Compiling a list of chemists that we find inspiring proved no easy task – there are just so many to choose from! Rather than simply listing the latest Nobel Prize winners, we wanted to feature people who may not be as well known but are still doing incredibly inspiring chemistry.
We chose scientists who deserve recognition for tackling some of world’s big problems, such as climate change, disease and poverty. We were particularly impressed by people who’ve defied stereotypes about gender, race or age, for example.
What we’ve come up with is a list of people we hope you’ll find as inspiring as we do.
Clean drinking water is something many of us take for granted and yet it’s estimated that more than 663 million people worldwide don’t have access to it. This is partly because filtration is too expensive for them.
While doing her Chemistry PhD at McGill University in 2012, Theresa Dankovich invented a filter which could be the answer to this fundamental problem. She made a cheap paper filter that uses the powerful anti-microbial properties of silver nanoparticles to remove bacteria from drinking water. Trials in several countries, from Honduras to Ghana, have shown the filter can be used to purify even the dirtiest grey water.
The device which is affordable, easily portable, biodegradable and requires no power to work has won her numerous accolades. In 2016, she won the Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business 1000 award. She also won gold in last year’s Design Intelligence Awards and was named as one of 100 leading global thinkers by Foreign Policy Magazine in 2015.
She has now co-founded the company Folia Water, which aims to make clean water available to one billion people for just a penny a day.
Professor Kelly Chibale
Every year, Africa receives billions of pounds worth of aid but the value of such money remains controversial. Professor Kelly Chibalebelieves “Africa needs science not aid”. He’s the perfect embodiment of this belief, having set up the Drug Discovery and Development Centre at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The centre is the first of its kind in Africa.
He completed a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry at the University of Cambridge but decided to return to Africa despite the challenges he knew he’d face. Scientists in Africa often struggle to get the funding, infrastructure and the equipment they need to carry out their work.
By choosing to carry out his research in Africa, Professor Chibale aims to shatter stereotypes about what can be achieved in the continent. He wants to put Africa at the forefront of developing new medicines to treat communicable diseases which are endemic to the continent. Developing drugs for treating such diseases isn’t always considered commercially viable by pharmaceutical companies.
So far, his research into disease prevention and treatment looks promising. In 2012, scientists at the centre discovered a compound that could potentially be used to treat all strains of malaria in a single dose. It’s currently undergoing trials in humans. In 2016, they announced the discovery of another potential anti-malarial compound.
Only four years after completing her PhD, Marja-Liisa Riekkola was made a full professor in 1987. At the time, she was the first female professor in Finland and was pregnant. When people came to her office, they assumed she was the secretary but she considers herself lucky for encountering the forward-thinking people who didn’t let her gender stop them recognising her talent.
Along with being made a professor, she was made head of the University of Helsinki’s analytical chemistry lab, which under her leadership went on to become one of the most popular in the department of chemistry. So far, her lab’s produced more than 400 MSc students and 40 PhD students.
She’s now seen as a pioneer of analytical chemistry in Finland and was one of a handful of women to make it onto the Analytical Scientist Power List in 2013 and 2015. She has also been a passionate advocate of international collaboration and completed a stint as a visiting professor in Japan. Her incredibly productive career has seen her publish more than 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers and a book.
She has been awarded numerous accolades, such as the Magnus Ehrnrooth Prize in Chemistry and serves on many committees. She’s also been a mentor for the Advance Training for Women in Scientific Research.
Her lab now contributes to climate science, as part of the Academy of Finland’s Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Science.
When Staff Sheehan discovered a new type of catalyst, he also uncovered a potential solution to one of the biggest challenges of our time. The brightest minds throughout the world are working on finding energy sources that provide an environmentally friendly and cost effective alternative to fossil fuels.
Staff discovered a surface-bound molecular electrocatalyst that enables highly efficient oxidation. Compared to other bulk metal oxide catalysts, it’s much more cost effective, stable and efficient and it can be used for creating hydrogen gas as a renewable energy source. What’s more, it does this as a by-product of a process which removes organic contaminants from wastewater. Now that’s impressive!
Because the process creates a fuel source that can be stored, it helps address the problem of producing renewable energy sources on a global scale. Current alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar energy, tend to be intermittent.
Staff’s discovery got him named in the Forbes 30 under 30 in the energy sector in 2016, only a year after completing his PhD in Chemical Physics from Yale University. He’s now founded the company Catalytic Innovations, where he’s collaborating with other scientists to develop applications for his discovery. In addition to producing biofuel, the material can be used for creating corrosion resistant oil pipelines and refining electrodes.
Teens are often stereotyped as being self-obsessed but Maanasa Mendu is one 13 year old who’s clearly turning her thoughts to concerns beyond her own.
She’s invented HARVEST, a bio-inspired device to capture energy from wind, rain and sun and convert it into power. Her invention led to her being named America’s top young scientist in 2016’s Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, which encourages young people to “apply science, critical-thinking and creativity to solve real-world problems.”
She may not have a chemistry degree like everyone else on this list but we thought she certainly deserves a mention. She created her device using the piezoelectric effect, which uses pressure to make electricity from certain substances, including biological matter. It can be created from environmentally friendly and cost-efficient materials.
Who are the scientists you find inspiring? Let us know in the comments below, or by sending us a tweet @Radleys