Annie promotes collaboration between the UK and China, with her focus on research into Chinese medicines.
How things work
Head of the department of life sciences at the Univeristy of Westminster and heavily involved in international activities in China, building education and research ties, Annie’s inspiration for the chemical science began in Hong Kong. At an all-girls secondary school where students selected for the science and mathematics stream were perceived as smart and were educated by teachers that taught well, Annie enjoyed learning about mechanics in physics, bonding in chemistry and physiology in biology. “How things work, how molecules stay together, how the body functions and a lot of questions of “hows” were over-spilling in science classes.”
“I remembered when I was 15, my favourite hiding place during the school summer holidays was in an American library reading 'The Nature of the Chemical Bond' by Linus Pauling; the fact that it had air conditioning made it even better.”
Although Annie thrived at school and was a keen attender of the science club, her father and mother were only educated to the age of 10 and 8. “My biggest challenge to overcome in chemistry was not the subject itself. It was to convince my parents to support me to read chemistry at university. The major challenge was to convince them that studying chemistry can allow you to have an enjoyable career and be successful like studying to become a medical doctor or a pharmacist.”
After a couple of years working to save enough money for her first year fees as an international student, Annie went on to study chemistry at university in the UK, but encountered numerous barriers. “I was dissuaded to do physics as my option by the first year physics tutor. He told me that I would be the only woman doing physics in that class and rejected me. I felt offended and did not know how the university worked (having only been in the UK for two days), or how to pursue what I wanted. I did biological and environmental chemistry as my option instead.”
Her parents were soon convinced to support her study when she received the highest results in the school of science and engineering at the end of her first year. Annie continued to work hard and was awarded a bursary to finish her final year. She went on to study for her PhD, which was supported by an ORS and a department award. Annie has been long interested in pharmaceutical research and worked in drug discovery at Roche Discovery Welwyn and GlaxoSmithKline after she was awarded a Royal Society Industry Fellowship.
With research evolving from synthetic drug discovery to the investigation of natural products, her current research has particular focus on traditional Chinese herbal medicines. Collaborating with her colleagues in Shanghai, Annie has designed quality control systems using chemical and biological response fingerprints to ensure the safety and efficacy of medicinal herbs and complex herbal prescriptions.
Annie also promotes research and international collaboration between universities in South East Asian countries, by encouraging student and staff exchanges and developing Master’s courses to bridge gaps between herbal medicine and biochemical sciences. As part of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Chinese State Administration for Foreign Experts Affairs (RSC-SAFEA) programme, Annie’s future plans are to run summer schools in research methods, as well as organise research student conferences both on the web and by visits.
“Ties between universities in UK and China or with other countries are important because we are at an age where we are global citizens. We need to understand each other’s culture and respect the needs of each nation to achieve the common goal, i.e. pushing the science barriers further, improving the healthcare, protecting the environment, and sustaining the energy and food supply.”
“It is rewarding to be able to inspire both undergraduate and master’s students by giving lectures and working with them in workshops. I told them my humble background and how my passion for chemistry took me to where I am. We have a common challenge, that is, to convince our parents that studying science can prepare you for a rewarding career in life.”
From personal experience, Annie understands the importance of her collaborative work, “I remember when I attended the local RSC section committee for the first time as the chemistry representative from my university. I was the only young (not retired), non-white chemist, working for a non-Russell group university. It was rather intimidating but I was made to feel very welcome when I turned up and a few years later, I was elected as chairman for the section and was probably the first Chinese woman serving.”
Annie is a strong believer that chemistry can be applied to a wide variety of careers by using the critical analysis and scientific skills involved. Individuals can specialise by taking Master's qualifications and establish research careers by doing a PhD in industry or at a research institute. “With the flare of entrepreneurship, chemists can be inventors and businessmen. Chemists can also be policy makers or prime minister of a country.” She encourages others to be inventive with their career choice and not feel isolated within the chemical sciences.
To help promote diversity and encourage minority groups to advance in science, Annie says, “Cultural understanding is important to eliminate tension working between different ethnic minorities. Different cultures and backgrounds bring different strengths to the table.” Annie encourages others to “be passionate about your subject, strive for excellence in what you do, believe in your abilities, contribute to science and be brave. Your gender and background don’t matter, only if you let them. This is the advice that I give to everyone including myself.”
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images © MPP Image Creation / Royal Society of Chemistry
Published November 2014