August: Getting started
Despite this blog being about my experience on a Chemistry Industrial Placement, the first degree I started studying was actually Medicine. Initially this was very exciting, however I was finding myself starting to get disinterested in the biology-based content I was learning. I also found that the lifestyle of a doctor was more self-sacrifice than I was prepared to give so I made the decision to leave Medicine and pursue a degree in something else. Chemistry had always been my favourite subject at A-level, due to the challenging nature of it, which was my reason for choosing it to study at University. Despite being quite nervous about this change, Chemistry proved to be the right choice and from the very start I felt completely engrossed in the subject and found the content very intriguing (although Quantum Mechanics is still quite complex for me). Although only undertaking a few in person lab sessions in 1st year due to COVID, I found it one of my favourite parts of the course, as I was physically ‘doing’ something. It soon become apparent that doing an MChem with a Year in Industry would be particularly ideal for me, as it would allow me to work on projects that can be applied to real-world situations, which is quite exciting and what Chemistry is all about!
The 3rd year of the Year in Industry involves working for 9 – 13 months away from the School of Chemistry at a company whilst completing some University modules via distance learning. The placement is assessed through a big, fat report and a presentation at the end of the year. Preparation for securing a placement starts well in advance of when applications open. I started the application process throughout summer between 1st and 2nd year by working on my CV and having several summer jobs. I also did a bit of research on some companies I might like to work for and different fields that I found interesting. From 1st year I found Physical and Materials Chemistry to be my favourite topics so prioritised placements within these areas. September is when placement applications started to open and was when I began sending off my applications. I applied to numerous places from Formula 1 teams, to big companies like AstraZeneca, to companies I had never heard of such as Infineum. Despite my research over summer, I only became familiar with Infineum through my personal tutor at Leicester (shout out to Sandy Kilpatrick!) who had friends that worked there. Through further research I discovered they were an Oil and Fuels Additive company. Oil and Fuel is not something that is really taught at most Universities, so this seemed like a good prospect to have the opportunity to learn something different. From the many places I applied to, I received a host of both rejections and interviews. One of these interviews was an in-person interview at Infineum in November time. Having the interview in-person was something that really stood out for me, as all of my other interviews were online.
On my interview day at Infineum, I was really nervous. The day consisted of two interviews: a technical- and a competency-based one. The technical interview I was most nervous for, as this is something I had never really experienced when applying to jobs in the past. Nevertheless it somehow went quite smoothly (despite forgetting the word for ‘fractional distillation’!). Next came the competency-based interview, which involved several presentations I had to prepare in the weeks leading up to the interview. These too went better than I thought, although I wasn’t too sure on some of the answers I gave. Interviews were then followed by a tour of the site, which was a little hard to take in when you’re so exhausted from the interviews, but it was cool to see what an actual chemical company looks like, especially the labs.
One week later…I got the job at Infineum! I was absolutely over the moon. It was so relieving that I didn’t have to apply to anymore placements and could finally relax. The next step was for me to attend a drug and alcohol screening at Infineum in March, where I also had a meeting with my supervisor to find out what my project was on. My project turned out to be on HVOs (hydrogenated vegetable oils) and their capabilities as a diesel alternative. This was a whole new topic to me and made the prospect of my placement year very exciting, especially since I was going to have the opportunity to work on sustainable fuels, something that is very much in need with our current day climate change problems.
Fast forward to July and I had started my placement! The first few weeks started gently and consisted mainly of training and getting to know the company. The science behind the additives and need for them in oils and fuels was taught to me with the main focus on cold flow and wax crystal modification, as this was what my project was on. There was also mention of other sectors our additives have the potential to be used for, due to Infineum moving from being a speciality company in ‘Oil and Fuel Additives’ to being a ‘Speciality Chemicals Company’ with broadening focus in other areas including electrification of mobility. In the last couple of weeks of my first month I started to undertake some lab work including running IR (infrared) experiments, making fuel blends, and finding flash points of samples. At Infineum I am in the ‘Fuels’ section, meaning the majority of the samples I deal with are fuel related. It’s therefore quite important these fuels are stored in the correct temperature ovens, hence the need to measure flash points of samples. IR is also a particularly important technique to analyse samples and compare them to one another. ‘Blending’ is a term that most people probably haven’t heard before (I certainly hadn’t before I started) but is essentially the process of mixing fuels, solvents or additives, with heat usually being applied.
