Always asking why – a world leader in an emerging field

Professor Sharon Ashbrook with her RSE Medal – picture by Stewart Attwood Photography

Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Professor Sharon Ashbrook FRSE, has been honoured with the RSE Lord Kelvin Medal at a ceremony in Edinburgh. 

Professor Ashbrook, the deputy head of the School of Chemistry at the University of St Andrews, was awarded her medal for pioneering work using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to understand the structure of inorganic materials.

Prof Ashbrook is also a world leader in the emerging field of NMR crystallography.

She said: “Obviously I’m really happy, but quite surprised as well. In chemistry and science you do a lot of work as a team, so you have PhD students, you have postdoctoral students, you have collaborators who work together on bigger problems. So although I was awarded the medal, all of their work contributes to the science that you can do and the questions that you can answer.

A career in academia

“I like solving problems, I like understanding why things happen. I would always ask my mum why things were the way they were. I always liked the logic and the problem solving, and I had a really good science teacher in school who got me interested in chemistry.”

Prof Ashbrook’s initial intention was to finish studying at university and then become a primary school teacher. Having been convinced to stay on and do a PhD after she graduated – and then a postdoctoral project – she never did become a primary school teacher. However, her community outreach brings her into schools across the country.

“I think the more I worked in academia the more I realised that it combined the research which I really liked, but also the teaching which I always wanted to do.”

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy is a technique used to analyse the content, purity and atomic level structure of materials.

Prof Ashbrook explained: “We look basically at the structure of materials, inorganic materials, minerals found in the inner earth, ceramics, glasses, zeolites – porous sponge-like solids that can absorb gases. If you think about all the places those materials can be used, there are many applications in modern life. They are everywhere, but the application you use them in depends on the properties they have.

“So if you wanted to design a better material, something that melts at a higher temperature, or conducts electricity, or is magnetic, you need to understand what it is about the atoms and their arrangement that gives you that particular property.”

Understanding this link – called the “structure-property relationship” – is the key to understanding how you might then manipulate the materials to get better ones. One real-world example Prof Ashbrook outlines is that of ceramics that are used to store radioactive waste.

“If you imagine you have some sort of material that contains titanium, and that’s chemically really strong and durable, you can have a material that contains zirconium, and that is resistant to radioactive decay,” she said.

“So if you could design a material that has both properties, you would get a better material overall. Mixing the two could give you a material that had the best properties of both.”

However, the potential also exists that the material you make has the worst traits of the ingredients you put in.

“Which one of those you get depends on the arrangement of atoms. Are they clustered together, or are they spread apart? Does that matter, do you get different properties depending on how those atoms are arranged?”

Prof Ashbrook said: “What we do is use computation to try and predict what the NMR spectrum would look like. So if you can imagine taking the titanium- and zirconium-containing structures, mixing the atoms in a computer, and predicting what the spectrum would look like and then matching that to what you see in experiment.”

With all the information that Prof Ashbrook and her team may generate, industry may then take that on and set about the next challenge of creating real-world materials.

Community outreach

Given her stellar career in academia, Prof Ashbrook has become a different type of teacher than she first intended, but part of her medal citation is for her community outreach to secondary schools, some of which is carried out with the Royal Society of Chemistry. In addition she is working on an outreach program to get younger children interested in critical thinking.

She added: “One of my research projects for undergraduates this year is actually developing some outreach work with primary schools, and I am really enjoying that. We are thinking about doing some problem solving with a spy theme and codebreaking.”

The pursuit of answers and collating the fragments of information that can be found is what has always driven Professor Ashbrook, and through this simple guiding principle she has become a world-leader in her field.

She said: “When putting together loads of bits of information, each bit alone doesn’t tell you enough but trying to put it all together and working out the only way in which they can fit together, as opposed to just using one method to solve a problem is what I really enjoy.

“I am delighted and honoured to receive this medal, and very pleased that our work on NMR spectroscopy and NMR crystallography has been recognised in this way. This award also recognises the hard work of all the PhD students, postdocs and undergraduate students I have worked with over the last few years, as well as the great collaborators I have been fortunate enough to work alongside.”

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