Meet your tutors
Congratulations on getting an offer to study with us! From crystallography to climate change, our academics investigate chemistry that affects all of our lives. We wanted to give you a chance to find out more about them.
Kirsty Penkman teaches core and option modules to our undergraduate students. Her research involves developing methods to chemically analyse complex samples. She focuses particularly on the analysis of biomolecules found in fossils, and what they can reveal about an organism’s life and death.
Chemistry can take you anywhere
I’ve always loved the sciences, but I'm also fascinated by archaeology and geology. At A level, I had been thinking about taking history, but the timetable was awkward, so I ended up doing sciences and maths. I really fell in love with chemistry at that point - I think because it sits as the central science, reaching out to answer all sorts of other questions in other fields.
It wasn't until the final year of my degree that all of my interests suddenly clicked into place, when I was lucky enough to work on a project in an archaeological research lab. A couple of months in, I knew that I'd found the perfect job for me - using chemistry to help understand the past.
Working with fossil material is analytically very challenging. The molecules that you are interested in are incredibly low in concentration. They are often badly degraded, and there is a whole load of other stuff in there - both organic and inorganic, original and contamination - that will complicate your analysis.
The trick is being able to isolate the part you want to look at, without altering it in the process. The challenge makes it so interesting from my perspective as an analytical chemist, and so supremely satisfying when you do eventually get your data!
Through the looking-glass
My colleagues and I use liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry to understand the chemistry of biomolecular degradation. We've gained insights not only into the past, but also into degenerative diseases.
We’ve developed a technique for dating samples by tracking the breakdown reactions of fossil protein trapped in crystal time-capsules. One set of key reactions is the change in chirality of amino acids, which shift to their mirror images over time. This method covers the last three million years. It's a period that is particularly challenging to date, but it's critical for understanding both climate change and human evolution.
Sharing knowledge through teaching
I love teaching at York - from the great discussions in tutorials, to the buzz of a workshop, to the excitement of seeing the first data from an undergraduate project. I'm motivated by the enormous practical applications of chemistry, which are woven through the core lectures, helping you to see the authentic applications of what you are learning.
It’s exciting to be able to design a course focusing on the latest and most important science, and to see my students fired up by it. I'm also a big fan of using peer-supported learning: the engagement, professionalism and collegiality that the students show in their constructive feedback to each other is inspiring.
The research project in your final year lets you really focus on an area you're interested in. You'll work with one of our research labs, helping them to ask broader questions. Our students' work provides valuable insights, and has even led to published papers.
Through data, we can see our assumptions confirmed or overturned - either way, the science and our understanding is moving forward. Sometimes it’s not until your whole dataset is processed that you start to see the beauty of the overall pattern. Other times, you get a chromatogram straight off the printer, and you can immediately see its importance. I have been found hopping around the lab in excitement at just the first glimpse!
Science as a reflection of society
I have a young daughter, so I've been working part-time for a few years now. It's still unusual for an academic scientist to work part-time, but my colleagues have offered loads of encouragement and support. Having to think harder about what I do, and when I do it, has actually resulted in some really creative approaches to my work, so I am really pleased to have had the opportunity.
There have been huge advances in awareness of equality and diversity issues in science. I feel incredibly lucky to be working in a community where these issues are taken seriously. Science advances through new ideas, and the greater the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives we can encourage into the field, the better chemistry we will do.
Keep in touch
I hope you're looking forward to joining us in September. If you have any questions before you arrive, then please feel free to ask - we really do love talking about chemistry!