Meet Alessia

Alessia, a graduate in chemistry, is a PhD student at the University of Greenwich working under the supervision of Dr. Kevin Lam. Her work focuses on the development of novel electrochemical methods for the generation of highly reactive radicals and carbocations.

Discovering the researcher within
Some minds are just passionately curious and for such people, getting into a PhD program happens organically. What is your story?

I have always been curious about the world around me and, at the same time, I wanted to concretely help others with my job. Chemistry allowed me to combine these two aspects of my personality. I felt the PhD would have been a good opportunity to reinforce my knowledge in organic synthesis, learn new topics and develop independent critical thinking. I also wanted to challenge myself and finally abandon my comfort zone. This is why I applied for a doctorate position in a foreign country, and, so far, I consider this the wisest and bravest decision I have ever taken in my life!

While searching for a PhD position abroad, my eyes paused on a research proposal involving the use of electricity as a green tool to access pharmaceutical compounds. I was so intrigued about the idea that I immediately got in touch with Dr. Kevin Lam who, a few months later, welcomed me at the University of Greenwich.

The Big Picture
What challenges are driving your research within that larger question? How is your research making an original contribution to your field?

My PhD aims at developing new electrochemical methods for the synthesis of pharmaceutically relevant compounds that can improve societal health and reduce chemical manufacturing’s ecological footprint. A large proportion of chemical syntheses in the industrial settings are still run using stoichiometric amounts of transition metals, challenging to remove from the final product, or harsh reaction conditions. Contrarily, organic electrochemistry allows performing redox reactions at room temperature, in an almost reagent-less fashion. The social utility of the project coupled with the possibility to explore new reaction pathways and reduce chemical waste made me realise this was the perfect subject for my doctorate studies.

I believe the idea of finding cost-efficient procedures which are also sustainable for the environment is a key point for the progress of the pharmaceutical industry and I would like to continue my commitment to making organic chemistry greener in the future.




All-important student-advisor relationship
The healthy sound student-advisor relationship is the basis for good performance and success of any such research collaboration. How is your experience working with your PhD advisor?

As all the relationships, in the beginning, you have got to know each other. I would say the most delicate part was when I commenced my doctorate. I still needed to become familiar whit my research subject, which was quite different from my master’s and bachelor’s studies, and my first supervisor was legitimately waiting for results. However, after a few months, thanks to his guidance, I have overcome the initial difficulties. We developed an extremely good and constructive relationship and I consider him a great source of inspiration.

The best advice I can do is try to be always sincere with your mentors, when you don’t understand something, tell them, they are there for you. Learning is a slow process, and you need to be patient with yourself. Also, listening is extremely important. I have always tried to absorb any piece of advice they had to give. Three years is a long time, and it might happen that you are not always on the same page. In this case, I would suggest being honest with them and politely expressing your opinions instead of trying to please them at all costs.

Life outside of work
Having a healthy work-life balance is imperative that takes care of the overall wellness of the individual and boosts one’s productivity. Is there such a thing as work-life balance for a research scholar? How do you motivate yourself to keep going?

One common thought in academia is that the more hours you spend in the lab, the better will be your results. I personally disagree with this view, as I think that having a good work-life balance is the best way to boost your productivity. I usually set research objectives for every week, and I organise my work accordingly. I try to always follow the same routine, and, independently of how boring it might sound, it kind of works for me. I start my research quite early in the morning and I take a break every 2/3 hours. This gives me some free time in the late afternoon. I discovered throughout my PhD how the sport was important to release stress and ensure sound mental health (as Romans used to say: “Mens sana in corpore sano”). My institution organises all sorts of activities and I join whenever I can. Aside from that, I like painting and reading, two hobbies discovered during the difficult time of the lockdown. I had also the chance to attend various theatre shows in London and this is a part of the British culture that truly amazes me. Last but not least, we built a fantastic community of PhD students at the University, we meet up every Friday and I consider them like family.

Women & Science
Statistics show that men continue to outnumber women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). In your opinion, what changes can bring transformation in the scientific system to help women become more prominent in STEM?

For most of my PhD I have been the only woman in my research group, but I never felt discriminated against for that. I wouldn’t say it had a negative or positive impact since ideas, passion and dedication have no gender, we are evaluated here just for our science. However, during an interview, I heard the following sentence: “Not so many women apply for this position, probably at this age they want to have a family”. Unfortunately, the society in which we live has still this kind of toxic thought, but I am confident things are slowly improving.

Compiled by
Piyushi Nautiyal,
Science communication and Outreach Manager, India UK ISCC