So far my time at Infineum has been really enjoyable and I can confidently say it’s been a very successful first month.
September: Safely navigating the second month
Two months now completed at Infineum and lots has changed. I have now switched over from the Fuels team to the New Business Ventures (NBV) team with my project changing from the HVO work too (see my previous blog post from August about this work). Although I was enjoying my previous HVO project, my new project with NBV is much more exciting and allows me to use different analytical equipment I wouldn’t have otherwise had experience with. One of these is the rheometer, which is used to look at the way fluids behave under different types of stress. Some of the parameters that can be measured and calculated include viscosity and shear rate. These can be used to compare materials in their performance to a certain application, or can also be used to characterise them. The rheometer is an instrument that is quite sensitive to the amount of sample loaded. Often I have found myself discarding the loaded sample and starting again due to putting too much on. This makes the process of using the rheometer relatively time-consuming so patience is certainly required!
One of the most important things that Infineum focuses on is safety and good training. In order to use any equipment, or even be in the lab, training is required. This might sound a bit boring, but it can actually be quite fun! One of the most recent training sessions we had was on fire safety. For this, Infineum brought in an external ex-firefighter who taught us about what to do in a fire, when you can and can’t tackle a fire, and what the different extinguishers can be used for. This training consisted of a lecture, some videos, and most importantly… a real life demonstration with fire! At the end of all the teaching, we each got to have a go at putting out a fire using the appropriate extinguisher for the type of fire e.g. electrical can only be put out by CO2 and powder. This definitely made the training very exciting, not to mention the ex-firefighter was a pretty sick guy.
Another highlight of this second month was my volunteer day. At Infineum, all employees get an extra ‘free’ day off work to undertake some volunteering, if you would like to do so. One of my colleagues set up a group activity at Aston Rowant Nature Reserve with Natural England to undertake some ‘hawthorn popping’. Hawthorn encroachment is a threat to other species at the nature reserve, so our task was to remove as many hawthorns as possible. There were several different tools we could use to do this. Some allowed the plants to be levered up by the roots, which created a ‘popping’ noise (hence ‘hawthorn popping’) and others trimmed them down. Although it was forecast to rain on the day, we were lucky and had warm weather. Due to the strenuous work, we had lots of tea breaks and at the end of the day went on a walk around the nature reserve and met the sheep. This was a really nice day to break up the work week and something I think I am very lucky to have the opportunity to do with Infineum.
Of course with the University term starting at the end of September, this past month I haven’t just been thinking about work at Infineum. Throughout my placement year I will also need to complete a number of coursework assignments and watch lecture videos online, in addition to doing some exams in January and May. To prepare, I have tried to plan out the lectures I need to watch and content I need to learn before the coursework deadlines, which is roughly 2-4 lectures each week after work. There are also a number of practice questions I can attempt whilst watching the lecture videos, which I have timetabled in for myself at the end of a video that relates to the practice question. Something I am also trying to fit in that’s quite important to me is exercising and going to gym. With this, my days are certainly well packed. It’s safe to say my organisation and time management will be tested this year, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to give it a good shot!
October: Will you start the fans please!
This past month has been busy and a real test of my organisation. My time management started off well with completing my lectures in the evenings at the start of the week and going to the gym towards the end of the week. Unfortunately, I became ill over a few days which messed up my plan and caused me to get a little behind on work. To make things worse, roadworks popped up, adding a large amount of time to the commute and eating into my planned University study time after work. This meant that I had less time to exercise and go to the gym, which is not ideal. I think this was the first time it was apparent to me the high workload that I had, both at Infineum and for University, which can be a stressful thought. A little bit of stress is ok, but a lot definitely isn’t. To try and prevent stress and catch back up, I have been leaving earlier for work in the morning to try to beat traffic, and to only think about University work once I am home and can do it, not whilst at Infineum. Since I also have not had much time to exercise, I have been trying to find different ways to enjoy my day that are less time consuming too. Some of these include riding my motorbike into work more often (even if it’s raining) and making meals together with my flatmates. Something important I’ve learnt from this is that it’s normal for things not to go to plan, but things do end up working out in the end as long as you try to stay calm and just do your best. Also – everyone should ride a motorbike.
