“One morning I told her I wanted to go back to school, and she asked why, and I said ‘so I can study chemistry’. She asked what for, and I said, ‘I'd like to teach it.’ And she said 'well go do it then' and rolled over and went back to sleep. And that was the start of it.”
Moving to Manchester
Charley joined an access to science course at Leicester College and also enrolled to re-sit her Maths GCSE. Charley is particularly interested in radiochemistry and on an open day at Loughborough University, she discovered that if she wanted to study radiochemistry as a specific module, she’d need to go to Manchester.
“I texted Bex and told her this and she texted me back about four minutes later saying 'I've booked us on the open day next week' – which I thought was wonderful. The funny thing is, she doesn't see that as anything special. She just thinks 'that's where we need to go, so obviously we're going to go to Manchester'.”
To be accepted onto the course at the University of Mancester, Charley needed to get 42 out of the 45 possible distinctions on her access course and a grade C minimum in her Maths re-sit. "In the end I got a full 45/45 distinctions and I got an A at Maths so I was blown away.
“Bex went to university in Manchester – Manchester Metropolitan – so she knows the city; she loves the city. So when I asked if we could go there she was like ‘Yep, let's go, I'm packing'.”
It’s all about chemistry
Charley works part-time at Lush in the Trafford Centre and shares her passion for chemistry with her colleagues there too. “I will talk about chemistry to anybody. At Lush I interact with different people all the time and people say to me things like 'oh I could never study that'. And I think 'yeah you could and I'll prove it to you'. One of my bosses said to me: 'Charley you do know, it's not all about chemistry.' And I said, 'I'll think you'll find it is. It is literally all about chemistry.' And then I told him he was a chemical machine and I think he kind of liked that.”
For me, academia in general was always something that other people were good at, not me. So now I feel like I want to actually deliver. I want to go all the way and get a PhD, partly for me to say I can reach the academic peak.
While Charley finds the degree difficult at times, she hasn’t had any problems settling in as a mature student and has developed a supportive network to help her through the tough patches. “I don't know what it's like for other mature students but I never have a problem interacting with other people. I've made some wonderful friends with people who are not far off being half my age but it doesn't bother me.
“I also have no problem at all going and talking to the academics. There's a lecturer who works at Manchester called Dr Jenny Slaughter and she is wonderful. She's an organic chemist and she's so easy to talk to. And also Twitter; I've found Twitter to be a wonderful place where I can vent. I spent all day in the university one day reading about elimination reactions but I came out feeling like I didn't know anything. So I posted that frustration on Twitter and a PhD student in Brisbane messaged me back and said ‘no, I've seen your work because you've posted a couple of your whiteboards on Twitter, I think you're doing fantastic. You got this, don't worry about it’. And it's just such a nice little lift. Sometimes you feel down and then somebody just says something nice to you and because they're also a chemist it means even more.”
“I find the degree painfully exhausting but because I love it so much, it makes it worth it. For me, academia in general was always something that other people were good at, not me. I was always the one that people said, 'oh she could do better', that was the byline in school about me. So now I feel like I want to actually deliver. I want to go all the way and get a PhD, partly for me to say I can reach the academic peak.
“Whenever I look at that green-topped monstrosity that is the school of chemistry in Manchester – I will admit that I sometimes get a bit teary-eyed, because to me, that's an achievement. That I study chemistry in there and this is Manchester. You can pick up any number of chemistry text books and the name comes up so often and I'm here, it just blows me away!
“Another reason is Bex. Part of the reason I'm here is her, whether that's her being prepared to make a financial sacrifice while I cut my hours down, or relocating to Manchester. I don't want to let her down. She's done so much to help me get here that I want to make sure I'm the best that I can be.”
Making a difference
Although Charley is keen to pursue chemistry research to PhD level, her main career goal is to teach and she believes more universities should place a greater emphasis on employing dedicated teaching fellows for their undergraduates.
“One of the things that bothers me is that universities don't tend to employ teachers. They employ researchers and say right go and teach. In some ways that's very important – you've got people who are working on the things they're teaching. But it feels like it's a shame that you've not got people whose job and passion it is to teach. I would love to do research but I think above all other things I would prefer to only teach. There are few jobs in the world that are more important than teaching.
“All I really want to do is make a difference to somebody. I'm hoping that at some point, I can help people that have turned up at a university and said I want to study chemistry. And I can drive an even greater passion for the subject because of my passion.”
More about Charley
Outside of her degree, Charley has taught herself to juggle, has tentatively begun learning how to rock climb and enjoys playing backgammon with her wife Bex. She is a trained fencer and orchestrated a world record-breaking tournament back in Leicester for the most participants in a team fencing match. She also loves a bit of chemistry tourism and has visited Chernobyl (“obviously there’s a great tragic side but it’s also hugely interesting”) and the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt. You can find her on Twitter @ChemCharley.