Neelum discovered her passion for organic chemistry at university, despite lacking interest in the subject and initially failing her chemistry exam at school.
“My interest in chemistry wasn’t strong,” says Neelum when talking about the time before studying at the University of St Andrews. After failing chemistry in high school, Neelum, with the help of her teacher, re-took the exam during 6th year, passing with a B – thanks both to her hard work, and also to her teacher who was “excellent at explaining theories.”
During a biochemistry degree, Neelum had to take some chemistry modules, and discovered that she preferred the chemistry she was studying to the biology – “studying it in detail, I realised I really enjoyed it. Organic chemistry was what I was most keen on.”
“I loved how molecules/drugs/compounds could be synthesised via various synthetic routes, and how chemistry is incorporated into our everyday lives through the items we use daily.”
In third year, Neelum therefore changed her course to medicinal chemistry. Despite enjoying the course, she found her final year project especially challenging – "I’m quite an outgoing person and I therefore found it difficult to be in a lab all day". Another challenge was working part-time to help pay for studying, and successfully balancing this with university work.
After graduating from St Andrews with a 2:1 in chemistry with medicinal chemistry, Neelum used her skills to work for the scientific distributor VWR. She explains: “it’s a sales role but also involves technical input and a lot of problem solving within this range of products to ensure we provide our customers with the correct chemical or product.” But the job isn’t all technical knowledge – building relationships with customers and taking time to understand their problems is important: “You have to be personable and have an outgoing personality as in this job there are many competitors, so you have to give the customer a reason to buy from you (whether it be technical support, price-based or just a chat about how their weekend was).” This regularly takes Neelum out of the office.
Her advice to anyone setting out on a chemistry-based career is:
“Chemistry is used in everyday life therefore there are so many avenues you can research and each one is interesting in its own right. You have to enjoy it – this is essential. If you enjoy it you can utilise the skills you gain to have a successful career. Consider all options. There are many ways in which you can use a chemistry degree which doesn’t restrict you to a lab.”
Neelum sees the key to success in her chosen job as personality and the ability to interact with customers. She says, “in my line of work males and females have equal success. It depends on your personality and how you interact with the customer.”
Neelum was nominated to be a 175 Face of Chemistry by Professor Cole-Hamilton of the University of St Andrews.
Words by Jenifer Mizen
Images courtesy of Neelum Munir
Published April 2014