Professor Dame Carol Robinson is president-elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry and holds the Chair of Doctor Lee’s Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford.
Dame Carol spoke to Voice magazine editor, Edwin Silvester, about her fascinating career path and her thoughts on her upcoming term as our president.
I finished my schooling at 16 and, with the equivalent of a few GCSEs, I went to work as a technician at Pfizer. I was very interested in what I was doing, so started to keep notebooks and, as I was so obviously fascinated by science, my supervisor asked why I hadn’t gone to university and suggested I could do evening school.
First of all, I had to do ONC and HNC before I started on the Royal Society of Chemistry GRIC exams, which took a long time.
It was a bit of a treadmill for about seven years of part-time study and working, it was quite a hard way of doing things – but it was rewarding and I enjoyed getting the practical skills that I did in my day job and then going to night school and learning what I was supposed to know.
What difference in viewpoint does that give you from people you've met in academia – is it different?
I think it is different. I remember feeling very small - that I hadn't got a great background degree initially. But I remember when I went to Cambridge to interview, they said: "you've got seven years’ experience in the lab – that's worth a lot".
When I started doing my PhD I was very good at the instrumentation because that's what I'd known from the age of 16, so I really got on with mass spectrometers and I really enjoyed all that. If I sat an exam I would not necessarily come out the top of my group, but I was very good practically, so I think it was a different skill set.
How do you balance those two things? There must be a place for everything?
I agree. I felt that although I couldn't necessarily derive Schrödinger's equation, I could certainly understand the ins and outs of a mass spectrometer and there must be room for both of those models within chemistry. Somebody with very much more practical skills and understanding of mechanical things and somebody who's very good theoretically should be able to work alongside each other and their skills should augment each other.
I was always determined that if I couldn't understand something I would read around until I did. I taught myself quite a lot of things. I bought myself books and made myself read them so that stood me in good stead.
Working alongside people who've followed a more traditional route, does that present challenges or does it go by the bye once you've got the qualifications under your belt?
I think after a while you forget about it but initially I did think some of my peers were much smarter than me – but now I think about it, I just think we've all got different skills. There's no point comparing yourself after a while because everyone's skillset becomes very personal to them.
Am I right in saying you took a career break as well?
I have three children – there used to be this view that you couldn't have a family and be a scientist and I just remember thinking: "Well I won't be a scientist then, because I'm definitely having a family".
I didn't know if I'd be able to come back or what I'd come back as but I was definitely going to wait until they'd gone to school before I came back into science – and I'm glad I did.
I was very fortunate and I know not everybody can do that these days. I came back in at a very much more junior level – all my friends and colleagues had become lecturers by then and I was just a post-doc again. But I don't regret that and if I had my time again I would do the same again because I really enjoyed it.
Do you have any advice for women who find themselves in the same position you were in?
I always think you shouldn't really dictate, because everybody's situation is different. I say you do what you feel is right for you and your family at the time and so it can be part-time, it could be taking a period of time out or it could be come back to work the next day. For me, I just followed what I wanted to do, which was to spend some time at home.
People used to say to me: "You must have been bored". But I actually wasn't, I really enjoyed it. I loved watching the interaction between the children and as they grew up, I found it a fascinating experiment. You can't go on doing that one thing though – you have to go back to work eventually but I enjoyed it immensely.
I think as academics we should accept the very many different career paths and trajectories that there are and then the world would be a better place. I remember when I was first interviewing, people said my track record wasn’t so great but I'd say "yes, but I had eight years out – can't you take those eight years off and make me 20-something again?!".
Eventually they got the message that it's ok to do that and your clock starts when you're in the lab, not when you're at home looking after your children. I think that message has become more popular now.
Have you settled on one thing you want to be the main focus for your presidency?
Without the Royal Society of Chemistry, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today. I feel that I was very lucky to have had that safety net because I came from a family where no-one went to university and didn't think I was going to go – but I came through as a technician and found this opportunity to do qualifications, so I will be eternally grateful to the RSC for that.
There's now this rising debt if you go to university, so I would like to make sure that we have procedures in place for people like me. I got paid as a technician – not a lot but I didn't have any debt. Perhaps I didn't have such a great time as some of my friends had at university and I worked very hard. But I do think there are people whose family situation means they can’t go to university and who could end up being superb technicians and then get that opportunity, like I did. Accrediting skills is something that I'm keen to see still happens.
John Holman is obviously a great president because of his teaching experience and, while I don't have that, an academic experience will be a different one. The next person after me will bring something else to the fore and that's what you hope, that you can raise an issue that changes the landscape a little for the future.