CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry since 2011, Robert, has been a firm supporter of diversity within the scientific community.
From early capers with a chemistry set to CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Robert discusses his own journey through a career in the chemical sciences.
Today he is the chief executive officer of the UK’s professional body for chemical scientists, but Robert hadn’t always envisaged a career in chemistry. At a young age he leant more towards arts subjects, although science classes at school and trips to the museum helped spark an interest in experimentation and a desire to learn more about the world around him.
"In the 1960s in UK primary schools there was often a nature table and we were encouraged to bring in things we had found to share with the class. At that time I was also particularly interested in a small local museum that had a series of displays of stuffed birds and their eggs. So for me a general interest in the natural world came before any specific interest in chemistry."
None of his relatives had previously been involved in the science sectors and Robert was the first of his immediate family to go to university. He believes that a close relationship with his cousin – the two were born just two weeks apart and are the sons of identical twin sisters – helped to spur both of them towards careers in science.
"I think we drove each other forward in terms of experimentation, added to which our mothers were, like many twins, very competitive. I think it’s interesting that he became a radio-astronomer and I became a chemist."
A chemistry set at home also helped to fuel Robert’s fascination with science. As an inquisitive young researcher, he instinctively favoured discovering things for himself and designing his own experiments – sometimes with calamitous consequences!
"I did have a chemistry kit. I didn’t like following instructions though, often preferring ‘experimenting’ with mixtures, as I suspect we all did. Some of these led to me wrecking clothes, which I had to dispose of discreetly, hoping my parents would not notice."
These early trials fostered an excitement for the practical side of chemistry that would continue to grow stronger. Like many chemists, Robert’s passion for the subject was ignited in the high school laboratory.
"My chemistry teacher to O-level was losing his sight and was very old-fashioned. However, in his class we did a lot of wet chemistry, which I liked, and my best friend and I had the opportunity to set fire to each other in the lab."
Robert continued his chemistry education, studying for a bachelor’s degree at King’s College London. As the first of his family to attend university, he wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when he arrived.
"I was completely unprepared for university. I had no concept of what a university education was, or how anything would work. I bought lots of the wrong books. There was no induction or preparation from my school or the department I joined. I can distinctly remember some months into the course when I first heard about classes of degrees; I was that ignorant of the system that I didn’t even know there were different levels of achievement at degree level."
Despite initially feeling unprepared, Robert found the university environment infectious – he relished being around a group of people who all had a specific interest in chemistry and stayed on at King’s to pursue a PhD. Following his doctoral studies he took on a role at the Royal Society of Chemistry, joining the publishing division as an assistant editor in 1985. Here, his career progressed and he eventually worked as editorial director before becoming the managing director of publishing in 2007.
Chemistry is for everyone
Having overseen a rapid expansion in the RSC’s publishing business, Robert became the CEO of the whole organisation in 2011. In this role, he guides the development of the RSC’s long-term strategy and is responsible for steering the organisation towards its objectives as a publisher, a professional body and as a learned society and voice for chemistry.
"Apart from managing and leading the significant-sized enterprise that is the RSC it involves a lot of working at the interface of our organisation with its stakeholders and being an ambassador for the organisation and to an extent for chemistry and wider science."
Robert is keenly aware that the science and technology sectors have historically had issues with gender diversity and participation of other minority groups. Leading an institution that aspires to advocate on behalf of science and humanity, he is especially eager to use his role to promote diversity within the sciences.
"I firmly believe it should not be more difficult for any group, but there are issues around attracting the whole talent pool to the subject. We need to find what makes the best impact, and that might be different for different groups. Vocational routes, careers advice, specific interventions, activities and engagement for under-represented groups all have their place. All these things take a lot of time to achieve results and make measurable progress."
Robert is adamant that anyone considering a career in chemistry should follow their aspirations. "That is what will make you happy and successful. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do something, especially if the reason is based on conscious or unconscious bias." He guarantees those taking this path that they can expect a career of "challenge, responsibility and opportunities to use problem-solving abilities and lateral thinking."
So, as someone who has had a successful career, working today in a fast-paced leadership role at one of the most prominent organisations in the chemical science sector, what does Robert think was the biggest challenge that he personally has had to overcome?
"Probably disposing of those damaged clothes without my parents finding out after experimenting with my chemistry set!"
Words by Robert Parker and Jamie Durrani
Images courtesy of Royal Society of Chemistry
Published February 2016