Jessica Liley

It's the final day!! Thank you so much to everyone who voted me this far! Looking foward to the last online chat this afternoon :) keep asking lots of questions!

Favourite Thing: Being able to work at a massive research lab with some of the world’s best scientists!



University of Oxford (2010-present), University of Bristol (2005-2009), Francis Holland School, London (1998-2005)


MSci (undergraduate masters) in Chemistry, 4 A-Levels, 9 GCSEs

Work History:

Teaching in undergraduate labs, home tutoring for GCSE science and maths, bar work and waitressing while travelling around Australia!

Current Job:

PhD student… living the dream!


University of Oxford

Me and my work

I’m figuring out how to make our washing powder more environmentally-friendly, using things that come from yeast and even deadly bacteria!

My work revolves around the use of surfactants (SURFace ACTive AgeNTS) – these are the detergents in your washing powder, shampoo, toothpaste, anything that gets foamy really. I am working towards using more environmentally-friendly detergents, which are produced by bacteria and yeast. The main technique I use is called Neutron Reflectivity – I fire a beam of neutrons at the molecules where the water/detergent mixture meets the air, to find out important information about them and hopefully help us find the perfect environmentally-friendly detergent mixture!

My Typical Day

Experiments in the lab, tea, reading papers, meetings with supervisors, tea, a bit more lab work, home time!

Sometimes I get up early for a 6am rowing practice on the river, then I cycle to work to do a day of chemistry. Every day is different for me, but I’m usually working away in the lab for most of it!  I split my time between my lab in Oxford, Ireland and France. One great thing about PhDs is the chances to do science in other interesting places.

Firstly, I need to grow the bacteria myself and then take out the bio-detergent that it makes. Some of these bacteria are pretty deadly and spread diseases so you have to be careful when using them. This is done at a university in Ireland and it used to take me about 6 weeks to make enough for my experiments, so there was always a bit of time for sight-seeing and surfing too!

Next, every few months, I get to do experiments at a huge research station called the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. I make up hundreds of colourless surfactant solutions and test them all by firing neutrons at them. The days are very long (up to 20 hours work every day!!) but they only last a few days, so I make the most of the time and do as many samples as possible.

When back in Oxford, I need to analyse my data and make lots of graphs, so that I can see how well the surfactants work and how we can improve on them and make them clean better.

On other days when I don’t have lab work to do, I’m often reading scientific papers in the office, writing presentations, chatting to my colleagues, or talking to my supervisors about how my work is going!

What I'd do with the money

Buy some exciting new science equipment for an inner-city primary school which doesn’t have good science facilities

My love for science definitely started early on in primary school, helped by great teachers and fun experiments which got the whole classroom interested! I would use the money to provide an inner-city school in London with some new science equipment. I would like to go to the school to give a workshop and do some exciting experiments with them, hopefully inspiring the young kids towards becoming the next great scientists!

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Happy, adventurous, helpful

Who is your favourite singer or band?

A bit of everything really, mumford and sons, chase and status, coldplay, Jay-Z…

What's your favourite food?

Macaroni cheese

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Travelled to Australia all on my own for 4 months. Met amazing people and my best memory was sleeping under the stars in the middle of the desert (though apparently wild dogs were circling us while we slept…)

What did you want to be after you left school?

A forensic scientist.. or an actress (maybe one day…)

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Not really, I was a bit of a quiet kid!

What was your favourite subject at school?

Geography because I loved the field trips

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

Went to Sweden to give a presentation at an international conference, I was sooo nervous but it felt like a great achievement!!

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I got a chemistry set for my 7th birthday, and my chemistry teacher who was a real character and made science pretty fun

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

Probably a long-term traveller!

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

I wish I could get up earlier, I wish I had the money to do a round-the-world trip, and I wish my hair was permanently straight!

Tell us a joke.

A neutron walks into a bar and asks, “How much for a drink?” The barman replies, “For you, no charge!”

Other stuff

Work photos:

The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory – the arrow shows the building I work in


The instrument called INTER is inside this room behind the steel door. There are lots of buttons to press and keys to unlock so that you don’t get locked in!!


Inside the INTER instrument – neutrons are fired (through the slit surrounded by the red area), they hit the samples on the big black and yellow block, and then a detector behind it


Lots of computer screens for data analysis (and watching Rugby…)