Paul is a vociferous supporter of gender equality, and has spoken internationally on diversity issues.
An interest in the whole person
Gender equality is an issue that Paul takes seriously. An avid speaker on the subject, he expects to be as engaged as much near the end of his career as he is now. Paul is currently chair of bioinorganic chemistry at the University of York and investigates the structure, spectroscopy and reactivity of metal ions at the active sites of enzymes known as lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases (LPMOs).
Benefitting from good school teachers from an early age, Paul explains, “I think what they managed to create in me was a love of learning for learning’s sake alone. Perhaps that’s one of the secrets of effective teaching, taking an interest in the whole person.” Paul’s father’s cousin was a distinguished chemistry academic at Queen Mary Westfield College and she played an important part in his interest in chemistry, especially by giving him a chemistry kit.
“I recall the large array of test tubes filled with weird and exotic chemicals. The donation of the set ended rather inauspiciously when I managed to spill some Congo Red dye over her prize golden retrievers.”
Paul describes his time studying chemistry as an undergraduate as "a seamless blur of lectures, lab coats and muddy football boots.” Mostly enjoying theoretical chemistry, and specifically the mathematics of bonding and crystallography, Paul’s biggest challenge was getting to grips with this mathematics. “My own experiences in that regard led me to write an undergraduate text book on chemical group theory where I try to demystify some of the maths behind this, somewhat abstract, area of chemistry.”
"It’s not a quiet life!"
In 2011, Paul’s role in the discovery of a new active site in LPMOs called the “copper histidine brace” proved a huge hurdle. Heralded as a breakthrough in the world of sustainable biofuel production, his group were in a race with others around the world. “We had an intense period of several months trying to unravel the spectroscopy of LPMOs as we raced to characterise the active site.” A collaboration with Dr Katja Johansen from Novozymes in Copenhagen, and Prof Gideon Davies FRS, Paul recognised that "the most difficult and diverse problems we face as scientists require talented and diverse teams to solve them.”
Paul’s current role sees him speak about his research at conferences and other universities as well as teaching an undergraduate chemistry course where he loves to perform live chemical demonstrations in his lectures. “Some of which gave me more than I bargained for, including one incident where I accidentally set my trousers on fire!”
“It is a privilege to be able to perform blue-skies chemical research. It is an equal privilege to work with my talented co-workers, technicians, postdocs and PhD students. It is a privilege to be able to teach a subject I love. It is a privilege to be able to travel the world to talk about my research and about gender equality.”
"At current rates of progress, gender parity in HE chemistry would only be achieved by 2042 "
A strong believer in equality within the sciences, Paul presents the facts. “In nearly every profession, women are lost as a fraction of the workforce the higher you go in an organisation. Other groups of people can fare equally as badly. In 2013 in the UK, 15.9% of white male academics were professors, whereas only 2.8% of BME female academics were professors. Such a staggering loss of talent should be a concern to everyone.”
“The problems we face on inequality require efforts from everyone regardless of which group they may identify themselves with. What would my advice be? Stick to the data and the evidence base, work closely with the professionals, realise that any cultural change takes years, and, most of all, keep going at it.”
Paul has spoken on diversity issues on both national and international stages, including the national headquarters of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France. There have been significant advances in the understanding of inequality existence in recent years. Paul believes this evidence provides a reliable foundation to build effective policies for both gender and other inequality dimensions.
“The gender equality issue in chemistry is as prominent now as it has ever been—this is definitely a shift. I would also say that I have seen more and more professional scientists wanting to become engaged with the issue.” Paul sees this willingness to engage ranging from simple curiosity to a real desire to change. Despite this, he emphasises progress is still slow, with the last decade seeing only modest increases in the percentage of female chemistry professors in UK universities.
“Things take time and we are probably a long way off gender parity in the sciences. Much more work needs to be done, and to continue to be done. But, with an increased understanding of what the true issues are, then one can be confident that we will see progress.”
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images © MPP Image Creation / Royal Society of Chemistry
Published November 2014