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Computational Chemistry

Movers And Shakers

Charlie Wand uses simulations to study molecules’ behavior

This computational chemist predicts polymer properties at the nanoscale

by Payal Dhar, special to C&EN
April 8, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 12


A photo of Charlie Wand.
Credit: Henri T
Charlie Wand

Charlie Wand was always going to be a scientist. When he was 4, he would set up “experiments’’ all around the house—things like dishes of water to see which would evaporate first. His mother, a university lecturer in mathematics, “put up with me doing all sorts of things like that,” Wand says. She encouraged him, telling him anyone can do science.


Hometown: Swindon, England

Education: MChem, University of Oxford, 2009; PhD, University of York, 2013

Current position: Lecturer in natural sciences, University of Exeter

LGBTQ+ identity: Bisexual trans man (queer as an umbrella)

Recent fun project: Last year I set myself a New Year’s resolution to draw something every day, and I’m pleased to say I managed to do it for the whole year! The hardest part was deciding what to draw.

Precious pet: I have a 10-year-old golden retriever named Beatrix. Her favorite pastime is sleeping on the sofa with her latest toy. At weekends we often go for a walk along the river, where she enjoys snuffling along the bank and saying hello to everyone we pass.

Today, Wand is a computational chemist and a lecturer in the department of natural sciences at the University of Exeter. He works at the intersection of chemistry, physics, and engineering, using computers to look at the physical properties of molecules and how they behave on the nanoscale.

“I look at things like polymers and how water diffuses through a polymer at the molecular level,” he says. He can follow a water molecule through the polymer system to see what motifs in the polymer structure affect the water diffusion. For example, Wand says, “if you have this amount of whatever polymer and this amount of copolymer and mix them together, you get really high diffusion. So perhaps that’s not going to be very good for making plastic packaging.”

What fascinates Wand about computer modeling is the possibility of prediction. During his PhD at the University of York, he predicted a phase transition that proved to be true experimentally a few years later.

As a bisexual trans man, Wand knows that identities intersect, and his identity as a scientist is connected to his other identities. He is also committed to promoting equality, diversity, and inclusion within academia and in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in particular.

Wand transitioned during his doctoral studies at York. Even with the support of his department and the university’s having procedures in place to enable his transition, he still found life at his workplace lonely and had to take a year off for mental and physical health reasons.

Having spent the first 21 years of his life being perceived as female, Wand says he has a unique perspective on how different people are treated. So when he started his postdoctoral position at the University of Manchester, he decided to do outreach work about LGBTQ+ inclusion in STEM. Wand says that by doing so, he’s “letting people know that you can be a trans person, especially a transmasculine person in STEM, and actually hopefully succeed.”

Support for LGBTQ+ scientists has improved a lot with social media since he came out, Wand says, and it’s no longer so lonely. “I’m aware of a much larger community out there.” He’s found LGBTQ+ scientists on Twitter, “and there’s also things like the LGBT seminars and just spaces where you can be queer and scientists together, and not having to sort of separate the two.”

Getting ahead in academia is difficult, which makes it even more important to see “people like you doing science,” Wand says. He applied for numerous positions before getting his lectureship at the University of Exeter, and he found the process discouraging at times. If you don’t see people like you in your field, he says, you think, “Maybe I need to be cis, maybe I need to be straight to have a chance of doing this.” Being visibly queer in academia, he adds, shows others that you can be queer and still succeed.

If you don’t see people like you in your field, he says, you think, “Maybe I need to be cis, maybe I need to be straight to have a chance of doing this."

Wand acknowledges the support of his former principal investigator, Flor Siperstein, a chemical engineer at Manchester, for getting the job at Exeter. She believes that Wand has what it takes to be a successful researcher, whether in academia or industry. “Charlie has an enormous passion for research and teaching,” she says, adding that he is doing exciting work applying molecular simulation tools to solve problems in the chemical industry.

“More importantly, he can work with people from different backgrounds, working on different techniques, and deliver interesting insights,” Siperstein says.

When he is not predicting chemical structures, Wand likes to cook. “Cooking is just chemistry, but you can eat the product,” he says. And his allergy to tomatoes doesn’t stop him from exploring new foods. “On average, I try about one new recipe a week just to see what things are like, so I’m quite adventurous.”


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