Thursday, 10 March 2016

The Road to Loughborough – The Belgian Top of the Bench Experience 2015

Every year RSC Belgium runs an eliminator competition for schools in Belgium to choose a team to participate in the RSC’s Top of the Bench competition in the UK. The eliminator is usually held in November in Belgium to select a team to compete in the TOTB final held in the UK in the following spring.

In 2014 the winning Belgium team was Team Boron (pictured below) from the European School Brussels IV at Laeken in Brussels. This was the first time that the recently opened school had competed in the RSC Belgium competition. This following essay was written by team member Carlo Stella and recounts his experiences of the competition in Belgium and at the final in the UK in April 2015.

The RSC Belgium team selected to participate in the 2016 final is St Georges School from Luxembourg.

RSC Belgium TOTB
The RSC Belgium section was established in the mid 1980’s and has over 100 members. The section organises lectures and visits every year with the majority of activities, including extremely popular annual demonstration lectures, held in or around the Brussels area. However, group expeditions, both professional and social, are also organised throughout Belgium and beyond!

The section is growing its links with schools, both in the Anglophone educational community and the wider Belgian and European language communities, through poster and essay competitions and other outreach activities. And the section runs a national elimination round to select a team from Belgium to attend the annual RSC Top of the Bench (TOTB) in the UK.

Schools were invited to select up to two teams of four students per school to compete to represent RSC Belgium in the Top of the Bench National Final to be held at Loughborough University in the UK on 25 April 2015.

The Eliminator Competition included individual tests of factual chemical knowledge and data interpretation with a team-based practical problem solving activity.

In the UK Final, prizes are given for the best overall school performance and runner up teams. The Jacqui Clee Award is given for an outstanding individual contribution to the day. Travel and accommodation expenses are covered by RSC UK for the selected team and one accompanying teacher.

Team selection
Before forming a group there was an internal elimination round to make up the two groups which will participate in the RSC Belgium eliminator that was held at the British School of Brussels. We started planning in November when our Chemistry teacher announced the possibility to join a team for a Chemistry competition.

TOTB teams are composed as follows: one year S5, one S4 and two S3 students. Only two teams from the European School Brussels IV at Laeken (EEB4) could enter.

There were about 10 candidates in S4 EN. We had to pass a preliminary test as only two S4 students could participate. I was very surprised when they told me I’d made it through. Two teams were formed: Team Boron (Samuil Iskarov S3, Kristian Iliev S3, Carlo Stella S4, Deyan Pehlivanov S5) and Team Argon (Leo Tyrpac S3, Daniel Spasic S3, Victor Elgersma S4, Timothy Rhein S5).

Belgian competition
To qualify to participate in the TOTB final in the UK, we had to compete against other schools from Belgium and Luxembourg. The competition took place in the British School of Brussels. There were a total of 15 teams from all over Belgium and Luxembourg. We had to complete a written test and then perform a practical experiment.

At the end of the day it was announced that team Boron was the first place winner! At first I couldn’t remember who team Boron was. Then they called our names and we received a cup. The other EEB4 team (Argon) was in third place. It was the first time EEB4 had entered the competition and both of our teams had done really well! We were all very happy.

Loughborough final
It was announced that the winning team had to go to Loughborough University to compete in the final. There would be 32 teams participating!

We departed on Friday 24 April on the Eurostar with our team and our exceptional Chemistry teacher Mrs. Mary Jaeger. Then we took an East Midlands Train Service to Loughborough town. The journey was quite long but we finally made it there.

The University campus was gigantic covering almost half of the town. On Saturday morning we got a briefing about the events. The topic of the tests was ‘Chemistry in Food- Organic Chemistry’. We passed a 30 minute individual test in a big university lecture hall. The test was extremely hard and contained topics which were studied in first or second year university courses. I saw many people leaving blank questions.

The second part of the test consisted of a group laboratory experiment. They made us visit the University labs, which were fabulously equipped. The material was set already for each team. The countdown started. Now, this experiment was really impossible. We had with us a 20 page booklet featuring the ‘Procedures’ and some apparatus on the table. However, in the pages they gave us, they told us what to do but not how to do it so we had to figure out how to perform the tasks.

Team work
There was a lot of team work required as it was a very difficult task and on top of that there were judges (senior chemistry teachers) walking around observing every action we made. We distributed out the roles. We were confronted with tasks and problems and we had no idea how to handle them. After a few tries we got the first part right, but then we still had to do the second part of the booklet. We got mostly through the second part but suddenly we were out of time. I am not supposed to tell you what questions they asked us, but I can tell you it was far too hard!  The experiment involved specialised university machines with light spectrum frequencies analysers… I guess the whole point of the competition was testing our ability to react towards unknown content.

