Department of Chemistry

Department of Chemistry University of Oxford

Name: Dr Lisa A. Thompson
Twitter handle: @HydRegen_Oxford
Group: Kylie Vincent

Biography

I grew up in a small village in North Yorkshire, attended the village primary school (with only 60 students) and then went on to a local state secondary school. I grew up in an area where there were few career opportunities in the science and technology sector, and attended a school that was one of the lowest achieving in the area.

My love of science began in my primary school, where I was lucky enough to have a science teacher who recognised my abilities and encouraged me to learn beyond the level being studied in the class. It wasn’t easy being the one staying inside at break time doing extra science lessons, whilst everyone else was out in the playground. But I’m really glad that I stuck at it, and I have pursued science ever since.

After school and 6th form college, I went on to study for a chemistry degree at the University of Edinburgh. Moving there was a huge change compared to my Yorkshire village but I really enjoyed my time at university, getting to grips with chemistry and doing actual experiments in the labs. It was definitely a lot more challenging and engaging than I had been used to, particularly being surrounded by other students with a much higher ability. 

After that I moved to the University of Leeds, where I did my PhD in chemistry. Here I worked in the area of process development chemistry, focusing on the efficient and clean manufacture of chemical products on a large scale. It was great to learn new ways of doing chemical reactions that could lead to greener, more sustainable ways to make chemicals. My PhD research spanned a number of areas and so I was able to bridge between chemistry, biology and engineering. I’ve always enjoyed how science allows you to work on lots of different things and work alongside people with different skills and backgrounds.

Current research

I am now a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Chemistry, here at the University of Oxford. I am working as part of the HydRegen team in the Vincent group, developing hydrogen-driven biocatalytic processes to make useful chemicals in a clean and efficient way.

Many useful enzymes require extra molecules called cofactors to help them work, which are like the enzyme’s battery pack. However, these cofactors are expensive and quickly become inactive, generating high amounts of waste. For the enzyme to keep working the cofactors need to be re-charged, which is often done by adding extra molecules, generating more waste. In our research we use hydrogen gas to re-charge the cofactors, which means we don’t make any extra waste. As everything we added to the chemical reaction is used up to make the desired chemical product, we have a greener, more sustainable process.

Our technology could be a way for enzymes to be used more widely for large scale chemical production. It could also be an alternative to the toxic, expensive and finite metal resources that are commonly used in industrial chemical production.

We are working on scaling-up and commercialising our technology. This means we are carrying out academic research but tackling industry objectives and problems, quite an unusual approach within academia. I’m really interested to see this process in action and to translate our ideas to industry.

A little bit extra

Outside of my research, I’m also passionate about promoting science to a range of audiences and getting involved with public engagement and outreach. Our research group has developed various outreach activities to ask: ‘What can chemists learn from nature?’ I have really enjoyed demonstrating these activities at different events and schools and finding out about the public’s perception of chemistry and chemicals. 

To be honest, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up! I am using my time here at Oxford to learn about all possible career options and gain any extra skills I may need. 

I would like to work in the chemical industry, developing ways to make large amounts of chemicals in a more sustainable way, but I would still like to get involved with outreach and science communication along the way. All I do know is that I’m excited to see where the journey will take me!