Despite a little bit of stress, some exciting things have also been happening at Infineum, one of which being the Fuels & NBV Team Building day at Bicester Hotel Golf and Spa. A few months ago we had an email out asking us to vote for which activities we’d like to undertake on the day, with the winning ones being a ‘CSI Crime Scene Experience’ and ‘The Crystal Maze’. We started the team building day with some tea, coffee and pastries but all of a sudden… a murder took place! It was our job to find out what had happened and who the killer was. We then split into teams and were given pieces of evidence to work through over the next few hours. At the end, each team presented their theories about the events that had occurred with my team being one of the winning teams and getting some Kripsy Kremes! After a free buffet lunch, we went back to the room we were in and started the Crystal Maze activity. This consisted of around 6 different timed challenges with crystal prizes, which buy you time in The Crystal Dome at the end. Despite the challenges being quite difficult, we had a lot of fun (although my team didn’t win). The day then ended with some tea, coffee and free sausage rolls.
Towards the end of the month we have had several new chemists start in my team, meaning I’ve had the opportunity to help with training. This was quite exciting for me, as it meant that I could take some form of leadership in helping ensure they were being trained on all the necessary equipment for our project and being actively involved in their integration into the team. Through training, it has made me realise how much I have learnt throughout my time so far at Infineum and how confident I am in the lab and undertaking tasks. Despite this, new challenges crop up every day and I am constantly learning. This is one of the things I am currently enjoying most at Infineum, as it allows me to increase my skills set and constantly solve problems. Most recently I have been involved with sorting SDS (safety data sheet) problems and being in charge of shipping, both of which I think I have now got the hang of (although I don’t want to speak too soon!).
November: Going with the flow
Something I have always been interested in is helping improve processes and seeing what happens behind the scenes. At Infineum, processes are always under scrutiny to be improved, no matter if you think something is already working well. One reason for this is that it is very easy to become complacent. Infineum’s approach to matters like this is something I very much agree with and try to use in everyday life. As a result of this, and my inquisitive nature, I became a School Rep for the School of Chemistry at Leicester this month. So far, as part of my role, I have attended SSC (student staff committee), Education Committee and SSESC (student skills and employability sub-committee) meetings, in addition to pestering School of Chemistry staff on my ideas to improve different areas. So far this role has allowed me to hear about what is actually discussed behind the scenes. Although I was confident our student feedback wasn’t ignored by staff before I became School Rep, it’s great to see how keen they are to take this on board and improve our learning experience. It also gives me the chance to give input from my own ideas and those of students on a wide range of issues. I believe the empowerment culture in the School of Chemistry is already quite good, with staff keen to hear any issues from students, however it’s very important to have roles such as School Reps to ensure this stays in place and that students have representation. To any students (current or future) that read this, I would highly recommend looking at getting involved with voicing your ideas, whether that’s becoming a Course or School Rep, or knowing you have the authority to talk to staff about issues or give ideas for improvement.
In this past month at Infineum, I have been very busy still, but having new chemists on my team has made project work start to progress much faster. Something I am enjoying at the moment is a mix between independent work and also team work. I think both can become a bit tedious on their own, so being able to have a mix has been good in terms of keeping up motivation and development of the project. I have also most recently learnt that I really struggle to do tasks if I am not motivated. This awareness came from obtaining a disappointing set of rheology results for a sample, which were not what I was hoping for. At first this felt like quite a big setback, as I was feeling quite reliant on these results being positive in terms of the next steps for the project. However, it has allowed me and the team to learn about rheometer methodology and reproducibility, which are key things to master if we are to succeed in our goals.
