30 Aug International Women’s Day: The Chemistry is Right
Dr. Bev Brown, Smartkem’s chief scientific officer, takes the opportunity on International Women’s Day to encourage more women to become chemists. Her exciting career and pioneering research make her a great role-model for young female scientists to follow.
Smartkem’s chief scientific officer Dr. Bev Brown is a pioneering chemist who has been a driving force behind the company’s innovations in organic semi-conductor technology and printable electronics.
A world-leading researcher in her field, Dr. Brown is one of the few senior female chemists in UK industry. She wishes that more women would get involved in science.
“The more we can do to promote females in science, the better,” she says, noting that there are precious few female chief science officers in the UK and few senior women chemists.
Under 15% of her work colleagues in the field of chemistry have been female, she says, and she attributes the reluctance of girls to pursue careers in the sciences to a lack of female role models. Bev can serve as a paragon for girls considering a career in chemistry. She has spent her life developing cutting-edge innovations which have helped forge the modern world. She has risen to a senior position and enjoys the career benefits that accompany it.
Women may be put off joining the field by the heavy male skew of the sciences. Only 9% of senior chemistry lecturers are women, according to the Royal College of Chemistry. Just eight Nobel Prizes in Chemistry have been won by women, 4% of the total 191 awarded. “This may appear to be a very male dominated industry when women get into the workplace,” she concedes, though adds: “I’ve never encountered any overt discrimination.”
A materials scientist with a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry from Glasgow University, Bev leads a team of chemists at Smartkem’s research and development laboratory at the iconic Hexagon Tower in Blackley, North Manchester.
A key architect of Smartkem’s TRUFLEX® technology, Dr. Brown is bullish about the prospects for the semiconductor platform, which uses inks deposited at low temperatures on circuit boards to create organic thin film transistors. Printable electronics such as these do away with the need for the costly, high temperature process of vacuum depositing silicon chips on circuit boards, the technology that has fuelled the digital revolution.
“We’ve developed the best organic semiconductors in the world,” says the Glaswegian, who began consulting at Smartkem when it was first established in 2009 before being made chief technology officer in 2014 and subsequently rising to chief scientist.
Smartkem is promoting the TRUFLEX® platform for use in applications such as micro-LED and mini-LED displays, AMOLED displays, AR and VR headsets, fingerprint sensors and integrated logic circuits. A low-cost, low temperature solution, the process allows transistors to be coated on to flexible substrates, rather than the hard circuit boards required by silicon chips. Such display screens could be flexible, bendable, and foldable.
Interviewed via video at her home outside Manchester, she points to the OLED TV screen in her living room. “In that TV, you’ve got the front plane, which is the light emitting polymer. And then you’ve got millions of transistors driving every single pixel, and just now that’s done by conventional inorganic transistors. Our view is that it could be done using organic transistors. That is a huge market volume.”
Dr. Brown has helped pioneer the inks at the heart of Smartkem’s technology. She works closely with Simon Ogier, Smartkem’s chief technology officer, an expert in organic thin-film transistors. He leads a team of engineers at Smartkem’s development lab at the Centre for Process Innovation in Sedgefield, creating device prototypes using the organic semiconductors developed by Smartkem’s team of chemists.
“Simon’s expertise is that he and his team convert Smartkem’s chemicals into a wide range of cutting-edge prototype devices from sensors through to Micro-LEDs.
“It’s fair to say that Smartkem has been very successful designing and upscaling the Company’s chemistry and now the emphasis of the company has migrated towards process engineering, getting these chemicals up and running on industrial lines,” she says.
Smartkem has 19 patent families, 124 patents granted and 15 patents pending. “The company’s strategy is to get into some high value areas of emerging applications particularly in 5G. So, we’re making a range of bespoke chemicals for those applications,” she says.
Brought up in East Glasgow, she is the daughter of a Royal Navy sailor turned engineer who inspired her interest in all things technical.
“He was fantastic at taking engines to bits and putting them back together again,” she says. The young Bev followed in his footsteps. She once got into trouble for taking apart a Timex watch bought for her by her grandmother – because she thought there would be jewels inside. She has never looked back and has drilled into the properties of materials ever since, getting a degree in chemistry at Glasgow University then going on to obtain a highly rated PhD.
After this, she went straight into the New Science Research Group at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), working with a multi-disciplinary team of scientists to solve a range of challenging chemical engineering problems.
She was part of a team that won the Queen’s Award for Industry Medal, and she worked on creating the coatings for submarine optical fibre telecommunications cables, ensuring they were shark proof. She spent 18 years at ICI, some of it working at Hexagon Tower, and became senior R&D research manager at Zeneca a year after returning from maternity leave.
She retains her fascination in the problem-solving aspects of scientific research. “I think if you’ve got a decent scientific training, you can solve just about any scientific problem working with the right experts,” she says.
Her advice for women looking to build a career in science is to make sure they have a mentor or sponsor early on in their careers.
“Part of the journey when I joined ICI straight after doing my PhD, was that I had a great mentor who championed my career, and I think it was probably because he had a couple of daughters himself.”
Dr. Brown’s successes show that women can make huge achievements in the sciences – if the chemistry is right.