Fuel’s gold: a week with analytical chemist Renée Webster

Life’s a gas (chromatograph) when you’re our next RealScientist curator, Renée Webster of Monash University. As Renée has pointed out at her blog, she’s the very first chemist we’ve had on RS, but not the sort of chemist you can score the proper flu drugs off. Well, not officially. Renée’s an analytical chemist, investigating properties of fuels and lubricants – particularly diesel and aviation fuels – primarily by gas chromatography (GC), a scients-words way of describing heating the veritable bollocks out of a sample of gas and throwing it down a very long narrow tube or ‘column’ to see what stuff is in it (with the properties of individual components – size, charge etc – inferred based on how long it takes to come out the other end.)Renee Other techniques Renée’s lab uses are LC (liquid chromatography, similar to GC but with lower pressures and temperatures) and GC-MS (similar to the above but with a mass spectrometer bolted on the end of the GC to figure out exactly what the stuff is that’s been separated into its constituent parts by the GC column. The sorts of properties Renée’s group are interested in – both from a routine analysis point of view as well as research – are the chemistry of fuels and lubricants, their thermal and oxidative stability, i.e. how long they hang in there or how much they degrade in heavy usage cycles in vehicles or machinery. Renée’s a part-time PhD student and a full-time practitioner of awesomeness who is as excited to be joining us at RealScientists as we are to have her curating this week. We asked her stuff and things and she replied to them like this:

(1) What got you into science?
I think I have to place the blame with my chemistry/physics teacher uncle. I remember when my cousins and I were young he would give us science/maths problems to solve and offered Mars bars as prizes. Strangely, I do remember being given the problems but I never remember a Mars bar materialising… Maybe I never got them right, or maybe the fun of the quiz was enough of a prize for me!
(2) Why chemistry? What fascinates you about it?
Why chemistry? Actually, I think I have some sort of inexplicable fascination with the electron. That virtually all chemical phenomena, the breadth of processes and reactions from the ordinary to the spectacular, are down to the weird behaviour of some sub-atomic particle that we can’t really describe properly yet we still know so much about, is simply amazing to me.
(3) Are there any particular scientific problems you want to investigate? Chemistry ones you want to solve?
This one is super hard. Rather than working on ‘big questions’ fields, I’m actually 100% happy doing the science I am doing right now… I mean, the cool kids in chemistry want to figure out total syntheses of giant complicated molecules, or work on origin of life chemistry, but I’m actually quite satisfied plugging away in my own little niche, that maybe only a dozen other people in the world care about. I am happy when I can apply my skills and knowledge to analytical problems that most people would find quite dull. The cool thing that I love about analytical chemistry is that you can apply it to any area, and this is kind of what I have done in my career already (enviro, forensics, food science – but always analytical chemistry). People always need to know what their stuff is and how much stuff they have.

A 2D chromatogram of thermally oxidised algae derived jet fuel (via reneewebster.com)

(4) How did you get into I’m a Scientist?  How was the experience for you?

I’m really not sure. I think I just saw Kristin [Alford, a previous RS curator] promoting it on Twitter and thought ‘hey that sounds fun’ so I applied. It was a lot of fun, frantic but very enjoyable. I thought I was cool enough to come at least second, but it’s tough being a chromatographer amongst forensic scientists and video game coders.

 (5) Are you doing any other science outreach? Would you like to do more?
I’m partnered with a primary school for CSIRO’s Scientists in Schools, I have a blog lostinscientia.wordpress.com, that’s about it. I’m trying to do more.
 (6) Finally, what do you do away from the lab? Hobbies etc?
Oh dear, here is where I am reminded of how boring I am… I read (science books), watch TV (science shows). Oh, once I saw a movie. OK, serious face. In the summer months I’m playing beach volleyball, in the winter months I follow AFL and go to West Coast Eagles games in Melbourne, I spend A LOT of time with my dog at the beach/park/local cafe strip. My husband and I hang out like boring science marrieds. I like cooking too.

Yes, Renée. Yes you can. Enjoy your week!


James is a recovering scientist and escaped postdoc who works in research management at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He's now retired from active @RealScientists duty, after serving from the project's beginnings in 2013 through to mid 2015. When not managing research, surviving #PlanetParenthood or pretending not to be an expat Australian in the Deep South of NZ, he tweets @theotherdrsmith.

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