I know we have done our best and I am confident that we will be in the first half of the teams. Unfortunately, we know we are not in the top six but we don’t know yet what rating we obtained. Due to the difficulty of the task I would be very content rating in the middle.

After missing the East Midlands train due to a slow taxi driver we finally managed to return back to Brussels a few hours later. We had a very brief stop in the Science Museum in London. I went straight up to the last floor to see the aviation part of the museum (the best part). Then we took the Eurostar back.

I encourage everyone to take part in the RSC competitions because you will never forget nor regret it! It has definitely been the BEST trip I’ve ever had! Special thanks to Mrs. Jaeger for promoting Chemistry throughout the Secondary students and of course for engaging us in competitions!

“Colour is Fun” brightens up Brussels

In the first week of March, RSC Belgium organised for Andrew Hanson from the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, U.K. to tour a number of schools and give a public presentation of his well-known lecture “Colour is Fun”. Andrew visited the European School Brussels II at Woluwe, St. John’s International School in Waterloo, the European School Brussels III at Ixelles, the British School of Brussels at Tervuren and the International School of Flanders (ISF) in Sint-Genesius-Rode, and gave an evening public presentation at the Université Catholique de Louvain’s Woluwe campus in Brussels on 2 March. At each location the lecture met with an enthusiastic reception from the audience, staff and pupils.

Andrew is Outreach Manager and Senior Research Scientist at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK's National Measurement Institute, and a world-leading centre of excellence in developing and applying the most accurate measurement standards available. For over 25 years he has been professionally measuring colour there, from evaluating the appearance of ornamental plants, to building the world’s first national standards telespectroradiometer to calibrate the colour of visual display units and a machine to measure the shininess of cats!

Colour measurement
His lecture tour brightened up a grey week at the end of winter for his audiences with its many colourful and animated slides. The lecture showed how colours are formed by splitting white light into the different wavelengths which we see as colour, how these are absorbed or reflected by the materials we see and the mechanism by which the eye transmits colour messages to the brain.

Equipment for colour measurement was described and how this enabled the definition of any particular colour, important for quality control in many different areas. Several demonstrations revealed how the eye can retain a reverse colour image when the image is removed – Andrew ‘magiced’ the Belgian flag from white, indigo and duck egg blue stripes. Drawing attention to how our perception of colour is determined by the surroundings of that colour, by the end of the lecture the audience was convinced that what had appeared to be four distinctly different colours at the start were in fact the same.

Whilst Andrew is a physicist, his lecture also highlighted the role of chemistry in determining the colour of materials, and in the development of new dyestuffs and colours.

Shiny cats! 
And, yes, there was an image of a shiny cat! And do not be surprised if the next lecture makes reference to the colour of the Belgian chocolate which Andrew took home with him…
In total, the Andrew’s lectures were enjoyed by over 600 students, staff and members of the public. ISF have reported the event on their Facebook page.

We have to thank the NPL for making Andrew’s time available to conduct this lecture tour, and the staff members at the schools who organised the event on the ground.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Changing Perceptions of Chemistry

What do the general public and policy-makers think about when they think about chemistry and chemists? Chemistry and chemicals are essential to life and our modern society - everything is chemistry! But we often see consumer products that claim to be 'chemical-free' and it can seems like chemophobia is widespread in society. Public perceptions of Chemistry and Chemicals and how we talk about chemistry have been hot topics for many years. But what is the real picture? What do the public and policy-makers really think? And how can we best convey the excitement, potential and benefits of chemistry better?

To explore these questions further the RSC Belgium 2016 Café Chimique was entitled “Changing Perceptions of Chemistry and Chemicals”. The event took place on Thursday 4 February in the relaxed atmosphere of the Auderghem Cultural Centre main bar.

RSC Belgium Chairman Tim Reynolds (above left) moderated a panel of three speakers:

  • Jon Edwards (above far right) who is Strategic Communications Manager for the Royal Society of Chemistry who outlined the main findings of the recent RSC survey on public attitudes to chemistry in the UK (#chemperceptions)
  • Dr Anna Gergely (above centre left) who is Director EHS Regulatory at law firm Steptoe & Johnson LLP. Anna talked about the regulatory environment in which chemistry has to operate and how policy-makers perceive chemistry and chemicals
  • Nuno Bacherel (above centre right) who is Editor-in-Chief of the Your Formula website and is Communication Manager, Public Affairs at the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC). Nuno talked about the philosophy behind the Your Formula initiative and his work to change perceptions of chemistry and chemicals

Great debate
As usual the three panel speakers gave short presentations of around ten minutes each before launching into an audience-led debate. Seating was in a café-style format and the usual free bar and nibbles were available throughout the event and afterwards.

