Studying chemistry led Helen Sharman from manufacturing chocolate to becoming the first Briton in space.
While growing up in Sheffield, Helen was naturally drawn to chemistry. She believed it to be “the science that explains more than any other about how the Earth works” and hoped that studying chemistry would give her the flexibility to choose between physical and biological sciences in her future career. After completing her BSc at Sheffield University, Helen initially worked in research and development. Her first role was with The General Electric Company (GEC) producing electronic displays. She then moved to Mars Confectionery, where she made ice cream and chocolate in a role that she found “fascinating.” She enjoyed this start to her career but she could never have imagined the places that chemistry would take her next.
Taking chemistry above and beyond
One day, while driving home from work, Helen heard an advert for the opportunity to go into space. This caught her attention and she decided to apply. After a rigorous selection process and 18 months of training in Russia, she flew to the Mir space station and became the first Briton in space.
One of the best memories from her time in space was the team spirit she felt with her fellow astronauts. While docking manually with the Mir space station, their lives were in each other’s hands. She reflects on the experience: “Being able to open the hatch and greet the astronauts who had been in space already for six months was an amazing feeling. Then there’s the feeling of weightlessness and the views out of the window…”
Amidst the incredible highs of being in space, there were also huge challenges. But Helen’s training in chemistry gave her the skills she needed to take on this unusual role:
“I needed to understand the spacecraft technology, the experiments I carried out and what to do in an emergency. These details were part of my training and having a chemistry background meant that I could easily pick up any aspect.”
From Soyuz to the stage
Following her space flight, Helen decided to put some of her experiences into words and become a science communicator. Having overcome a number of challenges in her training and time spent in space, she was surprised to face difficulties back on the ground that she hadn’t anticipated: “Being centre stage when my nature is to be a team player was hard at first. My astronaut training did not cover post-spaceflight experiences and being self-employed meant I had no organisation for support.” She also found that her experiences in space were often met with misconceptions:
“I continue to face a commonly-held belief that there must have been a British man in space before a British woman.”
Over time, however, Helen learned to deal with the changes that her new role brought and she now enjoys talking to both large and small audiences, and meeting new people.
Helen’s passion for working with others led her to move into management and she has held roles at the National Physical Laboratory and Kingston University. She is currently the Operations Manager of the Chemistry Department at Imperial College and ensures that the Department functions both effectively and efficiently.
Advice for others
Reflecting her own unique experiences, Helen’s advice to scientists and those beginning their careers is to stop following tradition and instead to embrace new ways of thinking:
“Doing anything in a way that is not the norm is difficult. Science needs non-conformists and we need to enable people to have career breaks, flexible working conditions and to follow interdisciplinary work in surprising areas. Chemistry opens doors in places you would least expect, so go for it!”
Words by Philippa Matthews
Images © Royal Society of Chemistry /Anne Purkiss
Published October 2015