From being one of the first ever students at CSMS to securing a placement year with a multinational pharmaceutical company, Jodie Grace-Smith tells us how her time at CSMS felt like ‘fate’ as it helped her realise her passion to go into chemical engineering and gave her the key experiences to get her there.
Hi Jodie! You were in the first ever cohort of CSMS students – tell us about your experience.
Yes I was! I studied Biology, Chemistry, Maths, EPQ and two Further Maths modules, Mechanics I and Mechanics II. I found that being with peers who were all hardworking and ambitious, had the same interests in STEM, and were all aiming to go to top universities really motivated me personally. A-Levels are challenging, and you need that help from people around you – you’re all in it together. Equally, the teachers were really interested in me, my success and my ambitions which supported and helped me.
I’m not sure I’d be in the same position I’m in now if I hadn’t have gone to CSMS; all the different extra-curricular opportunities, networking with academics and being in that environment really helped me to thrive.
You’re currently a fourth year Chemical Engineering student at the University of Bath. How are you finding it?
I’m really enjoying the course – it’s challenging and intensive, but I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. I went through a lot of shifting decisions when I was doing my A-Levels where I couldn’t decide out of all the STEM routes, but CSMS helped me choose. They had lots of lecture series where lecturers would come in to talk to us, and eventually I found chemical engineering. It was perfect for me because it brings all the sciences together and it’s about applying maths to solve problems, rather than just the theory.
If you have a STEM degree, you can go into practically any industry because you’ve got an amazing skillset. I’m in the pharmaceutical sector, but with chemical engineering you can go into consumer goods, food & drink, oil and gas, energy, cosmetics – it’s all about making things. You can say I’ve physically had an impact on that, and it’s solved a problem for someone. Chemical engineering has had a bad rep in the past because it was mainly associated with oil and gas, but now it’s more a space of solving sustainability issues and how we can make things in a much better way.
One of the teachers at CSMS actually convinced me to do the extra A-Level Further Maths Mechanics modules as they said they would be useful if I ever wanted to go into engineering, and at that point, engineering wasn’t even on my radar. A lot of engineering requires Physics qualifications but here I am doing engineering – and it’s all because CSMS supported me to do those extra modules.
As part of your degree, you’re on an Industrial Placement at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) within Bioprocess Science. How did this opportunity come about and what kind of projects have you been working on?
It’s quite common with STEM degrees to spend a year doing a work placement, as you get to take your theory and apply it in practice. My degree is an integrated master’s so it’s a five-year degree overall that includes a year’s placement. GSK is a large, global pharmaceutical company that makes lots of different medicines and vaccines. In bioprocess science, I develop processes for making things like vaccines by working with enzymes, antibodies, and small molecules, and I use the engineering skills I’ve got to develop processes – i.e., I optimise and solve problems with my design to make it better in terms of energy usage, practicality, cost, functionality and so on. The main project I’ve been working on is developing a process for the extraction of cell culture for a GSK product so we hopefully we can manufacture it more sustainably.
Although you’re supported by your university to obtain a placement, you’re not guaranteed one and so it’s like applying for a job; you have to send out applications and go for interviews. When you get to that point, the majority of people have only been to school and just started university, so you don’t have much experience – that’s where everything I did at CSMS really came in useful. Throughout my applications I could say I’d been to Singapore to do a research project and that I’d completed a Nuffield placement; I had all these amazing experiences from CSMS to put on my CV and talk about during interviews. If I hadn’t had that, I honestly don’t know if I’d have had much to say! Anyone can get good grades, but that’s the stuff that really made me stand out.
My Nuffield placement was a six-week project with FiberLean Technologies which makes microfibrillated cellulose in the paper industry. CSMS made me aware of the opportunity and said I should go for it – otherwise I would never have known that it existed! I had support with my application from CSMS and ended up on a summer placement in a lab in Cornwall. That was my first real STEM job experience and I think it really set me up for my current placement as this is also lab-based.
You mentioned you went on an international trip to Singapore! What other opportunities were made available to you at CSMS?
Singapore was a biodiversity research collaboration project. I spent a week at the National Junior College (NJC) School with the students in Singapore doing a project on habitat fragmentation and the effect on butterfly species. It was quite intensive but it’s great experience to produce something really quickly – we had a full research paper, data and a presentation at the end of it. The experience of working with the Singaporean students was great to learn from because they have a different culture and they work differently. We also then had a week where the Singaporean students came over to the UK to stay with us! When we were hosting the students, the project was to investigate the effect of sand particle size on a species of plant on Cornish beaches, which was a host plant to an endangered butterfly. We did data collection out in the field and got to work with an Dr Adrian Spalding, a famous Cornish entomologist from the University of Exeter who supported the project as a subject matter expert.
