Thomas Farrugia

Epic stuff guys and girls - big cheers to all - really enjoyed the chats and questions, and hope you did too !

Favourite Thing: Putting on my labcoat, lowering my safety specs, donning gloves and then setting up a new experiment I’ve designed. That, and successfully troubleshooting something that didn’t work, and making it work. And lastly (this happens quite a bit) – setting up something new when it’s close to leaving time, leaving it overnight and coming back to find positive or negative results – there’s quite the emotional investment sometimes, but when the results come through it’s quite the kick.



I’m Maltese so did the bulk of my studies back in Malta before moving to the UK. I read for a 3 year undergraduate Bachelors in Science with Honours (BSc (Hons)) in Chemistry with Materials – which mainly tackled chemistry (your key disciplines, these being inorganic, organic, physical and analytical chemistry) and had some materials science from an engineer’s point of view (metallurgy, manufacturing, and lots of steel). After doing that I got a scholarship to study in the Uk, so did a Masters by research at Imperial College, and then moved over to Bristol to take up a PhD position at the Centre for Organized Matter Chemistry.


BSc (Hons.) Chemistry with Materials (University of Malta). Masters by Research (MRes) in Nanomaterials (Imperial College)

Work History:

I haven’t really had non-science based jobs, apart from a brief stint as a bartender during one summer. The other summers were spent running quality control on samples of prickly pear and seaweed extract, and interning in Antwerp, where I got to make lots of porous nanomaterials.

Current Job:

PhD – I wouldn’t say it’s a job though – it’s a mix between hobby and lifestyle


Myself, the University of Bristol and TF Industries.

Me and my work

I take natural proteins, chemically modify them and then make thin films out of them.

In essence my work involves modifying natural proteins using chemical techniques to make novel materials.

The first step involves making the protein positively charged.

The second step involves addition of a negatively charged polymer molecule to the protein – like charges attract, causing many polymer chains to stick to each protein (think of it as a hairy protein. These hairy proteins start clumping together, and can then be used to form new materials…

… like Films!

What’s even cooler is that if the proteins in question are enzymes then it’s very possible to use them to carry out chemical reactions. This means we can use a material that is very thin and easy to handle to turn chemical reactions on and off – a chemical switch!

My Typical Day

Roll in via bike, rock up to the lab, do science, head home.

Typically I’m in by 9ish or a bit before – I cycle 10 minutes to Uni which allows me to get my thoughts in order. I’ll usually put down a to-do list on getting to the office and start working my way through it. If there’s lab work to be done I’ll start it up immediately – our lab is right opposite the office so it’s easy to get in. I’m a bit too much of an experimentalist at times so will happily stay in the lab for a few hours doing all sorts of things – starting new reactions, checking samples, running assays, dialyzing proteins (i.e chucking them into large beakers of water to clean them up).

Lunchtime is around 13.00 – I usually have this with other members of the group and we do the Guardian quick crossword, nothing beats a group effort. If I’ve got any errands to run or other things to do I do them then, and try to get back into things by 14.00

Afternoons are usually milder paced (banana and apple at 16.00), but depends on the day. If I’ve got new data I’ll process it into results, and in an ideal world I’d also write it up into a mini lab report to have on file. I’m usually heading home by 18.00ish, depending on what I need to do.

On some afternoons there are talks/seminars by academics from different universities – I regularly attend these, good opportunity for learning things.

I think the above sounds more like “my ideal day”. In reality I deviate from the above quite a bit due to to things like:

Instruments going out of action.

Realizing I didn’t book the instrument I wanted on time and that it is now booked till 18.00 or so.

Other group members asking me for help with techniques, advice etc.

An experiment not working as I expected, or not being able to understand results (can easily lead to loss of morale).

Having other things to do like science outreach (I give talks to students), notetaking or tutoring.

And sometimes I do pop in on the weekends to run experiments or get things going –  a few hours is usually OK, especially when it’s quiet.

What I'd do with the money

A calendar for science classes and labs!

The idea would be to create a calendar detailing different scientists and the contributions they made. I’m quite a fan of the chaps who worked to develop much of what we know today, think Archimedes, Avogadro, Lavoisier – they were quite hardcore and helped advance human knowledge significantly without having access to all the tools we have today. It’s nice to read about the people behind the science – they were humans too after all – and helps put their discoveries in context, whilst also giving an idea of how much we have learnt as the millenia have rolled by.


Said calendar could then be printed off and distributed, or possibly offered in an electronic format for distribution further across the UK.

If any leftover funds were available these could be donated to other STEM Ambassadors working in the SouthWest, so that they can continue developing their outreach programmes.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Quirky, Committed, Keen

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Depends on mood, but quite enjoy my ManoWar, Edith Piaf, Sigur Ros and My Chemical Romance

What's your favourite food?

Fish is high on the list, followed by lots of vegetables.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Cycling a loop of South and North Wales – great company, stunning views and amazing descents (60 km/hr!)

What did you want to be after you left school?

Funnily enough I chose my A Levels (Bio+ Chem) with the intention of studying medicine. Had considered being a vet before that as well, but the course wasn’t on offer in Malta. Was also tempted by chemical engineering, but that wasn’t available either.

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Not often, although I did have a run-in or two, and used to deviate a bit from procedure during chemistry labs.

What was your favourite subject at school?

Chemistry and Biology were great, but I also enjoyed Philosophy as well.

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

This is a tough one – probably realizing that I can’t get all my work done in one day, and that I must maintain a steady pace. That and getting the work done even when it’s at odd hours or I want to go home – there is nothing more satisfying than that experiment which works overnight because you set it up before leaving the lab.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I’d say it was sci-fi authors like Arthur C. Clarke (The Fountains of Paradise), people like Carl Sagan, and my Science Education teacher who loved telling us about Science and the way it interlinked with society.

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

A professional Ironman triathlete that has a little bakery and omelette selling stand, whilst raising insects for protein sources.

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

1. A door in my room that led to Malta, my homeland. 2. A super adventure buddy – the kind that is of the can-do attitude and is always hatching plans. 3. Another hamster – sadly Fritz Haber, my previous one (who also satisfied criteria for wish 2), passed away before I left Malta.

Tell us a joke.

Sodium sodium sodium sodium….. BATMAN!

Other stuff

Work photos:


This is my work desk – it’s a bit cluttered at times. I have some Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes on the wall and a small Aloe Vera plant. The bag usually contains things I use when running tutorial groups.

Two monitors are very useful for data processing!


This is my lab bench – where all sort of cool things happen! Not much in progress at the moment, but you can see my lab book and a dessicator which I use for building films. The chemicals on the upper shelf aren’t what I use on a day to day basis – they’re just general lab chemicals.

Note the Great Wall of Polystyrtene which prevents other lab mates from spilling over onto my space.


When I started my PhD another PhD ordered my lab coat for me. It turned out to be blue rather than white, which takes standing out to a whole new level, but does mean it’s easier to find.


A UV-Vis spectrophotometer that is my  current workhorse. Allows me to see into the UV (bees and other insects can do this by default) and measure rates of reaction. Used a lot by the lab in general.