Postgraduate diary

Andy Brown, a Masters student in polymer science, explains its appeal

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The Independent Online

Just suppose you had no idea what was involved in the postgraduate study of polymers and surface coatings science, and you were asked to imagine the typical profile of a postgraduate student of that discipline. I'd guess you might not immediately land on the image of a member of a cheerleading team – let alone a male member of a cheerleading team.

Well, Andy Brown, 30, a Masters student studying at the University of Leeds, would prove you wrong, since he fits both of those activities into most of his weeks.

"I juggle girls," he says succinctly, as he describes the role he plays in the university's cheerleading team, the Leeds Celtics. It's much more about acrobatics than chanting and pom-pom waving, he explains.

But it was the more serious pursuit of polymer science that brought him to Leeds last autumn at the start of his one-year taught Masters. Before that he'd spent a few years working in a hospital laboratory analysing blood samples, something which, he says, didn't really require much use of the chemistry degree he'd earned at Bangor University.

"I realised fairly quickly that I wanted to do something a bit more high-end than basic lab work," he explains. "I looked at trying to convert my chemistry degree into something that would qualify me to work in pathology, but found out I'd have to do another first degree. And then someone suggested I look at polymer science at the University of Leeds." So just what is polymer science?

"A polymer is any repeating chain of chemicals, so paper is a polymer. Paints, plastics, and you and me; we are polymers as well," says Brown. "Polymer science has a wide range of applications and brings in chemists, engineers and biologists."

He's particularly interested in the way polymers are used in medicine. One example he cites is paracetamol. "If you go to a supermarket and buy a cheap, own-brand bottle of paracetamol, you'll be getting something different from the more expensive, branded stuff, which has a range of clever polymers built into each tablet, which control and prolong the dose that's released into the blood stream."

He's one of just five students on this course, which for the first semester has consisted largely of lectures and learning some of the practical skills linked to the science. "For example, we did paint formulation," he explains. "I know, it sounds incredibly dull, but there's a lot of science and maths behind the process of producing a paint that matches a particular colour."

The second semester will be wholly devoted to a research project, which Brown describes as a mini chunk of a PhD. And his choice of project has potential for a revolutionary application in medicine. "I'm doing work towards making gas sensors that can potentially be applied to developing a new and quicker method of diagnosing tuberculosis," he explains. "Diseases produce unique profiles of gases on the breath. If these gases can be accurately identified using a breathalyser type device, the diagnosis – which currently takes four to six weeks for TB – might become almost instant."

Along with this fascinating research, Brown has to sit three exams each semester. These, he says, are more challenging than the ones he remembers taking as an undergraduate, because you have to remember information and apply it during the course of the exam. Now that he has found an area that both interests him and offers a chance to make a good living, he wants to continue in the research field and do a PhD once he has completed his Masters programme. "I'm really enjoying it, and it's opened a lot of doors that I never thought I'd see. Plus polymer chemists are in quite high demand."