At the end of the month I had my first Leicester supervisor meeting with Prof. Andy Abbott. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss how my project is going, what I plan on writing my report on and just a check up to make sure I am OK. When allocating your Leicester supervisor, Kal (Dr Kal Karim, the industry placement coordinator for the School of Chemistry) tries to match the area of chemistry your project is on with the your supervisor’s knowledge or research area. As it turns out, Andy’s research and expertise matches my project quite well (although there appears to be very little Andy doesn’t know in general). The meeting also gave me the opportunity to ask a number of questions I had and gain a better insight to how my report will be laid out. The next steps for me now are to start writing my report and doing more extensive literature research (which is the part I’m dreading). Although I haven’t written a report since 2nd year (maybe over half a year ago?!) each section seems relatively self-explanatory. I’ll just need to make sure I can reference appropriate literature and write something that Andy will find interesting seeing as he’s one of the people marking it…
December: Inspiration from Obama
December went fairly quickly, although this is definitely down to having Christmas and lots of bank holidays. At the start of the month, myself and the other placement students at Infineum had a day of Presentation Training with an external trainer. This was arranged by Infineum and to prep for it, we had to make a short 4 minute presentation including powerpoint slides. This was somewhat tricky, as not a lot of detail can be included in 4 minutes, but the whole purpose of the exercise was for us to practice our presentation skills so the topic didn’t matter hugely. I ended up doing my presentation on different types of mixing methods and apparatus used for this application e.g. different impeller types, as this is something I have been reading about recently. At the start of the session, we began by discussing people who we thought were good leaders and presenters and watched some videos of Barack Obama speaking. We then moved onto doing our presentations… which were all filmed! We (painfully) had to watch back the presentations and make comments on what we thought we did well and what could be improved. Despite this being rather agonising, as no-one likes watching themselves, it was very helpful and allowed us to see both good and bad things we didn’t even know we were doing. After our lunch break, which was a very yummy (and free) Christmas lunch in the canteen, with a Bailey’s and Guinness chocolate mousse for dessert, we went back for the afternoon session. In the afternoon, we spent the time looking at the ways we can use our voice and body language to convey different messages. We also spent some time looking at how to structure a presentation and keep the audience engaged. The day ended with us re-presenting our presentations, trying to use everything we had learnt, but editing it to only 2 minutes so we can try and portray the true key messages of our presentations. We (again) watched these back as we did earlier, and made more comments. By the end we were all pretty exhausted but found the training extremely useful. From the training something I would definitely recommend to anyone prepping for a presentation, is to record themselves and watch it back to see where to improve and what they do well (but also to swiftly delete the video after so nobody accidentally stumbles across it!).
Although myself and the other placement students were extremely lucky to receive the presentation training through Infineum, the highlight of the month was 100% the work Christmas meal. Each department in Infineum has their own Christmas meal, and this year myself and another placement student called Melissa, were invited to the Fuels and NBV one. This took place at the very nice Brasserie Blanc in Jericho in Oxford, and consisted of a 3 course meal with drinks from 12:30 – 4:00 (all paid for by Infineum). During the meal, we all also exchanged our secret Santa gifts and although I am still unsure who had me, they got me the best present ever – a Toyota Supra LEGO set! I have recently been building it and have been having so much fun, that I think I’ve found a new hobby. In addition to secret Santa, we (of course) had a Christmas quiz too and after eating had a go at some of each other’s secret Santa presents, one being a Kazoo song guessing game. Unfortunately our time to leave the restaurant came all too quickly but that just meant it was time to go to the pub and watch the football. After a couple of merry hours in the pub, it was decided that seeing what was happening at the Lubes Christmas party was a very good idea so on we went to crash this. After getting rather lost down all the side streets of Oxford, we finally found the Oxford College the Lubes party was at. This was quite a relief, as I was in desperate need of the toilet from my drinks at the pub. From this point on with all the fun we were having, none of us really had any conception of time and the rest of the happenings of the night seem to blur together. What I do remember however, is a nice chilly walk back down Cowley Road with Melissa in 4°C temperatures at midnight to our respective homes, and falling asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. And a really bad hangover the next day.
January: A testing time
Unfortunately my January started off with lots of exam revision and, of course, doing the exams. For myself and the others on placement from Leicester, in January we had two exams: one organic and one inorganic. Each consisted of one question, which is the same question that is in the exams the students studying at the University take (except they have 3 questions in total). From both exams, I was most nervous for the organic. The organic exam content was on FMO (frontier molecular orbital) Theory, which was taught by Sandeep Handa. Although it was taught very well, I personally just struggle with organic chemistry (it is not my favourite) and found a lot of the practice questions quite difficult. As it turned out, the actual exam contained some questions that were much more straightforward than a lot of the practice questions, meaning this exam ended up going better than I initially anticipated (although I don’t want to speak too soon!). The inorganic exam’s content was on Organometallic Catalysis taught by Sandy Kilpatrick. This topic I was actually relatively confident with, and dare I say possibly enjoyed! Despite this, I felt I messed the exam up a bit, having complete mind blanks and making silly mistakes on simple questions. Whilst writing this, we haven’t had our exam results back yet, but I think I am expecting my organic mark to be higher than my inorganic. Although I will be quite disheartened if I don’t do as well as I would have liked, I think it’s quite important to remember all the other times I have done well and that these exam results do not wholly reflect my success.
