Student Joanna Olatunji explores the world of chemical engineering – with an Iris Beer

At Newnham, we love our Iris Café – and some of us love it even more in the evenings, when it transforms into a student-run bar.

Is what it needs an Iris Beer?

If so, chemical engineering student Joanna Olatunji is on the case.

When Prof Róisín Owens set her students the challenge of designing a craft beer, Joanna created the Iris Beer – a Newnham-inspired beer.

The challenge followed a session exploring biotechnology through the contemporary realities of the brewing industry, and the need for sustainability and commercial acumen.

Joanna’s beer design was for a ‘revitalizing Belgian-style ale’, whose ‘hallmark ingredients are honey and grains of paradise – a spicy flavour with cardamom and floral hints.’

After presenting to a panel of expert judges via video, Joanna was placed second in the class overall, and first for sustainability. Her marketing plan also stood apart, with its ‘specific effort to non-patronisingly entice more of the female market who are standardly excluded’.

Chemical engineering is, of course, about far more than creating delicious drinks. In the current pandemic, chemical engineers are playing a key role in the scale-up of vaccines, and the Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi is himself a chemical engineer. Chemical engineers work on key sustainability issues, including the energy transition away from fossil fuels. Others, like Newnham Fellow Roisin Owens, are developing next-generation techniques in healthcare.

Chemistry was always Joanna’s favourite subject at school, but she loved the practical nature of engineering projects. “Chemical engineering was the perfect mix as it allows me to the apply the physical chemistry I was interested in, along with some physics and maths, to real world products and processes without heavily focusing on theoretical science,” she explained.

This particular project was initially a challenge for Joanna, involving not only chemistry and engineering, but also biology and marketing. Yet it was these unfamiliar elements of the project that turned out to be strengths.

“Having at first struggled with the biology in this module, I was surprised with how much I enjoyed the project!” she explained. “Coupling technical knowledge with a visually appealing brand was immensely fulfilling.”

Joanna’s advice to prospective students is that “Chemical engineering is such a great course and it is really worth considering. If you like the physical sciences, it is a great combination of chemistry, physics, and maths but also it incorporates so many other things too like economics and biotechnology.”

If you haven’t thought about studying chemical engineering before, find out more at