School of Chemistry

Student blog: Year in Industry

Photograph of Rosie Horwood wearing sunglassesHi! My name is Rosie and I am a 3rd year Chemistry student on the MChem with a Year in Industry course.

I have been studying at the University of Leicester for 2 years now and I am currently on placement at Infineum in Milton Hill. I am from Swindon in Wiltshire and in my spare time I enjoy exploring different parts of the UK via foot, car and motorbike, with the NC500 in Scotland being my favourite trip so far. The purpose of this blog is to allow you to gain an insight into what undertaking an industrial placement is like, and the highs and lows as I experience them throughout the year.

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.

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…

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.

Crystal ball on a red cloth, next to a key and some mysterious books in the background

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!).

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!

Burning fire in the foreground, in front of a row of fire extinguishers

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!

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!

Lab coats on pegs against a glass lab wall with the logo of Infineum etched into the glass

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.

Close up image of a green fuel pump filling a car with fuel

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.

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