Professor O’Reilly’s work studies the functions and processes of polymers – extended and sometimes complex chains of different molecules – with the aim of producing novel advanced materials, often trying to reproduce the form and action found in nature. The architecture of polymers is as important as their constituent ‘ingredients’, and polymers that have evolved in nature include carbohydrates, proteins and nucleic acids that are the constituent parts of every living thing. Humans have generally only been able to create simpler synthetic polymers such as PVC, nylon, and Teflon.
Professor O’Reilly’s research aims to create new highly-engineered materials, that self-assemble as a result of attractant or repellent properties possessed by different parts of the chain components, or that can produce controlled release or cascade reactions, such as seen in commercially-available ‘slow-release’ vitamins. Creating nanoparticles for effective and highly-targeted drug delivery is also an important part of the O’Reilly Group research, such as their part in a European research project to promote the growth of neural stem cells in the brain. Creating materials that react to heat or to light in specific ways, such as fluorescing in the presence of particular compounds, can have applications in healthcare and in ensuring human safety in difficult working environments.
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Professor Rachel O’Reilly was born and grew up in Northern Ireland and earned her first degree from the University of Cambridge, working with Professor Brian Johnson for her Master’s project. She completed her PhD focused on organometallic catalysts for radical polymerisation, at Imperial College London in 2003, working with Professor Vernon C. Gibson and in collaboration with BP. Professor O’Reilly worked in the US under the joint direction of Professors Craig J. Hawker (IBM Almaden) and Karen L. Wooley (Washington University in Saint Louis), and spent a further year in the US holding a Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 Research Fellowship. She started her independent career in 2005 at the University of Cambridge as a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow before moving to the University of Warwick in 2009, where she was promoted to full Professor in 2012. In 2018 she became Chair and Head of the School of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry since 2013 and one of the Society’s 175 Faces of Chemistry, in 2019 she was recognised as a finalist in the Blavatnik Awards for young scientists in the United Kingdom.
The dynamic O’Reilly Group at the University of Birmingham comprises 20 postdoctoral researchers and PhD students from 12 countries. Group members investigate the processes and outcomes of polymerisation mechanisms, largely with the aim of mimicking natural biological materials, such as through engineering polymers that ‘self-assemble’, produce controlled release or cascade reactions, or react to stimuli in specific ways.