Science and Engineering in Derby and Derbyshire
Samantha Drake was originally going to be a primary school teacher. To get into teacher training she was advised to choose an A-level in either science or language, as well as the core English and Maths. Chemistry won out simply because she had enjoyed the GCSE course.
By chance during her A-levels she attended a student conference about Forensic science, “I spoke to a forensic scientist at this conference and said I’ve been fascinated by what you’ve been telling me, but how do I get into it?” With no reputable forensic science degrees around at that time she took his advice to study a pure chemistry degree first. At the time Chemistry was a relatively unpopular degree course-“I revel in being different!”
She then moved to specialise in forensic science for her masters degree, where she focussed on drug analysis. “When I was 18 a friend of mine died of having his drink spiked…it was believed that it was an overdose of amphetamine type stimulants”. This coupled with the discovery that, ” a lot of chemistry made more sense” in Forensic Science, which prefers saying paracetamol instead of N-(4-hydroxyphenyl)ethanamide, led her to the study of methamphetamine.
However, it was during her masters degree that Sam realised that she, “didn’t fancy spending day in, day out actually in the lab and that would appear to be what actual forensic scientists do”. Luckily one of her lecturers suggested that she should apply for a job as a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University. Like many people she assumed that, “you needed a PhD for that kind of thing…and then I got it”. Which though not primary as she’d originally planned brought her back to education which, “has always been important”. Positions in Scotland followed before she eventually ended up here in Derby as Lecturer in Forensic Chemistry.
Her job involves not only teaching Forensic Scientists , but Biologists and Zoologists. However, whilst the Forensic Scientists are a rather compact group of 45, the biological sciences are a 150 strong class, “for three hours on a Monday morning, so I was probably the least popular person on the planet!” One of the challenges is for her to introduce people to unfamiliar concepts and to do this she likes to make use of examples; “I think because of my background I find it easier to find forensic examples”.
One of the other complications is facing the misconceptions that people have about chemistry. Long, near unpronounceable names like (RS)-2-(4-(2-methylpropyl)phenyl) propanoic acid, or Ibuprofen to the rest of us, often make Chemistry intimidating. “There’s an awful lot of rules on how things are named, so in theory you should be able to go from the name and break it into its component parts”. However, she acknowledges that it is, “a bit like learning another language”.In her teaching she aims to help people, ” understand that this bit means this and this bit means this, and if the two are together they will look like this”. Sam hopes that her more visual approach makes it, “more straightforward to follow [because] it can be very off-putting reading something with a big long set of names”. The other problem is, of course, that people sadly think Chemistry is boring. Sam is keen to show people that there’s much more to it than the popular image and says that it helps you see things in a different way, “everything’s got chemistry in it”.