As ever there was a very lively debate that lasted well over an hour.

Jon Edwards outlined the main findings of the recent RSC survey on public attitudes to chemistry in the UK. The results showed that the UK public's perception of chemistry and chemicals is far more positive than professional chemists believe, although there is some confusion in the public mind about what a chemist is and what a chemist does. Overall it appears that there is an appetite for people to know more about chemistry; but this will entail a change of attitude for chemists and experts working in the sector. You can find Jon's presentation here (3.28 MB).

Concrete examples and factual data are the added value that scientists and chemists bring to the table when discussing regulatory issues, and this value needs to be positively and widely communicated, without fear, stated Dr Anna Gergely. You can find Anna's presentation here (454 kB).

Initiatives such as Your Formula, bring together people to discuss key sustainability topics, and look to change the public's perceptions. The Your Formula platform is a Cefic initiative where young scientists and researchers with an interest in sustainability share expertise and experience. The platform allows a different way of communicating chemistry and science, with contributors sharing personal activities and high interaction rates through social media explained Nuno. His main message was to: "Be Passionate, Keep it Simple and Make it Personal." Changing public perceptions of chemistry will be a long road, but progress appears to be happening!

More information
You can find all the results and further commentary on the RSC's public attitudes survey on the #chemperceptions pages of the RSC website.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Luxembourg to represent Belgium in Top of the Bench!

The results of the RSC Belgium Top of the Bench (ToTB) eliminator for 2015 have been announced. And the holder of the Keith Price Cup (pictured right) for 2016 - and the Belgian representative in the TOTB grand final in the UK - will be team Hydrogen from St. George's International School in Luxembourg!

This year we were unable to hold our usual practical Saturday event - scheduled for 21 November - due to the Brussels security lock down that came into force on the morning of our event. Fortunately we were able to inform all our competing teams before any of them started to travel to the British School.

Unfortunately it was not possible to find a Saturday afternoon slot to re-schedule the TOTB Eliminator Round before the RSC HQ deadline date for submission of team details of 31 January 2016. So a modified form of the Eliminator was held at each competing school.

This consisted of a written question paper and a challenging Practical Problem Solving Exercise. Although the competition this year did not involve any 'hands-on' practical work the format developed by our resident competition guru, Rita Woodward, gave the students more than just a standard paper and pencil test of their chemical know-how. Students from the Oxygen team at the SHAPE International School are pictured above taking part in the competition at their school.

Members of Hydrogen, the winning team from St George’s Luxembourg, each received a RSC heat sensitive mug and the school will hold the TOTB Keith Price Cup during 2016.

St. George's School Principal, Dr Christian Barkei, was really pleased with the team's success and the win has been reported in some Luxembourg newspapers: 'Young chemists set eyes on prize in UK contest'  ( and 'St George’s Hydrogen Team Wins Royal Society of Chemistry Regional Event in Belgium' (

The Runner–Up team was team Calcium from the European School Brussels 4 in Laeken (EEB4) and Calcium team members each received a RSC phone battery charger as did those students who scored the top mark in the written paper for each of the three year groups that form the TOTB teams. Every student that took part in the competition received a certificate.

The winning Team Hydrogen from St George's are pictured above with the Keith Price Cup and their certificates. Pictured from left to right are team members Alexios Valsamidis, Alistair Reid, Yi-hua Lim and Ethan Utting.  Mark Stenton, Head of Science at St. George's said all the team were very pleased with the trophy, their certificates and their additional gifts!

Full results
Despite our troubles and tribulations the eliminator was, as ever, a close-fought competition with a total of nine from six schools taking part.

The full line up of participating teams for the 2015 competition is listed below:
The TOTB Finals take place in Loughborough in the UK on 16 April 2016 and RSC sponsors the travel arrangements for our winning team. The RSC Belgium team is the only competing school team not based in the British Isles.
Our next TOTB Eliminator Round will, hopefully, take place in November 2016.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

RSC Belgium 2016 AGM report

The section's Annual General Meeting (AGM) and Annual Dinner took place at Les Amis Dinent restaurant in Wezembeek-Oppem on the evening of Friday 15 January 2016. The meeting opened at 19:35 with 10 members and 1 co-opted committee member. In addition sixteen members who were unable to attend the AGM had asked the Chairman to act as their proxy for the meeting if a vote was required. This enabled a working quorum for the meeting to be obtained under our section rules.

