John M. Ball holding a sign posing for the camera
Dr Emily Draper with RSE President Professor Sir John Ball – photo by Stewart Attwood Photography

Academics have been honoured for their outstanding achievements by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Among them is Dr Emily Draper, senior lecturer in chemistry and the University of Glasgow, and member of the Young Academy of Scotland, for her innovative research, developing understanding of self-assembly phenomena in organic electronics.

Part of Dr Draper’s RSE Lady Margaret Moir Medal was awarded for her equality, diversity and inclusion and accessibility of marginalized chemists within the supramolecular chemistry community.

Dr Draper said: “I am pleasantly surprised; it is nice to have my work recognised. Especially by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, it is quite an honour.”

Like many who pursue a career in research, Dr Draper cites a curiosity about how things work as a major motivation for her work.

“I like solving problems and puzzling together why things work in certain ways and trying to understand how the world works,” she said.

Self-assembly phenomena

Since her undergraduate study Dr Draper’s chemistry research has been into organic self-assembly phenomena – small organic material that spontaneously arrange themselves into larger structures. These have a vast range of potential uses, and Dr Draper’s work is concerned with replacing metals in electronic devices.

She said: “We are running out of metal, essentially, so we want to be able to replace it with more environmentally friendly materials. With metals, you have to dig it out of the ground, and extract it from ores, and sometimes that can be done under really horrible conditions. That is bad for the people who work in those conditions, which is normally in Third World developing countries.

“We are trying to get rid of some of the reliance on the metals and replace them with organic materials which are derived from plant materials. They are more environmentally friendly, and they tend to be cheaper to make and process.

“Electronic components, sensors, things that change colour, are normally based on metals, but we are looking at using peptides and amino acids which are naturally occurring materials. For example, we start off with the pigment used for a specific type of red, and we add different peptides and amino acids, and we can get different functions just by combining them a certain way.

“Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), organic photovoltaics (OPVS), there are some organics used in household remote controls, so they are all around us.

Dr Draper has been working in this field since her undergraduate degree in Liverpool.

“I did my undergraduate in Liverpool and during a summer placement I began to work on soft materials. I was working on the self-assembly of polymers for drug delivery. Then my PhD was focused on these materials but using them as gels for various applications, and then became a lot more interested in the application of materials.

“It is still in its infancy and people don’t give it the credit it deserves, but now that more people are researching it, it is showing that some can work better than their metal counterparts.

“Now that industry is getting more excited about it, that is what drives the research. With new laws about how components are made and disposed of at the end of their lifespan, I think that will make organics more attractive because they are better for the environment.”

Women in Supramolecular Chemistry (WISC)

Dr Draper has also been instrumental in supporting other young women in the field of chemical research.

“We kind of stumbled on each other, and now we are helping each other by reading each other’s grant applications and papers. We decided to expand the network and make it into an actual initiative called Women in Supramolecular Chemistry,” she said.

“At first, we were a web-based group trying to put up information about grants that were available for women, and any other kind of resources we could find and that we found helpful when we were starting out.”

The group began just for women in 2019 and has since grown to global recognition by investigating questions facing all marginalized chemists. The group were even recognised by the German Chemical Society for their impact. Issues such as parenting or being pregnant while working in a lab, to have a disability or be LGBTQ+, are all explored and supported by WISC.

Dr Draper added: “We have expanded quite rapidly, and we set up mentoring groups and run workshops for young researchers and lots of other things. My role particularly has been to do with parenting. I have been doing research about things like being pregnant and being in the lab; maternity leave; paternity leave; what is it like having school-age children and working in academia.

“It is a network which is essentially worldwide now, and with funding support it has really taken off and it shows how much it was needed.”