Exploring continuous flow chemistry

Dr. Joshua BarhamAn interview with Dr. Joshua Barham

“Winning the Reaxys PhD Prize gave me confidence to apply for some high-caliber opportunities.”

Dr. Joshua Barham

Dr. Joshua Barham was one of the 2017 winners of the Reaxys PhD Prize. He met with us to discuss his research into continuous flow chemistry and share insights into his career.

After completing his Master of Science degree at University College London in 2013, Dr. Barham moved to the University of Strathclyde to join the Reverse CASE PhD program. His industrial PhD was based within GlaxoSmithKline plc’s Global API Chemistry department, focusing on innovative organic synthesis targeted towards sustainable pharmaceutical manufacturing. During that time, he was chosen to represent the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry in front of a Parliamentary Committee titled The Voice of the Future. After receiving his PhD, Dr. Barham moved to Japan, initially as a research fellow for the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization’s Japan Trust International Research Cooperation Project and working on behalf of SAIDA FDS Inc. He is now a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) research fellow at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST).

Your industrial PhD was a collaboration between the University of Strathclyde and GlaxoSmithKline. Do you feel that doing an industry-based PhD helped give you a perspective on research that perhaps pure academic PhD students might miss out on?

Absolutely. Working in GSK’s Global API Chemistry Department gave me a different perspective on research in a few ways.

First, particularly due to the process chemistry focus of that department, I gained first-hand experience with several technical aspects of organic chemistry that are often overlooked by pure academic PhD students. We looked at scalability of chemical reactions, asking: can this synthesis method efficiently produce a kilo of product? We assessed process and operator safety, for example, asking: can we replace diethyl ether with cyclopentyl methyl ether? Environmental impact was also a consideration. We were always conscious of the importance of rigorous optimization and control studies.

Second, I was more empowered to contextualize the value and impact of my research in the real world than perhaps pure academic PhD students could. In the lab next door to mine, colleagues were making multi-kilo quantities for clinical trials or toxicology studies, so I could directly see the impact and importance of organic synthesis at work.

Finally, I feel that I underwent more professional development as a scientist by working at GSK than I would have done working in a pure academic environment. In particular, I learned the value of research integrity and the importance of project deadlines — especially learning to draw a line under a stagnating project. I also experienced a constant drive toward personal development. For example, I kept and regularly updated a learning journal. I became a GSK Continuing Education Committee member, where I organized and co-led synthetic chemistry courses for over 300 chemists. And I attended courses on leadership at GSK’s corporate headquarters in London.

What motivated your move away from pharmaceutical-focused synthetic chemistry to the research you do now, which seems more focused on manufacturing technology?

The technology I now explore, continuous flow chemistry, is a platform that enables organic chemistry and that spans the pharmaceutical, material, and fine or commodity chemical industries. Therefore, I would actually argue that my research focus has remained aligned with the interests of the pharmaceutical industry, where flow chemistry is actively encouraged all the way from drug discovery through to product development and formulation.

I realized that my true interest lies in new synthetic technologies that enhance the efficiency of chemical synthesis and that can obviate manual labor and decrease operator exposure.

That said, during my PhD, while I enjoyed synthetic chemistry and discovering or developing new reactions, I realized that my true interest lies in new synthetic technologies that enhance the efficiency of chemical synthesis and that can obviate manual labor and decrease operator exposure.

Having enjoyed exploring the combination of flow chemistry with visible light as an energy source, I wanted to spend more time with flow reactors, to accrue more hands-on experience. The opportunity to lead projects exploring the synergy of microwave and flow chemistry in Japan resonated well with me.

Are you a pure researcher at AIST or do you also teach?

AIST is an institute purely for research, to bridge the gap between academic discovery and industrial commercialization. Whilst many university students undertake research projects here, AIST does not award educational qualifications.

In Japan, postdoctoral research associates conduct independent research and are generally not expected to teach. Besides, most courses are taught in Japanese — I operate well in conversation but do not know enough of the technical jargon to teach! I think most foreign researchers would struggle to deliver courses here.

However, as part of last year's collaboration with University of Shizuoka, I spent 7 months working in an academic laboratory where I mentored several students, providing leadership and technical support in their individual research projects.

Do you feel that being a research fellow at a national institute spares you from some of the "first-to-market" pressure of industry?

Arguably, national institutes do not feel the same kind of pressures as industry. That said, due to budget pressures and fierce global competition, pharmaceutical companies have become conservative with respect to their development capabilities, so in Japan, the national research institutes seem more responsible for this task. As an example of this, a big national project FlowST is due to launch next year to support flow chemistry, spearheaded by AIST and the University of Tokyo.

Honestly, winning the Prize still feels surreal, even though it was over a year ago! What impact did winning the Reaxys PhD Prize have on your career?

Honestly, winning the Prize still feels surreal, even though it was over a year ago!

It is still too early for me to see the true impact of this career-changing award yet, but it has given me confidence to apply for some high-caliber opportunities where I may not have otherwise had that feeling. I think I’ll start to have a greater appreciation of the power of the award in the coming years.

What advice would you give someone wanting to remain in academia after their PhD?

Remaining in academia is a formidable undertaking given the low percentage of PhD holders who ultimately secure a faculty position. It’s less than 0.5% in the UK according to the Royal Society of Chemistry's 2010 study The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity (ISBN: 978-0-85403-818-3). Naturally, that figure varies from country to country.

According to OECD figures, the number of PhD students and research groups as well as the sizes of research groups across the world are increasing. Simultaneously, global political events have rendered research funding ever more competitive. Metrics such as impact factors and h-index are becoming ever more widely accepted as the means to judge a scientist's productivity and quality of work.

This is important for students to set up connections for their future postdoctoral studies. First, I would urge young scientists not to be discouraged by comparing themselves to other or established researchers, but to put themselves out there as far as possible during their PhD years. They should attend meetings, conferences, seminars and presentation competitions, especially at the international level, to raise their visibility, making as many of “the right” connections as possible. If a student finds it difficult to approach a big name, they should have their supervisor or other students set up an introduction. This is important for students to set up connections for their future postdoctoral studies.

Second, find a postdoctoral position abroad. Nowadays, it is becoming the standard approach. Of course, a good approach is to follow the “big names”. Another approach is to identify somewhere which has a flourishing local environment for your research area of interest where you can make a big impact. That was my approach coming to Japan. Certainly, taking the step outside my comfort zone has benefited me considerably, not just in my research career but also as a person.

Third, they should engage in collaborative but meaningful research with different research groups and researchers of different scientific disciplines. The interdisciplinary interface can spark off ideas that lead to the highest impact research and can be leveraged for high impact publications.

Next, keep up with the literature. Using an RSS feed app and setting targets for reading a certain number of publications per unit time are great ways to navigate the deepening sea of research out there.

Finally, working smarter is better than working harder. Constantly search for ways to expedite tasks, whether they are technical or administrative. Many foresee automation changing the way we work in the future, meaning that creativity will become your greatest asset.

Dr. Barham, thank you very much for your time and insights.