Jane Whittaker - Unilever

Jane Whittaker, Research Scientist, Unilever Research & Development Port Sunlight Laboratory

“It is tremendously satisfying to offer a talented student a high-quality experience in a scientific environment. I aim to inspire these young people to pursue a career in a field which I still find exciting and very rewarding.”

What type of research projects do you offer?
The majority of our research projects are in the fields of general, analytical and synthetic chemistry, although we also offer a small number of physical science and software development placements. Unilever has supported the Nuffield programme for over 10 years and the number of placements offered has grown steadily over this time. In the summer of 2014, we hosted 17 Nuffield students.

How do you formulate a suitable project for a Nuffield student?
On a practical level the work that the students do in their first week should be fairly simple and, where possible, have an element of repetition – enabling them to master particular techniques and apply the method to different experiments at a later stage. This helps to build up the student’s confidence which, in the medium to longer term, enables them to start working independently and take greater responsibility for their work. It is important to tailor the research project to each individual student by matching their abilities, interests and skills to suit a particular task, which helps them to achieve their full potential.

What do you feel are the main benefits to you and your organisation from participating in the programme?
Unilever is committed to supporting local community projects and Nuffield Research Placements have proved to be a highly successful way of meeting this objective. The students are mature, talented and reliable and, providing that the placements are planned appropriately, they are able to achieve very useful results that feed into the research team’s main projects. The student’s work adds real value to our research output.
Team members supporting the students get the opportunity to develop their coaching and mentoring skills, in addition to gaining experience of supervising project work. Additionally, our mentors are able to refine their scientific communication and public engagement skills. On a wider level, our involvement in the programme has helped raise the profile of Unilever within the local community as well as encouraging the next generation of industrial scientists.

What would you say are the key benefits to the Nuffield students?
The students always gain a huge amount from their placement and the experience adds a great deal of weight to their UCAS applications. For many of the students their time at Unilever helps them decide on a career path, enabling them to pursue a relevant degree at university. Undoubtedly, the time they spend in an authentic research environment helps them to develop the skills they will need to be effective in the workplace – interpersonal awareness, forward planning, commercial focus and professionalism.