Once exams were thankfully over, it was time to start the next phase of my project. This started with ensuring we had all of the chemicals we needed and in plentiful supply. For most we had a good amount of stock, but for several we had to order these in. Most were chemicals we have had on site before, which are easy to order in, as we already have these chemicals risk assessed and SDSs (safety data sheets) on our system. For several, however, these chemicals were new and meant that I had to ensure the correct procedures were followed to have this chemical on site at Infineum. The process to do this is to ensure the most up-to-date SDS is on our system, and to then complete an MOC (management of change) form, which encaptures the hazards of the chemical and the methods we have of mitigating the risk of these hazards. Once this form is completed, it is sent to a risk assessor who reads through and either approves or rejects it. Rejected MOCs will usually have feedback on why they have been denied, for example the inappropriate level of PPE (personal protective equipment) has been put for a particular hazard. Luckily my MOC was approved, which meant I could order the new chemicals I needed onto site and use it in the lab for my project.
At the start of the year I also spent a considerable amount of time ensuring my ELN (electronic lab notebook) was up to date. This is an electronic system at Infineum that allows us to record all our lab work in one place and also allows us to look at other employee’s lab work. This is extremely useful, especially as a new starter or if there has been changeover in a team, as it is easy for previous knowledge on a project to be lost. More often than you’d think, a similar experiment could have taken place at Infineum, but you wouldn’t necessarily know about it unless it had occurred in your team or section, which is where ELN is useful, as you can search through anyone’s lab notes. We also have regular internal audits to ensure we are including enough information in our ELN. Fortunately, my ELN audit last year came back with positive feedback that I was including the right and enough information so it’s safe to say I’ve smashed using ELN. This is a big win for me, as this was one of my personal goals I made when I first started.
February to April: Baking, busyness, and business as usual
Throughout February, March and April, work continued as normal - meaning always very busy! At the start of February, the other placement students and I held our mid-year student presentations. This consisted of a few hours in the morning for each of us to present for about 10 minutes on ourselves, and a little bit about how our time at Infineum and project progress so far. This allowed us to have the opportunity to practice presenting before our final year presentations and permitted us to put into practice the skills we learnt in our presentation training day in December. Although presentations are always a little bit nerve-wracking, these presentations seemed to go quite smoothly, and I found I wasn’t too nervous. It was pretty much just some time in the day to talk about myself and interests and also my project, all of which were things I had a vast amount of knowledge in. Our audience were colleagues at Infineum who we each worked closely with on a day-to-day basis, meaning it was a very relaxed environment. We also decided to incorporate some baked goods into the session. Throughout our time at Infineum, the biggest thing we have learnt is that employees here are massively incentivised by cake. So to encourage our audience to come along, we did some baking! Some of our baking worked better than others, so unfortunately the majority of our cakes did end up being store bought. But on the day, after a short period of IT issues, a few presentations and plenty of cake, everyone was in very good spirits and it turned out to be a successful event.
The highlight of March was having members of my NBV team that work internationally fly over for a week at the Milton Hill Infineum site. It was great to be able to meet the full team in person, with previous communication occurring entirely via Teams or email. We made the most of this week and on the first day went out to eat after work at The Packhorse, a pub down the road from the Milton Hill site. We continued the fun into the next day with an 8am group meeting consisting of bacon sarnies to get to know each other better for anyone not able to come to The Packhorse the day before. Throughout the week it was really cool to be able to come into the office and chat to members of the team I don’t usually see on a regular basis. Not to mention the fact we had an international customer visit, which partly relied on myself and the lab team giving a lab tour. This was also great, as it allowed us to meet one of our customers in person and show them the work that goes on behind making the products we send them.
