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Trinity Chemistry Professor Wins Prestigious Research Award

Susan Perkin, a professor of physical chemistry and fellow of Trinity College at Oxford University, has won the 2023 Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists in the United Kingdom. The award, whose winners receive 100,000 pounds in unrestricted funds, is designed to promote the efforts of the fresh faces in academia within the “Life Sciences, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Chemistry.” Perkin’s research, which falls into the lattermost category, concerns the study of ionic fluids—that is electrolytes. In an interview with Cherwell, Perkin admitted that:

“Most people, when they think of electrolytes, they think Lucozade, energy drinks, things like that, and they are not wrong—that is certainly an electrolyte,” Perkin said.

However, Perkin would go on to make the important addendum of the presence of electrolytes in not only food and drinks, but in our bodies and industrial tools—electrolytes are all around us. As Perkin would go on to explain, our world is chockful of electrolytes, with just a few examples being the electronic devices and tools we take for granted in our everyday lives.

“Our cells’ physiological environment is largely made up of electrolytes as well. It is well known among scientists that more than 60% of your body is water, but it would be more accurate to say that it is water and salts, which are electrolytes. The ocean is also a massive reservoir of electrolytes,” Perkin’s said.

“These are all natural electrolytes, and they make up a large fraction of earth. There are also synthetic electrolytes, which we make when we try to design energy storage devices, such as in your phones and devices, but also in cars, where you need a large battery, which involves electrolytes as well. What they mostly have in common is that they contain a large number and concentration of ions.”

The current focus of Perkin’s research is describing the physical chemistry behind the high concentrations of electrolytes present in the many avenues of our life today. Although Perkin acknowledged that the scientific community has a number of good theories for solutions with a very low concentrations of electrolytes, the theories do not explain the behavior of electrolytic solutions as they exist in many real-life situations, such as in our bodies and batteries, which has implications for the understanding of any field that lies among electrolytes.

“And so the focus of our work is to understand the physics and chemistry of electrolytes which are at high concentrations. And it turns out, the properties of those electrolytes, are very different from the dilute ones. It’s really very different,” Perkin said.

“But why does it matter? If I go to my colleagues in biochemistry, they might be very focused on understanding how proteins interact with one another, or how they sit in a membrane, and sit in other molecules in a cell membrane, and all of this is happening within a sea of electrolytes, and so the nature of those interactions depends upon [electrolytes]. And the scientific assumptions that we have been making until now with these biochemical interactions have been mainly with the dilute concentrations of electrolytes. And understanding how these interactions really work in the real world with the actual concentrations of these electrolytes, helps inform these other fields like biology.”

Perkin was not always interested in the finer details of chemistry, of electrolytes and their machinations. As Perkin would explain, she began as a lover of mathematics due to its neat resolutions and elegance, which appealed to Perkin’s sense of rigorous patterns and solutions to problems. However, it was after attending Oxford University, that Perkin attended Oxford University for her bachelor’s and master’s degree, where she discovered a love for uncovering the basal details of the sciences, where Perkin was able to find the root truths of a science that were often mathematically based:

“In my school, it was not very cool to be interested in what you were learning. […] When I arrived at Johns, suddenly it was like arriving in a another world where I was surrounded by people who were really interested and talking about [their subject], and I loved that environment where you could sit down in the dining hall surrounded by people and find out they’re studying many different things, but they all have something interesting to say about what they just learnt. It was just electrifying fun,” Perkin said.

Indeed, Perkin acknowledged her academic debts to not only her education but to the scientists who came before. Many  scientists are not as well known now, but were integral (such as David Tabor) in establishing the research methodology that Perkin employs: that of the Surface Force Balance. The Surface Force Balance, which was one of the main components behind Perkin’s winning of the Blavatnik Award, helps to measure “shear forces between surfaces.” Looking to the future, Perkin hopes to build off the base of knowledge of her lineage and her own research towards researching the environment, and understanding the chemical mechanisms behind the various effects of pollution on marine biology.

“In the coming years, I really expect my research to look more towards natural electrolytes and mineralization processes and other natural processes that happen in electrolytes. I am interested in the way in which CO2 from the atmosphere, which to a large extent is dissolved in the ocean into carbonates, forms large interfacial regions near rock surfaces which organisms then take in and process. Understanding how all these ions interact with one another, at very high concentrations, is very important towards understanding the CO2 cycle,” Perkin said.

Perkin ended with a bit of advice towards those looking to follow in her footsteps, the next generation of young scholars looking to make an impact in academia, but in a world where there the job outlooks for fresh DPhils is increasingly grim, Perkin also acknowledges the harsh reality of looking for a job in an oversaturated, albeit growing market.

“My advice is just to do what you really enjoy,” Perkin said. “I just followed my nose and saw what I was interested in, and I did it to the best of my ability that I could, and opportunities just sort of arose. But I did not expect that these opportunities would arise. I was always ready to go do something else. There are a lot of great things to do in life, it’s a bit like children wanting to be a premier league footballer, but when it often does not work out, you can do something else, and that can also be great.”

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