Researching the synthesis and applications of new nanomaterials, Rachel became professor of chemistry at only 34 years of age.
Q: What inspired you to study chemistry?
A: I don’t think there was a key point in my career that inspired me to be a chemist. At school I definitely preferred maths and science subjects but this may have been because I was better at them than arts subjects. I remember borrowing my older sister’s A-level chemistry book and finding it much more interesting than my GCSE books and this sparked my interest. And I remember trying to grow sugar crystals in my mum’s kitchen!
To be honest I didn’t really enjoy chemistry at school – there was a bit too much learning facts – but at university I loved the practical classes and problem solving element. My first degree was in natural sciences so the biggest challenge was getting through the other subjects, especially maths which was really tough. I might have been a geologist if I had been better at writing essays during my undergraduate degree – I still enjoy reading and learning about geology so it’s definitely a passion of mine.
Q: How would you describe your job?
A: I got an EPSRC Career Acceleration Fellowship five years after finishing my PhD and this gave me the support to move (from a fellowship at Cambridge) and then be competitive for a permanent position at the University of Warwick. I moved in January 2009 and later that year I was appointed as an assistant professor, then an associate professor, and in 2012, was promoted to full professor of chemistry. My position at Warwick is the first time I have had the freedom and support to be able to develop my own research interests and getting a large and long independent fellowship was a key point in my career.
Our research uses polymer synthesis to make nanomaterials which can be used in a wide range of applications from materials science to medicine. Recently we have become interested in trying to mimic some of the features of natural nanomaterials such as viruses and cells using polymer nanoparticles. We collaborate with a range of companies and this is definitely something I really enjoy, as we get to target our research towards real-world problems. We also work with academic groups across the world which means the group and I get to visit some really exciting places and work with exceptional researchers.
More practically, I always equate what I do to running a small business. I have to raise funds, employ and mentor my team, be the PR person, manage my finances, decide the research agenda and secure our future. There is a lot more to academia than pure science! I especially enjoy working with the bright and engaged students and postdocs in my group, I am so proud of them. It is amazing to see them develop their interests and skills through their time in the group and I am always sad when they leave.
Securing a permanent position was really tough for me: I had a succession of prestigious fellowships (which I held in the US and Cambridge) but no long-term security and this really made me question my ability to become an academic. During my Royal Society fellowship I had raised grant money to support a post-doc in my group who had longer contracts than me! Those first few years were really tough, the combination of job uncertainty and pressure to prove myself worthy made for a tough few years. During this time I always tried to ignore these concerns and stick to doing good science, as I believed that would be what would define my career path. I was also realistic about my options. I really wanted to pursue a career in academia and made myself believe that if I was good enough, I would get a permanent position and if not, I would just have to find another career. During this time I was fortunate to have collaborators and mentors who believed in me and supported me.
A career in academia is a rollercoaster ride, lots of highs and as many lows! It feels quite uncertain at times with worries about promotion, funding, and outputs, (especially when I was on a fellowship in Cambridge) but it is reassuring to know everyone has the same concerns. I personally have found it really challenging but also immensely rewarding as I get to work with a great team on my own ideas and research interests.
Q: What is your impression of diversity in chemistry?
A: There are a lot of positive moves to improve diversity but unfortunately, there is also a lot of talk which often doesn’t seem to manifest itself into action. Sometimes this makes me worried that there is more willingness to be seen to be doing something rather than to actually improve the situation.
I think the chemical sciences community has to reflect on the longstanding issues and behaviours which have led to the current imbalances in diversity, and accept that such attitudes are no longer acceptable. It is also important that we recognise that the role and expectations of an academic are changing – a broader range of skills (not just a high level of intelligence) should be valued and recognised.
I think being a male academic is as hard as being a female academic. My impression is that I have had the same chances and opportunities as my male colleagues (maybe even more as a female academic). However, unlike the majority of my male colleagues, my instinct would be to avoid such opportunities as they may lead to failure or rejection. I have been fortunate that I have fantastic mentors who have encouraged me to embrace them and I have had great rewards from taking these chances. I also was really fortunate to work with an inspirational advisor, Professor Karen Wooley, during my post-doc in the US. Not only is she is an outstanding scientist but she always made time to support and encourage her team and is a great mentor to many aspiring academics.
Q: Has your dyslexia had any effect on your career?
A: I don’t think it has. My parents were very keen to support me with my dyslexia through school but when I went to university, they very much had the view that I needed to be able to cope and perform on the same terms as my peers (during my studies and in life) and hence, it was never taken into consideration during my undergraduate studies.
Q: Do you have any advice for people who want a career in chemistry?
A: I think it is important to take all opportunities which present themselves to you, even if you don’t feel qualified or ready. I was really encouraged by my PhD and postdoctoral advisors to do this. I have a great respect for them and they always believed in my ability (which often amazed me!) and this really helped me develop a belief in myself. I think finding and developing a supportive network is really important as academia can feel really isolated compared to a post-doctoral position.
Interview by Stephen McCarthy
Images © Stephen Lake/ Royal Society of Chemistry
Published June 2014