Robert Woolfson

Favourite Thing: Find something new, unexpected and completely exciting.



University of Manchester – 2012 – present (PhD), University of Manchester – 2008-2012 (MChem), University of California at Santa Cruz (2010-2011) Queens Park Community School (London) – 2000-2007


Masters in Chemistry (2012), 10 GCSE, A-levels in Physics (B), Maths (B), Chemistry (B) and Music (E)

Work History:

Several bars in London, a ski hill in Canada as a rental techie

Current Job:

PhD student


The University of Manchester and NOWNano DTC

Me and my work

I make very special kinds of molecules that might help us make completely new types of computers

I work in the Molecular Magnets ¬†group, although I don’t actually make magnets. I make what are called frustrated spin systems, which is a fancy way of saying we try to confuse electrons. When electrons get confused, it does some complicated things to them which might let us build new kinds of computers. Fast computers. Really, really, fast computers.

My main job is as a synthetic chemist, which means I make things. Most of those things are big rings of metals (in green) surrounded by all kinds of other atoms. myimage3

Most of the time, they don’t work. Sometimes they do, and my boss is happy and I get to use a lot of expensive equipment to study what I’ve made. One perk of being a scientist is the really cool stuff we get to use. myimage5 myimage7 myimage6

My Typical Day

Drink coffee, check facebook, run an experiment, read papers, check facebook again, more coffee, run another experiment.

Caffeine is probably the one constant in every lab. In both labs I’ve worked in, when the coffee machine breaks it’s a minor catastrophe. Without it, the chemistry department would grind to a halt. Chemistry is dangerous, sometime we’re working with (potential) explosives or chemical weapons and we need to be awake. Which is why every day starts with a coffee. That, and I hate mornings so coffee means I’m not rude to the people I work with.

Apart from coffee, I don’t really have a typical day. Some days I’ll walk into the lab at 9.30 and not go back to my office until I’m too hungry to keep working. Other times I’ll be sitting in the office for a couple of hours because I have papers to read and no experiments to run. I don’t have to explain to anyone how I spend my time. If I’m hungover tired and don’t feel like working, I hide in the office pretending to read. If I’m heading for a big result, you can’t drag me out of the lab for anything.

It’s one of the great things about science. There are so many different ideas, skills and pieces of equipment that if something isn’t working I can talk to my supervisor at 10 and be doing something different by 10.30.

What I'd do with the money

Bring chemistry to students who wouldn’t normally be able to explore it

Chemistry, with all the chemicals (duh), glassware and safety requirements, is expensive. Not only that, but to do it safely requires time, experience and some serious training. I’m lucky enough to have experience and training, and I’d like to use these to go into some schools and show them the more exciting parts of chemistry that schools don’t usually get to see. I’d also take some videos and use them to promote chemistry more generally as both a degree and a career.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Curious, active, adventerous

Who is your favourite singer or band?

A New Zealand band called Avalanche City –

What's your favourite food?

Steak with sweet potato fries

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Camping in Death Valley with my best friend

What did you want to be after you left school?

Travelling (which I did)

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Yes, but we don’t talk about that

What was your favourite subject at school?


What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Discovering a completely new molecule my lab had been searching for for years. And using a £500 million piece of equipment.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I got my first chemistry set when I was 8. I threw out the instructions, blew up a room in my house and was sold from that point on. (DO NOT TRY THAT AT HOME, the parents were not amused)

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Living abroad, somewhere warm with a beach

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Sail the world, own a cabin in the mountains, travel to all seven continents

Tell us a joke.

There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

Other stuff

Work photos:

My day to day workspace:


The building I work in:


The kind of molecules I’m making: