Upper School Chemists Compete at the University of Oxford

RSC Top of the Bench Chemistry Competition

12 January 2024

Four budding chemists from the Upper School had the fantastic opportunity to compete in the Top of the Bench chemistry competition, held at the University of Oxford. The competition is organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry and is designed to inspire excitement about chemistry in pupils.

With the help of our members, we’ve been organising and running this annual competition for more than 20 years. As a result, hundreds of students have had the chance to see chemistry in a new light, and put practical and teamworking skills into action.
– Royal Society of Chemistry

Read on to hear from Abigail (Lower Fifth), Sage (Upper Fifth), Jia (Upper Fourth) and Estelle (Upper Fourth) on their experience of the competition.


On Wednesday 10 January, we attended the Thames Valley regional heats for the Top of the Bench chemistry competition run by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and the University of Oxford. We began the day with an introduction and safety briefing about the competition, followed by two challenge sessions, allowing time for lunch. The challenge sessions consisted of an aim, from which we had to plan a series of practicals to reach the answer. We split into two separate pairs to do this: Jia and Estelle, and Sage and me.

While the scores were being recorded, we were fortunate enough to have a talk from Dr Fiona Marston who has an OBE and PhD in chemistry and is the Chair and CEO at Erebagen Limited. To end the day, the winners were announced and even though we didn’t win, the experience of working on problems above our key stage level allowed us to learn many new things and made this trip very much worthwhile.


We began by delegating tasks and devising plans on how to tackle the proposed mission. Whilst the other pair started to separate the insoluble components of the mixture, Abigail and I experimented with methods such as UV/Vis and titrations to deduce the unknown soluble inorganic salt. Although titrations had been taught as part of our syllabus, it was still fascinating to use the equipment outside of our labs at Downe, let alone at a world-class facility like the University of Oxford.

Calculations were made and calibration curves were drawn in an attempt to determine the exact concentration of the unknown substance, and despite running out of time in the end, we did draw up some conclusions. All in all, this was an unparalleled experience with the intellectual challenges it posed, and I am sure all of us will cherish what we’ve learnt for a long time.


Our group was given a mixture of two known substances and two unknown substances, which we had to separate before measuring the mass of each component. This meant we were mostly working in the fume hood, carrying out processes such as filtration and distillation.

The task itself turned out to be quite simple and straightforward, but we struggled on figuring out what to start with. Luckily, the demonstrators and the rest of our team were very helpful. Overall, it was a very eye-opening and enjoyable experience that has deepened my interest in chemistry even further.


I really enjoyed taking part in the Top of the Bench trip as we got to use more advanced equipment to do a more complex experiment.

I also particularly enjoyed the talk by Dr Fiona Marston and found it inspiring to hear about her career journey. She explained how different events in her life, expected or not, influenced the opportunities she took and eventually brought her to have the job she wanted. Dr Marston spoke of the determination that she had to have in order to be successful and how we should try to do the same as we travel through our own paths.

Click here to discover more about Chemistry at Downe House.

Academic News

Book your tickets | Academic Conference – Maximising Pupils’ Potential | Thursday 13 June 2024
Back to top