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Jeremy Sanders
Professor Jeremy Sanders CBE FRSC

Jeremy is the pro-vice chancellor for institutional affairs at Cambridge University, responsible for inclusion and diversity.

Growing up on a south London council estate, from a Jewish family with little money, Jeremy Sanders has always felt like an outsider. His family, however, knew the importance of education: his parents had been sent to work at a young age and were determined that Jeremy should receive a good education as a way into financial security.

They provided him with an eight-volume children's encyclopedia at the age of seven, and this stimulated the passion of discovery within him. By the age of 10, he had exhausted the children's science library and had been granted special permission to pursue his interest in science books in the adult library.

With a zeal for biology manifesting itself in the form of explorations to the local forest in search of insects, it was only in sixth form that Jeremy really focused on the chemical sciences. His chemistry teacher, Mr Garwood, was a former industrial chemist who was involved in the development of an early commercial mass spectrometer. This initial exposure to someone who had worked in a research environment, combined with the systematic and interesting nature of chemistry, is what drew Jeremy to study it at university.

University challenge

Arriving at Imperial College London, he found himself surrounded by predominantly male, middle class, articulate and seemingly self-confident individuals. Shy, over-awed and living at home, he identified with Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, which was released around that time. However, it wasn't long before he realised that he was capable of solving structural problems that left his peers defeated. A dissertation on the determination of stereochemistry using NMR coupling constants was the moment that everything fell into place and Jeremy moved to Cambridge to study for a PhD with Prof Dudley Williams, a pioneer in applying NMR and mass spectrometry to organic chemistry.

However, the feeling of exclusion followed him to Cambridge. On moving to this 800-year-old Christian institution, Jeremy says:

“Having been educated at a comprehensive school in Wandsworth and with no interest in either pubs or sport, I felt an outsider even before I arrived in Cambridge as a PhD student.”

Even now, conversations with senior colleagues involving rugby or cricket can leave him feeling excluded.

Academic success

Jeremy had no intention of becoming "one of the boys" when he joined Cambridge. Instead, a retrospectively surprising amount of self-confidence, along with the support of his family and his research group (his academic family), guided him along a pathway of continued success. He puts his academic success down to his preference for pursuing unexpected discoveries, rather than following predicted goals. Quite modestly, he phrases it as "lurching from one happy accident to another." 

Modesty, however, is a prerogative reserved for those with a reputation akin to Jeremy’s. He has a publication list that speaks for itself, and his scientific contributions have been recognised by the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Society, and even the Queen herself in the form of a CBE. Whether it is his ground-breaking work on dynamic combinatorial systems or using NMR to study polymer biophysics inside live bacteria, it is clear that he practices what he preaches. He was appointed head of chemistry at Cambridge, and went on to lead the entire school of physical sciences.

Diversity champion

Jeremy spends much less time in a research environment these days. As the pro-vice-chancellor for institutional affairs, he is responsible for the welfare of over 10,000 staff, with particular emphasis on equality and diversity. He is also responsible for environment and energy policy, the public engagement of the university and an exciting urban housing development in the city of Cambridge. He believes his scientific training in analysis and synthesis, combined with his experience of running a research group and department, has given him the skills needed for such a broad role. Whether helping individuals, meeting architects, discussing the growth of Cambridge, or saving energy, this is one chemist who is much more than a white lab coat.

A core aspect of Jeremy's role is as a champion for diversity and inclusion. With his personal perspective and frank accounts of his own experience at Cambridge, Jeremy is the engine that is driving this world-renowned institution into an environment that enthusiastically adopts the principles of equality. 

By introducing the Returning Carers Scheme, continuing Athena SWAN success, joining the 30% Club and chairing the “Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative” steering group, it is clear that Jeremy is a trailblazer. He believes that it is recognising a variety of pathways to success, adjusting the current reward mechanisms and celebrating all contributions towards excellence that will allow a diverse group to flourish. 

Jeremy Sanders has already contributed to widening access in one of the oldest institutions in this country, and it is clear that, equipped with experiences from his chemistry career and his understanding of managing people, he will soon be changing hearts and minds on a much larger scale.

Words by Gareth Davies
Images courtesy Jeremy Sanders
Published August 2014

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