Declan Cusack Letting his imagination run wild in the chemistry lab Photo of Declan Cusack

Declan Cusack, sports enthusiast and third year PhD student at the CSCB, is keen to stress that working in a lab is far from the “lonely, cold and unemotional pursuit of brilliance” it is often portrayed as. “Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s an amazing team spirit in the group and there’s always a nice, chilled-out vibe in the lab.” After his first degree in medicinal chemistry at Trinity College Dublin, Declan joined the research group of Professor Pat Guiry to do a PhD in organic chemistry at the CSCB.

What were your favourite subjects at school?

"I particularly enjoyed maths at school. We had a great teacher who was really able to get the class’s attention and make it interesting for everyone. I also liked chemistry and physics but maths was definitely the favourite.”

What is chemistry?

"Chemistry is the study of matter. Chemists study a wide range of things such as the physical properties of compounds and chemical systems, as well as how to make new chemicals. The applications of this knowledge are far-reaching. It can be used to make new drugs or to study biological systems. A knowledge of chemistry is vital if new, green ways of powering vehicles or creating new materials for aircraft are to be invented. All in all, it is an area where you can let your imagination run wild to solve any variety of problems.”

Why did you decide to do a postgraduate degree?

"When studying at undergraduate level, you pick up a lot of knowledge. However, while you reach a very high level with theoretical knowledge, the practical side isn’t quite in the same league. In order to counteract this, pursuing a PhD is an invaluable way to develop the skills that will turn you into a fully fledged scientist. A PhD pushes you to solve problems on a daily basis. It forces you to think about what were initially simple problems in a lot more detail, hence giving you an even better understanding of chemistry than when you started. Very often, when you hit a problem, you are forced to come up with a solution that is new and so pushes the boundaries of knowledge back further.”

How would you spend a typical day?

"I’m the kind of chemist who makes things. Usually, the day begins with me putting on a reaction. A chemical reaction can take between 10 minutes to a couple of days depending on what I’m trying to do. Once the reaction is finished, the product usually has to be purified. Very few reactions give 100% product. Quite often, side products are formed and have to be removed. Purification can take between an hour to 4 or 5 hours, depending on how clean the reaction was. Once cleaned up, the product is analysed so that I can verify if the reaction worked.”

What do you most enjoy about it?

"When I set out to make a compound, a lot of strategic thought goes into making the particular molecule. I have to design a way of getting to the target in such a way that if I change one part of the molecule, another bit doesn’t fall off. When one of these plans works, it’s very satisfying. I also enjoy working with the other people in the lab. By spending so much time in the company of the other people in the group, it’s hard not to make friends.

One of the great things about the CSCB is that the facilities are absolutely world class. In terms of space for doing chemistry, our labs rival the best anywhere on the planet. As well as this, there’s also the chance to travel to meetings and conferences abroad where ideas are exchanged and you can meet other scientists. So far I’ve gotten to go to Barcelona, Manchester and Bristol, while this summer, I will be presenting results at the European Chemical Congress in Budapest.”

Anything you don’t enjoy?

"While sitting down and thinking out a strategy for reaching a new compound is challenging, it can be frustrating when the plan doesn’t work. Very often, problems arise at an advanced stage as the system you’re building up is getting more complicated. Finding a solution to these problems can be time-consuming. Sometimes the bulk of the original plan stays the same, as the solution might be a small modification of the thing that caused the problem. However, other times, it can be literally back to the drawing-board and months of work might have to be stopped in order for a new plan to be used.

At the start, this can give your morale (and ego!) a bit of a bruising. But after a while, you don’t take it so personally. The key is to remember that you are a researcher and as a researcher, your job is to find information about a system. Very often, a failure in the lab can be as good as a success. As long as you can explain your findings, then you’re on the right track.”

What are your interests outside of work?

"I really like playing sports, in particular football, tennis and squash. Football is a great release from study and I try to play as much as possible. I follow sport keenly also. I’m a big Manchester United fan and I go to as many Ireland games as I can.

I like reading. There’s no set genre that I like but ironically, I can’t stand science-fiction. I recently read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume 1, which I liked a lot. I’m currently reading Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor.

I also enjoy music. Over the last 10 year, U2, Oasis and REM have been constant favourites. There’s so much exciting music coming out at the moment that it’s hard to keep up. Current favorites would have to be Interpol, Arcade Fire and another Athens, Georgia band called Now It’s Overhead. I like the old blues masters like Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters too. I also play guitar, but not seriously.”

 

What would you like to do when you finish? What are the typical careers for a chemistry student?

"When I finish my PhD, I would like to pursue post-doctoral work. You might think that after 4 years studying for a degree and another 4 to get a PhD that I would be sick of college, but I feel that pursuing this work, I could improve my skills even further and specialize even more in my area. This is not an unusual route for someone with a PhD to go down. But others get a job in industry. The pharmaceutical industry is growing all the time and there will always be a need for highly qualified scientists in industry.

The great thing about chemistry is that it touches so many different sectors. This means that in addition to the pharmaceutical industry, you could work in the food and brewing industries, the civil service, law and patenting or in IT, making new materials for computers. Usually, chemistry graduates find employment in one of these sectors.”

What would you say to secondary school students who might think that science is too difficult or boring?

"I would have to disagree that science subjects are more difficult than other subjects. There is a logic to science that makes it easier to understand. If you start at the beginning, you can learn about different ideas layer by layer which is definitely easier than learning off poetry or speeches.

I’d also have to disagree that science is boring. You just have to look at the news to see that science can blow your mind in ways that other subjects can’t. Just recently, the solar eclipse over Africa or advances in stem cell research show how cool science is. In fact, you don’t have to watch the news to see this. Just look at your mobile phone. 10 years ago, if you took pictures you had to wait an age to get them developed. Now your phone can take a picture and you can send it across the world in seconds. That’s the power of science.”

 

 

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