Following approval of the minutes of the previous AGM that took place on 16 January 2015 section Secretary Becki Scott presented the Committee Report on the Section’s 2015 Activities.

2015 Highlights 
During the year the section organised five public events, two Saturday social excursions, and a visit from the RSC's CEO: Robert Parker. Total section membership stood at 132 – a net increase of six over the year.

Among highlights of the year were the Café Chimique on Climate Change, Prof Avril MacDonald’s series of demonstration lectures for schools and the public in February, a lively demonstration lecture by Prof Sir John Holman and two guided tours: one of the Waterloo Battlefield in May and the other of the WWI front lines in September. The 2015 Chemistry Challenge competition had attracted increased participation with the prizes given out at Peter Atkins’ event in October.

Feedback had been received from Cardiff University that Ms Dale Lyons (the first recipient of our Norman Lloyd scholarship) had performed exceptionally well in her first year and the next recipient had been selected: Rhodri Evans.

Financial aspects
Rita Woodward presented the 2015 financial report and accounts. In general, 2015 had been a good year for schools events. The section made a net deficit of just over 1200 euros with a remaining balance of c. 6000 euros. The committee aims to keep the account at around 7000 euros due to Belgian regulations meaning that the section officers are responsible for any deficit. A future grant of 9000 euros will be requested from HQ. The accounts had been signed off by the auditor Ralph Palim. Ralph had also a greed to continue as auditor for the section.

Our Chairman, Tim Reynolds, thanked the committee for their hard work and support during the year. He highlighted the “Fantastic Plastic” events that had been taken to the schools, rather than all the schools visiting a set location. This had proven extremely successful and was something the section is hoping to repeat with Andrew Hanson’s “Colour is Fun” events in March 2016. The Chairman thanked Ian Carson for his input, hard work, and organisation with these events. Ian also thanked UCL, Fabio, and BSB for their help with the chemicals etc used in the “Fantastic Plastic” talks. Tim went on to report that John Holman’s talk had also proved to be a very popular event. He also acknowledged that the section had a disappointing end to the year, with the cancellation of two events due to the security situation in Brussels. He went on to say that a good programme was coming together for 2016 and he thanked all members for their continued support of the section.

Following elections the RSC Belgium Executive Committee for 2016 has the following membership: Mr Tim Reynolds (Chairman), Mrs Rita Woodward (Treasurer), Dr Becki Scott (Secretary), Prof Bob Crichton (elected committee member), Prof Brian Sutcliffe (elected committee member), Dr David Terrell (elected committee member), Mr John Swift (elected committee member, and Dr Ian Carson (elected committee member).

The first meeting of the new Executive will be on 17 February 2016 where co-opted members will be confirmed.

International issues
Bob Crichton brought to the attention of members the proposed regulations of the RSC's Outreach Working Group (OWG) which will affect the way international sections operate. Prof David Evans of the Beijing section who sits on the OWG had approached the Belgium section committee for their opinion and feedback on the proposed regulation changes. The section felt that the move to restrict the amount of the budget spent on outreach to 50% could be very limiting to the range of activities which we undertook. The discussions at the OWG indicated that all local section representatives were opposed to the changes. It is felt that these changes will undermine the work of the individual sections. We have also been asked to clarify the numbers of members and non-members attending events. This is a worrying precedent because many of our events have a large non-member attendance. Many local sections rely on the support of volunteers.

Tim, as the Chair of the International Steering Group, will communicate directly with HQ and the networks over this issue.

There being no other business, the meeting closed at 19:58. The AGM was followed by the 2016 Annual Dinner (see above) of the RSC Belgium section.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Second Norman Lloyd Scholar announced

RSC Belgium is proud to announce that the second recipient of the Dr Norman C. Lloyd Scholarship at Cardiff University has been selected and is enjoying their first year at the university. Rhodri Evans hails from Caernarfon and started his BSc degree in Chemistry at the end of September.

Pictured below in one of Cardiff’s chemistry laboratories Rhodri Evans, who originally comes from Caernarfon, is enjoying living and studying in the Welsh capital. The scholarship is given to new students to the Cardiff School of Chemistry who are of high academic standing and a resident of Wales.

Upon receiving this award, Rhodri said: “I would like to thank the Royal Society of Chemistry Belgium and the family and friends of Dr Norman Lloyd for this scholarship. As a student in my first year, [the scholarship] will no doubt be helpful towards achieving a successful first year at Cardiff University. With this money, I will most definitely expand my knowledge of the syllabus as a wider range of books/technology will suddenly become available. The most informative sources usually come with a significant cost and thus this money will be beneficial. I will also be able to participate in a number of Chemistry related activates which will give me much needed experience in the profession.”

