The first recipient of the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award, Sue funded a series of UK lectureships for internationally renowned female chemists.
Sue is one of fewer than 40 female chemistry professors in the UK*. She describes the transition from post-doc to researcher, one so rarely made by women, as one of the biggest challenges, and most exciting periods of her career:
“It was exhilarating (and a bit scary) to be working on my own ideas for the first time, and this gave me the motivation and determination to get a lab set up, write grant proposals, give external seminars and so on. Every single step of that first year of independence proved challenging, exciting and rewarding.”
As well as research on synthesis, running her own lab, and enjoying family commitments, Sue has encouraged others to study chemistry throughout her career.
She was the first recipient of the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award (for outstanding contribution to science, technology, engineering or mathematics), and used this award to bring internationally renowned women synthetic chemists to the UK by funding a series of lectureships. Earlier this year, Sue was awarded an OBE for services to chemistry and science education.
Diversity targets often tend to reflect the ratios of different groups of people in the country. For example, there are about 49: 51 males: females in the UK**. Sue’s science career started out with a rather unusual gender balance. A nearby academically selective boys’ school meant that two thirds of her school science class were girls. After enjoying science and maths at school, a natural sciences degree followed: “Organic chemistry was taught by truly inspirational characters such as Ian Fleming, Dudley Williams and Stuart Warren; and it had the best practical classes!” Taking the next step up to post-graduate study, the combination of lab and library research made the long hours worthwhile:
“I loved reading everything there was to know about an area, defining a new problem in that area with the help of supervisor Stephen Davies and trying to solve it in the lab. And I also enjoyed making pretty yellow crystals!”
Sue now teaches in practical classes for undergraduates at Imperial College London, and those pretty yellow crystals feature in some of them.
Despite enjoying a successful career in chemistry, and helping others to do the same, Sue very nearly had a different career. As a child, she asked her parents for an electronic engineering kit, and as a teenager, she saw chemicals plants lit up like Christmas trees and wondered about how they worked. However electrical and chemical engineering were not subjects that featured in careers discussions at school. Sue therefore went for a smaller-scale, but no less powerful, chemistry set in the lab instead of in a chemical engineering plant.
From her own experiences, we asked Sue what anyone considering a career in chemistry could expect:
“Almost anything! I know chemists who have won Nobel Prizes, designed life-saving drugs, started up new companies, advised governments, and so on; and just as importantly, there are many chemists who in many different ways are working to inspire future generations to address issues such as climate change, food, energy and water provision, and personalised medicine.”
Sue continues to work to help others into a successful career in chemistry, whilst looking forward to returning to her research on organic synthesis and transition metal chemistry after a period of leave spent with her pre-teenage children.
Words by Jenifer Mizen
Images courtesy of Sue Gibson
Published September 2013
* Higher Education Statistics Agency, 2011 data
** Census data “Usual resident population by single year of age and sex, England and Wales”, Office for National Statistics, 2011