Meet Tom Welton, RSC president, ionic liquid guru and vocal advocate for inclusion and diversity in the chemical sciences
In 1982, Tom Welton arrived at the University of Sussex to study for an undergraduate chemistry degree. ‘It was quite a radical place at the time,’ Tom explains, a culture into which he fitted well. Nearby Brighton also offered a safe haven for openly gay Tom in what was then a homophobic world. ‘It was one of just three towns in the world where same sex-couples felt safe walking hand-in-hand in the streets,’ he says.
Tom stayed at Sussex for a PhD and a postdoc, both with Ken Seddon, a pioneer of ionic liquid research. These sustainable solvents remain the focus of Tom’s research today. ‘Ionic liquids are made up of anions and cations and, because you can change those independently of each other, you can make millions of combinations,’ he says. This allows ionic liquids to be tuned for specific purposes. ‘There’s a lot more play space in an ionic liquid than in an ordinary molecular solvent,’ says Tom. His group’s current focus is on using ionic liquids for processing biomass to replace synthetic polymers in packaging materials.
After a temporary role as an inorganic chemistry demonstrator at the University of Exeter, Tom started a research fellowship at Imperial College London. He then spent over two decades moving up the greasy pole at Imperial to become dean of the faculty of natural sciences in 2015. In December 2019, he stepped down from this role to free up time to devote to his RSC presidency.
Tom has been a vocal champion for inclusion and diversity in the chemical sciences throughout his career and received an OBE in recognition of this. His quest to see the chemical sciences fully represent the diversity of our society will be first and foremost during his two-year RSC presidency.
What’s your earliest memory of science?
James Burke’s 1970s BBC documentary series Connections. He looked at the history of inventions and how one invention enabled another invention and then another. I was absolutely fascinated by these chains of connections. James also made it clear that inventing is a process that never stops and was one that I, as a viewer, could get involved in.
What inspired you to pursue a career in chemistry?
I enjoyed chemistry very much at school and I was good at it. Also, because of my background, I didn’t know about the range of things you can do at university. Dad was a postman and Mum was a home help, and neither had any formal education beyond the age of 15. So I wanted to study a subject with a name I knew from school: a ‘proper’ subject.
What is your favourite class to teach?
I’m not doing it at the moment, but what I really enjoy is an afternoon in a teaching laboratory.
When did you become interested in solvents?
I’ve always been interested in liquids and solvents. At school when I first learned about chemical equations, I remember being confused that the solvent was included almost as an afterthought. Like it was very insignificant and it really didn’t matter. I thought, hang on, most of the stuff in this flask is the solvent, surely it’s making some difference.
What is your favourite ionic liquid and why?
My favourite is 1-butyl-3-methylimidazolium bis(trifluoromethylsulfonyl)imide. It’s one of the easiest ionic liquids to handle and the go-to starting-point ionic liquid for everyone in this field.
If you could claim a historical discovery for yourself what would it be?
Christopher Ingold’s work to rationalise the effects that solvents had on chemical reactions.
When did you start to be a vocal advocate for inclusion and diversity?
My best friend at school was BAME and I went on my first anti-racism march, Rock against Racism, when I was 14.
What advice would you give LGBT+ students who are coming up against equality issues?
I always encourage people, whatever their identity, to come out and get to the other side of that piece of fear. Then, talk to peers for mutual support. Also, something that wasn’t available for me, seek advice from LGBT+ professors. There are plenty of people in positions of power that are out and who you can turn to. We all remember what it was like to be in your position and we will help.
What’s next on the agenda for improving LGBT+ inclusion in science?
The T – transgender – is the important focus at the moment. On the whole, I feel that I’ve been able to get on with my work while still being me. Transgender people, generally, do not feel that this is the case for them.
What do you like to do outside of work?
My husband and I are great theatregoers. We like musicals. We’ve seen a few of them online recently but it’s not the same.