Conor Dean (OG ’11) describes his travels after leaving St George’s Weybridge and his crucial research into anti-viral treatments at Oxford University.

From A levels to being awarded a D.Phil; this past summer has been very busy and now is a good time to reflect as life in 2020 has encouraged all of us to take time for the people and things that matter to us.

To go back to the beginning of my journey(s): after A levels I set off to Sheffield University to study for a four year M.Chem which included the option of a year in another country or in industry. Right from the first mad days of fresher’s week and meeting new people I loved it – being somewhere so different to Surrey and really getting stuck into some serious chemistry. Mrs Barnett and Mr Barrett at Ripley Court School had shown me by their enthusiasm and encouragement that this was the way to go.

For the third year I opted to go to the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). I flew into Chicago ready for new experiences and the chance to travel round the USA. The first thing that was different was the fact we were expected to share our study bedrooms, unusual in the UK but the norm there. My first winter was an eye-opener – in fact, it was sometimes difficult to see when my whole face was covered up due to the ferociously low winter temperatures. There is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes, so I quickly learnt to wrap up warm and not to go out when it fell to -20F!

There were many international students at Urbana -Champaign and we quickly bonded and made plans for as much travel as we could. The first term sped by and I flew home for Christmas. I had made plans with some other international students to go skiing back in the States for New Year but that did not happen. Somehow or other, I do not quite remember how I ended up driving a hire car through the streets of NYC to get to our destination further north. Snowmen were built, parties happened, and we then went back to Chicago.

The next opportunity for US travel was the legendary spring break. The subject of many films, this was a chance to grab some sun after the freezing cold winter. We headed to Texas, sadly the weather was not as warm as we had hoped but there were still pool parties and trips to the beach. There were other opportunities that year to travel round the USA and I went to New Orleans, California, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon.

After returning to Sheffield it was time to get down to some serious work as finals loomed. I finished my time there with a First and many happy memories and good friends. I began the job-hunting process by applying for graduate training schemes with the large pharmaceutical companies but began to realise that this might not be for me. I took a laboratory job near home and began to think that further study would be the best route to a fulfilling and rewarding career. After several applications I was successful and was offered a D.Phil. medical chemistry opportunity at Warwick University with Professor Mike Shipman.

As the Warwick placement began in October and this was March, the opportunity to squeeze in some more travel was an attractive prospect. I had saved some money by living at home so was able to set off again, starting with visiting an Illinois friend who had gone home to Australia. I was able to find my feet with him in Melbourne before travelling independently to Sydney and the Gold Coast. I was able to have access to a car by arranging to deliver it to its new owner and this enabled me to cover just a small corner of the country. My uncle lives in Auckland so next I headed to New Zealand and travelled round the north and south islands, meeting university friends on the way.

South America was my next destination, I went to Buenos Aires and enrolled in a Spanish language school for three weeks to improve my Spanish. I couch-surfed in BA and met some locals who showed me round and invited me to family gatherings, my Spanish was unequal to the occasions unfortunately but the hospitality I experienced was great. I took the opportunity to take a guided trip up the Amazon and visited Colombia and the Galapagos Islands.

So, then it was time to find somewhere to live and move to Warwick. My D.Phil research was funded for four years and involved trying to synthesise a novel compound library for use in drug design and medical chemistry.

It was great to be back in the lab again and to be doing chemistry under the guidance of a fantastic team.  My time at Warwick was really enjoyable and flew by, I was also able to take up opportunities to support first year chemistry undergraduates and  to join in with outreach activities for local young people to encourage them to apply to Warwick. I also supported some A level students who were doing the extended project as part of their A level Chemistry. Being involved in summer school for Year 10s and 11s was hard work but good fun, I had attended a Salters summer school while at St George’s and knew that it had helped me to make up my mind about my future direction.

For now, the journey ends with my new post at Oxford University, a post doctoral research position looking at the chemistry of treatments for viral illnesses, if successful it could result in a new treatment for Covid-19 and similar illnesses. I had to do my viva voce examinations online in my shared house in Oxford instead of face to face which was even more nerve-wracking than being in the same room. The dodgy wi-fi and I passed this last hurdle in August 2020 and am now living in Oxford and working with the restrictions imposed by the virus and hoping for a good result. Opportunities that I have taken up may be more difficult now, travel may never be so accessible or reasonably priced but there is still the chance to experience a year abroad on many undergraduate courses. Some of my university friends live in Europe and I look forward to spending weekends and experiencing new places with them.

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