February 11 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. We speak to some of our researchers who tell us why they became interested in working in science.
Lucy Oram is a researcher in pilot-scale biorefining, based at the Sustainable Environment Research Centre (SERC) at the University of South Wales. She is also in the final stages of her PhD, which focuses on biorefining waste materials for energy and green chemicals.
How and why did you get into science?
I’ve always enjoyed learning and developing a deeper understanding of processes that happen in everyday life. My favourite subjects at school were the sciences and maths, which led me to study Natural Sciences at university. The broad nature of this degree allowed me to study a variety of critical global issues across multiple disciplines, combining knowledge and identifying links between biology, chemistry, physics, maths, and computing. This degree provided me with the freedom to follow my own interests, and it was here that I developed a passion for environmental science. After my Masters, I worked as an Environment Officer for a year but felt drawn back to academia. I wanted to get involved with important research that had potential to make a real-world impact in the area of sustainability. That’s how I ended up at SERC.
What kind of person would suit a career in science?
Those who are inquisitive and willing to ask questions – science is about finding answers, but with each answer comes more questions. Patience and perseverance have also been essential skills during my PhD research. Experiments often don’t work as expected but it’s important to keep persisting and accept that all findings (even negative ones) help shape the future direction of research.
What are you working on and why is it important?
My research focuses on converting waste materials into valuable end products through a process known as anaerobic digestion. My recent work has involved the use of sewage sludge for the production and recovery of energy and green chemicals.
This work is important because, traditionally, anaerobic digestion produces methane which is a potent greenhouse gas. Anaerobic digestion can be adapted, however, to alternatively produce biohydrogen, which can be used as a renewable fuel, and volatile fatty acids, which are high-value platform chemicals that can be used in many different industries. Since volatile fatty acids are predominantly produced using petrochemicals, this work has the potential to not only decrease greenhouse gas emissions, but also reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
What do you enjoy about it?
I enjoy how practical the work is and how each day is different; however, the most exciting aspect of this research is seeing the potential for real-world impact. By working at pilot scale on real waste materials and collaborating closely with industrial partners, I see on a daily basis how this work could influence the decarbonisation of industrial processes and help towards solving critical environmental challenges.