Over the past few months, any extra free time I’ve had I have been working on my report for the year. With exams looming in May, my aim was to have my first draft finalised by the end of April so I could try and focus on exam revision. The report of my year is part of the placement assessment by the University. It is roughly 30 – 40 pages in length and can either cover your whole project or small aspects of the work undertaken in the year, as every placement student’s experience is different. Despite learning a lot throughout the year on the science behind my project, taking time out to read the literature really helped solidify my knowledge and made me feel like I was an expert in the field! (Although there is always a never-ending amount to learn and research…). With my project being on such a vast topic, it was difficult for me to be selective on what I could write in the report. In my introduction I tried to include a good overview including relevant examples of applications. My results and discussion part was a little trickier, as a lot of my results contained a number of possible sources of error making it a bit difficult to know if any trends I was maybe seeing were actually happening. Despite being a bit unsure whether what I’ve written is report gold or all waffle, I will soon find out once I have feedback from both my Infineum supervisor and Andy Abbott at Leicester.
May and June: To infineum and beyond
My last few placement months have been intense but also very enjoyable. My aim to finish my report before exams in May did not go quite to plan, in addition to the length of the report straying a little from the initial target (ending up with 60 pages as opposed to 40). However, revising for exams and writing my report in the same time period wasn’t as overwhelming as I initially thought, as I was fortunate to be able to focus my time at Infineum on my report and my evenings/weekends at home mostly on revising. Writing my report was quite tricky, as this was the longest piece of writing I’ve ever had to do in my life. The structure was particularly difficult for me, in addition to the level of detail I had to go into with my analysis. Despite this, with regular and supportive feedback from Andy Abbott and my Infineum supervisor, I was taught the best way to structure my writing and also how to give good analysis of my data.
The final aspect of my placement assessment was the visit from Andy in June, where I gave a presentation and completed a viva. I found the presentation aspect went relatively well, as the week before I was able to practice my presentation through the end-of-year Infineum student presentations, and also one I gave in a Fuels and NBV Section Meeting. I also found it relatively easy to talk about my project, as I have been doing extensive research in the subject over the past year. However, the viva, I did not enjoy. With this being the first time I’d done a viva, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The questions asked weren’t basic ones on the project, but more abstract with lots of out of the box thinking required. Although this didn’t feel quite as successful as my report and presentation, it was good to have some practice, as I will need to complete another viva again in my final year MChem project. I am yet to receive my placement year mark, but I hope I have done relatively well!
Although my placement at Infineum technically finished the end of June, I am fortunate enough to have been able to extend my time at Infineum until the end of August. I am also lucky that my family home is in Swindon, only 45 minutes away, so I will still be able to commute easily despite my Oxford tenancy ending. Being able to work over the summer will allow me to have an experience of what work is like without having any University work to do at the same time. As I write, it is the 2nd week of July, and already through my contract extension, I have had the opportunity to attend an Anton Paar 2-day rheology workshop with my lab team on behalf of Infineum. This rheology workshop was one of the most enjoyable opportunities I’ve had from my placement year. It has allowed me to learn extensively about the ‘basics’ of rheology (although still very detailed), from some of the most experienced people in the rheology field at Anton Paar. At Infineum, the rheology tests we run on our samples are usually rotational, which is the type of rheology I am most familiar with. However, the rheology course has enabled me to learn about oscillatory tests and also try some out myself in the practical sessions. A vast number of rheological examples were given to us from different applications too, which I found to be one of the most interesting parts, as at the start I was only familiar with how rheology is used with the work that Infineum does. From this course, I now have a much better idea of the sort of area I’d like to go into when I graduate, this being materials science, and I am glad to have been given the opportunity to attend.
Overall, I have found my placement year to be one of the best experiences of my life. Before starting, I had no experience in the Chemical Industry. After a year of working as a Chemist, I have now enhanced a number of skills including problem-solving, leadership and organisation. Not to mention the large variety of lab techniques I have been trained in too and some great opportunities I’ve been presented with. My biggest piece of advice to anyone entering a placement year, is to try and say ‘yes’ to as much as possible. For me, this was the best way to be able have as many different experiences as possible, and to be able to learn as much as I could. Of course I have made numerous mistakes throughout the year, but this has only enhanced my skills and abilities and strengthened me as a person. To anyone applying to placements, I wish you luck, and I hope these posts I’ve written have been able to give you a good idea of what a placement year is like. Thank you for reading!