Growing up on the Isles of Scilly, Diane was interested in science from an early age, taking part in her first wildlife survey with her father at just eight years old. Keeping marine biology as her ‘hobby job’, Diane went off to study at Warwick University, where she found her love for analytical chemistry – by fortuitous accident.
“Working at the Students’ Union throughout my degree, I met a PhD student who invited me to work on his bench. I used to be there at seven o’clock in the morning, under his supervision, working really hard on this molecule stuff. The extra experience meant I actually went on to win the Andrew McCamley Prize for Outstanding Final Year Project, which led to me being offered a fully-funded PhD to carry on the research I was doing into organic synthesis.”
Excitedly accepting the offer, Diane went travelling, hitch-hiking from Alaska to central America including surveying coral reefs in Belize during the months before her PhD was due to start. But upon her return she found out the funding had fallen through, and instead was offered a funded place on the analytical chemistry Master’s programme starting 11 months later.
“So I thought, well, actually, analytical chemistry is great, because when I'm doing organic synthesis, I always need to analyse what I've made. And that’s how I first fell into it!”
For me as an analytical chemist, membership gives me the ability to see a bigger picture. Through attending events outside of my normal focus, I’ve been able to share ideas and information across industries, which can help solve so many problems. And it gives you a voice. The RSC helps to look after us, put ideas forward and showcase the importance of chemistry in the world.
During her Master’s, Diane found herself particularly interested in NMR interpretation, mass spectrometry interpretation and chromatography. She jumped at the opportunity to get experience at Syngenta – which at the time was Zeneca Agrochemicals – battling against her course mates to secure the placement.
“It was amazing. It was a really big research station and I learnt a lot there. I even had the opportunity to expand one of my two projects way beyond its original targets. By the time I finished my degree, they offered me a contracted position, but I decided to accept a role at another company that distributed instruments as it tied directly into the work I had carried out during my MSc project. It gave me the opportunity to set up a lab which most people don’t get the chance to do when they are fresh out of university!”
While Diane gained a lot of experience and helped grow the business to the extent that they needed an even bigger laboratory which she built, she regularly found herself working 16 or 17 hours a day with little recognition. So when she and her husband were given a wedding present to survey coral reefs in Fiji, she took it as a sign to leave her job behind.
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“When I came back, I had lots of previous customers who I’d done applications for and who were buying instruments messaging me to say, ‘Come back, we need training and method development from you. There’s nobody else that I trust to do this.’ And then I suddenly had work and I needed to be able to charge them.”
Not knowing how to start up her own business, Diane turned to Cambridge Enterprise – an organisation linked to the University of Cambridge which is designed to help students and staff commercialise their expertise and ideas – for support.
I wrote a business plan, and when I showed them they said it was the best they'd ever seen. And because it was 2005 – even in Cambridge – they were like ‘Wow, you're female and you want to start a scientific company. We don’t think we’ve had any women come through the door and say they want to start their business in science.’ And so they gave me a load of advice, and then suddenly, 24 hours later, I had a limited company
No stranger to working on her own, Diane applied some of the knowledge she’d learnt from her year of working in a ship chandlery back on the Isles of Scilly, where she discovered how a business ran and worked.
“I threw myself into learning everything. I remember men would come and ask for a fathom of chain before realising I was female and apologising. And I was always like no, I’ll cut the chain for you. I was always determined as a female to do anything as well as any boy. I could row as soon as I could walk. And I think that because my parents raised me to be able to do everything myself, I’d already had such great experience for starting my own business.”
Before leaving her previous role, Diane had begun some project work with The Open University in the Department of Planetary Sciences on carbonaceous chondrites. Using pyrolysis and GCxGC-MS, she was able to make the meteorites analysis 400 times more sensitive than found with current methods, impressing The Open University so much that they offered her a job.
Unable to accept the position due to the newly formed Anthias Consulting Ltd quickly becoming a successful business, they instead offered her a position as a consultant through her company to support and train PhD students and research fellows, look after the laboratory instruments, develop methods and analyse project samples.
“I think that if somebody is going to use an analytical instrument to analyse their samples, they need to learn how to use it properly and develop and validate their own methods, along with being able to do the maintenance themselves. You see so many people with GC-MS listed as experience on their CV, but they’ve never actually used an instrument. So that’s what I teach the PhD students as a consultant at The Open University. And I now hold training courses that are open to the public too!”
Excelling in both her business and her role at The Open University, Diane progressed her involvement with the Royal Society of Chemistry.
“I wanted a way to show people how good my training courses were. I heard about the RSC giving CPD approval and so I approached them for accreditation. That was when they asked me to come and work with them on modernising the scheme, giving them a trainer’s point of view for how it would work."
Around the same time I started to get involved with the Pan Africa Chemistry Network, which I found through Steve Lancaster (one of the 175 Faces of Chemistry). I’ve known him throughout my career and he’s always been a real role model for me. He started off the training courses in Kenya with his friend before the RSC began regulating it, helping with the training materials. As he knew about my training courses, he asked me to help with the course material, and I still work extensively with the network.
“Steve was also in the Analytical Division and suggested that I should get involved. I applied and was quite amazed to find myself elected to the committee, especially as at the time I hadn’t completed my part-time PhD which I had started several years after joining the group at The Open University. It’s very academia focused, so I wasn’t afraid to stand up and speak for the industry side. Very early on, I remember Steve saying that I’d make a really good president, but I always thought he was joking. It wasn’t until years later when I was renewing my term that I found out he wasn’t – he had nominated me for president!
“I was absolutely shocked when I got it. It took me about five minutes of reading and rereading the emails for me to realise that I’d actually been elected as president. I just didn’t believe it really. It was very exciting, and I’m still feeling excited.”
Commencing her role as President of the Analytical Division in July 2020, Diane is currently evaluating the needs of the division’s members to help her implement a strategy.
“I am also focusing on what more we can do for inclusion and diversity. To me, it’s more than just gender, ethnicity, age and background. I want to support everyone, no matter where they are in the world."
Every involvement I’ve had with the RSC has enabled me to broaden my thoughts and ideas through my encounters with so many different people. There’s no way I would have met such a diverse range of people if it wasn’t for the RSC.
“Being president is about representing and getting the best for our community, as well as growing it. We’re already the largest scientific division of the RSC but I know we can reach more people and grow the division further. Amazingly, the majority of our members are from industry, so I’d like to encourage more people from an industry background on to the committee to reflect that.”
A topic close to her heart, Diane has always prioritised inclusion and diversity, and was previously a mentor with the RSC. “It was very much about listening to problems and trying to think of solutions together – you don’t need to have all the right answers. The ability to provide an ear for someone to talk to about their thoughts, worries and concerns can make such a difference. And it helps you to improve yourself too!