an early age and have to admit I really enjoyed playing with food dye and litmus paper. And I guess it’s the same passion for science and learning that led me to get involved with the RSC Molecular Spectroscopy Group (MSG) several years ago, of which I am now the Chairman.

 The MSG committee is a multidisciplinary group with expertise in NMR, PAT, Vibrational and Ion Mobility Spectroscopies to name but a few techniques and we all have a shared interest in the application of our own disciplines to solving problems, be they in an academic or industrial environment. Although many other interest groups and organisations exist which focus on the fundamentals of some of these disciplines (eg the NMRDGBMSSIRDG etc.), we at the MSG try to cater for those who appreciate that their technique (although clearly superior to all others!) sometimes, maybe, can do with a little help from another technique. Speaking as an NMR spectroscopist myself, I enjoy the “love – hate” relationship I have with my MS colleagues and do occasionally rely on them for minor pieces of information like Molecular Weight or a Molecular Formula. This is one if the reasons why the MSG enjoys hosting multidisciplinary meetings such as “Data to Knowledge”, or the successful “Structure” meetings we have helped to organise with colleagues in the BMSS and NMRDG. We are always on the lookout for new ideas and thoughts about meetings /conferences / symposia we could arrange which address specific problems that may cover a number of different technique areas and are keen to hear from our Group members if there are any subjects you feel worthwhile.

The main aim of the MSG blog is to try and share some of our thoughts and ideas around our own technique areas and certain applications which interest us and hopefully some of you will find it equally as interesting and hopefully contribute yourselves. We plan to start with a series of posts from our committee members covering their own area of expertise so you can get to know us a little better and we’d love to hear from our members to see if there is more we can do as a committee for you.

The blog will be hosted on our MSG website (link here) and we hope you’ll come back for more...


MSG Chairman

New website address!

posted 28 Jul 2010, 01:24 by Molecular Spectroscopy   [ updated 28 Jul 2010, 01:28 ]

We have now registered a new web address for our RSC MSG site - This will link you through to our MSG home page where you will be able to find information about the committee, ongoing activities and forthcoming events.

The new MSG website goes live...

posted 17 Mar 2010, 06:35 by Molecular Spectroscopy

We recently ran a survey of our members and it was clear that better communication was a common theme. As such, we have created a new website for the group to provide clear links and information for our memebers to current and future planned MSG activities as well as external links to useful areas. We hope it comes in useful!!

1-9 of 9