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Photograph of Jean Johnson with pupils
Jean Johnson CChem FRSC

Jean works to fund chemistry courses for Ugandan teachers and schoolchildren, encouraging them to try for university whatever their background.

University challenge

Jean enjoyed science at school, especially physics. However, at 15, she was told she couldn’t be a physicist as she was a girl, but chemistry was a possible option. She enjoyed practical chemistry, loved the wonderful pattern of the periodic table and was fascinated by organic mechanisms. Despite being one of the brightest students in her grammar school year of 150, as she approached O-level, Jean thought she was not clever enough to go to university and was discouraged to continue study at A-level by her parents and family friends. Instead, Jean started work at Imperial Chemical Industries (acquired by AkzoNobel in 2008), where after only a few weeks, her colleagues encouraged her to go to university. She took her A-levels part-time and although maths was her best subject, found it hard studying at Friday night classes. Jean hence struggled with physical chemistry throughout university:

The experience made a lasting mark on me that meant I have helped to prevent other young people making the sort of mistake my parents made. As a result of this experience I have encouraged countless able young people from backgrounds without experience of higher education to try for university, including medicine or Oxbridge.”

Jean is a now a Chartered Chemist and has been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry since 1980, 10 years after she first became an Associate Member.

East Africa

Jean is now retired and has worked as an unpaid volunteer for the past nine years, making over 20 visits to East Africa to run courses for chemistry teachers and students.“I most enjoy teaching young African teachers how to do experiments to illustrate their theory syllabus, as most have never even tested for hydrogen or oxygen. Convincing these teachers, and their head teachers, that chemistry is clever, is fun and can be cheap (we do many experiments on plastic sheets with just 2-3 drops of reagent) is very satisfying.”

Jean has worked in Ethiopia and Rwanda, but most of her time is dedicated to her work in Uganda. Here Jean has taught in numerous schools and with her support, several African schools have now started teaching A-level sciences. She has also successfully raised money for the building of necessary laboratories and libraries. They have been equipped with books donated by UK schools and lab equipment, donated by LabAid. All of these have been collected, packed and sent out by Jean, at her own expense.

“Two other chemist colleagues have accompanied me on a number of trips and have also raised funds; we have become quite expert at negotiating building of labs, fitting water tanks, gas cylinders and solar panels!

Through funding from the Analytical Chemistry Trust Fund (ACTF), there is now also a Royal Society of Chemistry Centre in Uganda, where Jean has been able to arrange for several other chemists to run courses alongside those run by a local teacher. Furthermore, as a result of a joint chemistry and physics course Jean organised, the Institute of Physics also have a centre in the same school, and both have recently been joined by a biology centre. Jean has developed links with two universities which teach chemistry as part of secondary science education degrees: Kabale University, which has appointed her as an honorary professor, and Kisubi Brothers University College. She has provided books and equipment for these universities but has been unable to arrange for them to receive free online access to journals, such as is enjoyed through the Pan Africa Chemistry Network by universities which offer pure chemistry courses.

Experiences of gender diversity

Once Jean approached graduation from Manchester University, as a woman, all she was offered as a career was patent work (which needed a further qualification), computing or teaching. 

“I was head of chemistry in a Surrey girls’ school which was much better academically than the local boys’ school, but at comprehensive reorganisation we knew the men would all get the top jobs, so I, and many others, moved on. My assistant in the department stayed at the sixth form college and remained there until retirement over 30 years later.

 During this period of inequality she rose to headship, but of girls’ schools. However, at a young age she became an A-level chemistry examiner and then principal examiner at both O and A-level, and in due course, chief examiner for A-level chemistry, and principal examiner for several other papers: “When I moved onto the FE/sixth form college inspectorate, inspecting science and maths, it was rewarding to realise that, despite my gender, I was one of the most experienced science inspectors.”

Career highlights

Jean’s hard work is reflected in the achievements of her Ugandan students – several that Jean taught up to A-level have now completed university degrees. Frequently, both girls and boys spend time helping with O-level teaching before they go to university.

“Hearing from students that I taught, both here and in Uganda, that they have university places to study chemistry, medicine or have places at Oxford or Cambridge, is one of the highlights of my career.”

Jean has also found it wonderful to teach alongside a young Ugandan whom she taught A-level chemistry, and who went on to study for a chemistry diploma. Much to Jean’s delight, he has won a government scholarship to study for a chemical engineering degree and is even spending his holiday this year helping a school that started teaching A-level chemistry in February.

Jean continues to visit Uganda twice a year. As well as continuing with simple practical courses for teachers in both south-west and north Uganda, she hopes to develop practical courses for students preparing to be chemistry teachers. In her view, it is inadequate just to help pure chemistry departments in Africa: if teacher training is improved then better prepared students will enter undergraduate courses. A year ago, she raised funds to build a new primary school near the Democratic Republic of the Congo border, and is working with that school to provide facilities for poor children in the area, many of whom do not even have shoes, can in due course continue study to A-level science. Her former students and several colleagues in England are, like Jean, determined to empower these impoverished children through education.

Words by Emily James
Images courtesy of Jean Johnson
Published August 2013

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