Brendan Burkett - Alumni Profile

A little comic relief can inspire the next generation of chemists

“What I love is that I have people come to me, they often have no idea about a concept, but I can use the cartoons to help explain it to them. That is really gratifying."

There are lots of different ways to get people inspired in science. While many focus their attention on teaching, Dr Brendan Burkett, a Research School of Chemistry alumnus who has now left academia, has taken a different approach. His series of comics, ChemScrapes, is connecting with students, academics and the general population to get them inspired in chemistry.

Brendan grew up in Canberra before going to the ANU for both his undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

“Originally I was interested in Psychology,” Brendan explains. “I wanted to join the Police Force as a Forensic Psychologist. I'd actually had a couple of interviews but when I got to University it just turned out that I didn't like the psychology so much and I really enjoyed chemistry.”

Brendan did his honours in radical chemistry and his PhD in Polymer-Supported Organic Chemistry, also commonly referred to as solid phase organic chemistry. In doing so he was part of the first group at the RSC to focus on polymer-supported organic chemistry for synthesising small molecules.

“We were the only group at ANU at the time working on solid phase organic chemistry at a time when combinatorial chemistry was making waves.  It was a very steep learning curve”.

Brendan ensured that he taught throughout these years as well, gaining a drive for inspiring students in chemistry.

“I started to enjoy demonstrating through my honours as well as through the PhD. Every semester of my PhD I did demonstrating at least the second or third year labs, which I really enjoyed. I think the students just made it so much fun because I'm very passionate about chemistry. It was nice to find different ways of communicating to those students.”

Brendan pursued an academic career following his PhD, completing a postdoc in the United Kingdom and then in Hong Kong, before gaining a permanent position in New Zealand. While he enjoyed it, he slowly became frustrated with academia, deciding ten years ago that he needed to leave the field.  

“I was really interested in the science I was doing in academia,” Brendan explains. “However, I didn't want to compete in funding areas where I wouldn't be solving a problem. A lot of my colleagues were getting money from places like the Health Research Council, but I didn't want to get that money to fund my research because it’s not a problem that I was going to try and solve with my chemistry. My interests were much more curiosity driven.

“That was actually my demise at the end of the day because it is very hard to get money for things that are just interesting.”

Now Brendan is working in Singapore for the Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (ICES), an institute under the Agency of Science Technology and Research (A*STAR).  A*STAR is a publicly funded agency directed towards mission-oriented research that is focused on economic outcomes. Brendan’s current role is as a strategic research manager for the area of Specialty Chemicals.

“A*STAR sits between academia and industry, so Singapore is a place where I am able to make connections between more curiosity driven research and potential applications in different areas that I had no idea about as an academic. For example, my interest in molecular rearrangements could be easily linked to trends in controlled release of biocides for marine coatings, consumer care or agrochem. With the additional challenges of regulation, cost, scalability and sustainability issues, I also get to interact with the broader ecosystem of chemical engineers, process chemists and industry players.”

In this new job Brendan has remained determined to keep inspiring people about chemistry. In doing so he’s kept up his work with ChemScrapes, a series of chemistry-based cartoons he started while in academia.

“I've done stupid cartoons my whole life,” Brendan explains. “I'm not a terribly great artist, but there was something about capturing a moment that I think I managed to do. When I was a student I used to go into my boss' office and as I was leaving I would just very quickly doodle something on the board.

“Eventually my supervisor got in touch with an editor at a magazine called Chemical Innovation, which was an American Chemical Society publication. The editor asked me if I would be interested in doing some cartoons for them. And things that took me less than 30 seconds to draw they were willing to pay me $70 for. I thought wow that's pretty cool so I started contributing regularly.”

Under the name of ‘ChemScrapes’, Brendan continued to draw his cartoons on and off throughout his academic career.

“During my position in Hong Kong I started a drawing cartoons that would involve certain concepts that I found difficult when I was a student. I drew them to give students a laugh, but at the same time as a way of giving them a different angle to explain something. I found it very successful. I used to engage in discussions where they would say you should actually draw it this way, which made me feel that they were starting to understand some of the content.”

It was not until he moved to Singapore that his cartoons took off in a more public way.

“I took to Twitter in an attempt try and get some attention, and I rigged a website. What this enabled me to do for the first time ever was interact directly with people. Then, during a chemistry conference a number of years ago I just started tweeting my cartoons with the conference hashtag. The magazine Chemical and Engineering News contacted me and asked if I’d like to work on a collaboration.

“From there it’s just really taken off. I do a regular monthly panel now, where it is actually a real collaboration. I pitch a bunch of ideas, and they say okay we're interested in these ones, and then we work to develop them. What appears in that magazine isn't a five minute drawing, it’s actually sometimes months of work that goes into getting it just right.

“What I love about the ChemScrapes is that I have people come to me, they often have no idea about a concept, but I can use the cartoons to help explain it to them. That is really gratifying.”

You can view Brendan’s comics at: https://www.chemscrapes.net

Updated:  25 September 2018/Responsible Officer:  Director, RSC/Page Contact:  Web Admin, RSC