“To be selected for this scholarship is an honour in itself, especially in class exceeding 180 students. From growing up in a relatively small town, moving to a capital city is a big step and was daunting at times. Being known then that I specifically have been selected will give me new profound confidence in my Chemistry studies and will give me a drive to achieve the highest possible degree. In addition to this, it has made me aware of the accomplishments of past Chemistry students at Cardiff University such as Dr Norman Lloyd. This then gave me a clearer idea of what I want to achieve later in my career,” he continues.

“After I finish my Chemistry degree at Cardiff University, I hope to work in a research based occupation. This truly captures my imagination as the learning process never ends and the life we live can be improved through chemical breakthroughs. I can only say thank you once again and will hopefully be active with the Society in the years to come,” concludes Rhodri.

I am sure you will all join Setsuko’s family in wishing Rhodri every success in his studies at Cardiff.

The scholarship
The Norman Lloyd scholarship was set up by RSC Belgium in collaboration with Norman’s family and Cardiff University in memory of our old friend and supporter Norman Lloyd. Norman was himself a student at an institution that is now part of the university. The funds raised provide an annual scholarship of £1,000 for an undergraduate student, usually in their first year of study, at the Cardiff School of Chemistry.

The first recipient of the scholarship was Dale Lyons who completed a very successful first year at Cardiff in last summer.

If you would like to donate to the Norman Lloyd scholarship fund follow this link and specify that you wish to donate to the Norman Lloyd Scholarship fund in the comments box.

More information on the scholarship itself can be found here.

Friday, 30 October 2015

What is Chemistry?

On the evening of 20 October RSC Belgium members and friend were treated to an absorbing lecture from Professor Peter Atkins entitled 'What is Chemistry?' In the Brel theatre at the British School of Brussels Peter guided us through the marvellous world of chemistry and explained took how it shapes the world around us. He imparted the nine most important things you need to know to understand and study chemistry and therefore how the world works.

Most people remember chemistry from their school days as a subject that was largely incomprehensible, fact-rich but understanding-poor, smelly, and so far removed from the real world of events and pleasures that there seemed little point, except for the most introverted, in coming to terms with its grubby concepts, spells, recipes, and rules.

Peter Atkins wants to change all that. In his What is Chemistry? book and lectures he encourages us to look at chemistry anew, through a chemist's eyes, to understand its central concepts and to see how it contributes not only towards our material comfort, but also to human culture. Atkins shows how chemistry provides the infrastructure of our world, through the chemical industry, the fuels of heating, power generation, and transport, as well as the fabrics of our clothing and furnishings.

By considering the remarkable achievements that chemistry has made, and examining its place between both physics and biology, Atkins presented a fascinating, clear, and rigorous exploration of the world of chemistry - its structure, core concepts, and exciting contributions to new cutting-edge technologies.

The evening also saw the awarding of prizes in our Chemistry Challenge 2015 competition.

Peter Atkins FRSC is emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Lincoln College. He left left school at fifteen taking a job at Monsanto as a laboratory assistant. He  studied for A-levels in his spare time and gained a place, following a last-minute interview, at the University of Leicester. There he studied, of course, chemistry, obtaining a BSc degree in chemistry, and subsequently a PhD degree on research into electron spin resonance spectroscopy and aspects of theoretical chemistry. He then took a postdoc at UCLA as a Harkness Fellow. He returned to the UK as a fellow and tutor of Lincoln College, Oxford, and lecturer in physical chemistry (later, professor of physical chemistry). In 1969, he won the Royal Society of Chemistry's Meldola Medal. He retired in 2007, and since then has been a full-time author.

He has honorary doctorates from the University of Utrecht, the University of Leicester (where he sits on the university Court), Mendeleev University in Moscow, and Kazan State Technological University. He was a member of the Council of the Royal Institution and the Royal Society of Chemistry. He was the founding chairman of the IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Education, and is a trustee of a variety of charities. He is a patron of the Oxford University Scientific Society.

However he most well-known as a prolific writer of popular chemistry textbooks. He has quite literally written the book in terms of undergraduate texts globally for Physical Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, and Molecular Quantum Mechanics. He is also the author of a number of popular science books, including Atkins' Molecules, Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science and On Being. His most recent popular volumes are Reactions: The private life of atoms, Chemistry: A Very Short Introduction and 'What is Chemistry?' the subject of his presentation on 20 October.

Peter Atkins discusses the ideas behind 'What is Chemistry' in the video below.