With CSMS, we also went to the mineral processing lab at the University of Exeter, so we got to expand on the data we’d collected to take the project to the next step. That’s something that CSMS does so well – it has lots of connections to other educational providers and experiences so you’re not confined to just what you can do; you’re supported with connections, places, and options. It really opens the doors to lots of new things.
CSMS also signposted a lot of outreach events that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. We went to the University of Oxford for the day where I experienced their Chemistry Pathway by going to lectures, touring their campus and seeing their labs. Similarly, we went to Cambridge and explored their university, museums and took part in lectures. Before joining CSMS I’d never considered even applying for Oxford or Cambridge, but having experienced it and having that encouragement from the teachers was inspiring and made me realise that there was a place for me there. Looking back, that’s really not something people normally get to experience. Also, lecturers would come to CSMS where we’d be able to have a tutorial-style chat with them afterwards; being in my job now I see the benefit of networking so being able to do that at 16/17 years of age and have those interesting conversations about STEM is really exciting.
Why did you choose to study at CSMS? What made them stand out from other sixth forms?
All the teachers were really supportive and it seemed like the place that I was going to do best. A big draw was the fact that CSMS was starting this new STEM programme which was perfect for me. It was very new but also so exciting if you were selected because you knew this programme would support you to do well – it was more than just I’m going to do my A Levels, it was I’m going to have so many extra opportunities. I remember being really excited about the trips abroad, doing an EPQ and all the extra things that I was going to get to do throughout my A Levels.
What’s your favourite memory from your time at CSMS?
There are two things, and I’m not sure if it’s fate…
First off, I have a clear memory of being at the CSMS building where we had science magazines that you could read during a spare minute. Most of the time I was very busy with either A Level work or extra-curricular activities, so I wanted to have a flick through the magazines but I never had time, however on this occasion I thought I’d take some time to chill and look through it. I came across an article about cultured meat – growing cells in labs to then grow burgers. I just thought it was incredibly interesting, so I went and researched it afterwards, and I think that’s what lead me into bioprocessing which is the field I’m in now. Also, one of the leaders in that research is the current Head of my Chemical Engineering Department at university! So it feels like it’s gone full circle – I was inspired by that article and now here I am doing bioprocessing as a University of Bath student!
The second one is that we did a lot of interview practice sessions at CSMS. I remember one such session with my chemistry teacher at the time, and the questions were about what I wanted to do in the future with an emphasis on why I wanted to do that, which really sparked me to think about it properly. I said I wanted to go into pharmaceuticals and my chemistry teacher also used to work in pharmaceuticals, so we had this big conversation about the industry. He gave me some quite challenging questions but it really pushed me in a good way to think about what my motivations were – and now here I am in the pharmaceutical industry! I could have gone into any area of engineering and so it just feels like those earlier jigsaw pieces from CSMS have fit together; I’m genuinely not sure where I’d be if I didn’t go to CSMS because a lot of my experiences I had there had a big influence and have crafted how I am now.
What would you say to someone who was considering studying at CSMS?
If you’re hardworking and curious, you’ve got the ambition and you’re interested in STEM – 100% go for it because it’s literally the perfect place for you. Even if you’re unsure what you want to do, CSMS will give you all these different opportunities to help you decide where you want to go and open up new doors that you might not have even known existed to new careers. You really won’t get the same opportunities anywhere else and it’s a stepping stone for you to then go on and do more. Like I said earlier, it’s not enough to just get good grades anymore – you really need the extra stuff to stand out if you want to get into the top universities.
What are your personal ambitions for the future?
I finish my placement at GSK in two weeks and then I’ll be going back for my final year of university. I would like to come back to GSK because I’ve really enjoyed my year here and I know I want to work in the pharmaceutical industry. I’d really love to get on a graduate scheme with a company too because they’re rotational, so I’d get to try out lots of different jobs in different places and have a variety of experiences.
Long term I’d love to get my accreditation so become a chartered engineer with the IChemE, and I’d love to continue my volunteering and outreach work. I’m passionate about encouraging more people to get into STEM, especially those from low socioeconomic areas, diverse backgrounds, and women into engineering. I didn’t realise it was so much of an issue until I got to university. I had all those opportunities and help from CSMS and I want to give back now, so I try and do a lot of outreach work with school students – for example I was a panellist at The Big Bang Fair last week to help encourage more young people into doing STEM and that was really fun.
I also recently won an Engineering Leaders Scholarship award from the Royal Academy of Engineering, which funds me to do some development work as a recognition of my potential to become an engineering leader; I have ambition to become a leader in the engineering industry, go on to managerial roles and move up. In August I’ll be spending a month on a volunteering internship with EcoSwell, a sustainable NGO out in Peru. I’ll be working on a Renewable Energy project and I’m really looking forward to using my engineering skills on a hands-on, sustainable project working with the local community. I’m also really passionate about being an advocate and a role model for greater diversity in STEM, so I’d like to use the recognition from my award as an influence in order to do that.