“Things had moved on and I needed support, help with my presentation skills and to boost my confidence. The Royal Society of Chemistry put me in touch with the Daphne Jackson Trust and this was key to finding my feet.”
A Trust Fellowship gives professionals within the STEM community wishing to return to a research career with the opportunity. It allows them to balance an individually tailored retraining programme with a challenging research project in a suitably supportive environment.
Gemma’s return to science via the Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowship was at the University of Huddersfield, where the trust secured her funding for a two-year research project. This was in stark contrast to her initial posts working mainly in the pharmaceutical industry for both major companies and a small bio-pharma start up.
“As an organic chemist, I worked across a wide range of projects and, for example, during my time with Johnson Matthey also helped sell products, so I gained some valuable commercial experience as well.”
During her two-year Fellowship Gemma carried out novel research under the guidance of a world class academic which enabled her to refresh her skills as a chemist, and the confidence to apply for further funding as a principal investigator. But it was earlier in her career when Gemma had her first experience of the benefits of RSC membership.
I have been a member of the RSC all my career and during my time as an undergraduate I appreciated the opportunities of being part of a community. You could see that the RSC was there to support chemists with their careers and right from the start they would be my first port of call should I need careers advice.
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Links with the RSC were amplified still further when Gemma was appointed Business Development Manager at the University of Huddersfield where she also had responsibility for diversity and equality, helping the university gain accreditation, alongside continuing with her research. “After two years I realised I can’t do all these things at once, so I dropped my research and concentrated on my business development and diversity and equality roles.
“Alongside diversity and equality, I started looking further into the whole area of inclusion, particularly women in science and realised there was huge inequality – the professors are men and you ask yourself where are the women? I was shocked and set up and chaired the Athena SWAN panel and we looked at ways to improve the gender balance at Huddersfield.” Her work played a large part in the School of Applied Sciences being awarded an Athena SWAN Silver award.
The RSC sees the wider picture as regards to diversity and equality. They know it’s not just about a career in science and getting up the ladder and they are doing so much through their diversity fund. They see it as their duty to support the career progression of everyone in science in any way that they see fit and more recently it has not been about gender and the lack of females in the STEM subjects but about inclusivity as well.
"There are very few black female academics and professors, the BAME community is massively under-represented in STEM and there are a huge number of reasons for that. One reason is racism and we can do a lot of things in universities to try and address that and one way is for universities to assess themselves – what is your base line, what degrees are they getting, why are they leaving and why are they failing? The black attainment gap is huge but it is narrowing and getting better but there is a lot of work to do and we are working on this here in Huddersfield.”
Not content with looking at diversity, equality and racism, Gemma has also been elected as a member of the RSC’s Early Career Research Committee where she is actively involved with other members in supporting members at the early stage of their career. Whether the pressures are personal or professional the network supports members and works to alleviate some of the headaches that these young people may have.
“I was asked to join not as a young person but as an equivalent young person going back into a career in my 40s with three children and also going into a different career needing guidance and help on how to succeed. I represent the career returners and we have a fantastic network committee with some really intelligent people involved in helping younger members. We help put on events and I think it is great that the RSC has helped me and now I hope I can help others.”
A further research project funded by the RSC’s diversity fund that Gemma has been involved in has been looking at the reasons why there are fewer females studying chemistry rather than the other sciences such as biology.
“The results showed that there were less females studying chemistry at A-level and there was a lack of understanding in what job you could get if you studied chemistry. So we have hosted a load of events for undergrads and A-level students mainly at the University of Huddersfield to show what chemistry offered. We involved 10 different companies and had inspiring people, mainly women, who came in and explained how they got their job and what they do, and it has worked really well.”
The latest RSC-funded project for Gemma has changed its direction following the Covid-19 pandemic.
I couldn’t speak too highly of the RSC. I haven’t had a traditional career path and if I had stayed in industry I would be in a very different job. But they have helped me so much on how to reinvent myself and they are so good in supporting and enabling people to advance.
“We were due to look at mental health issues in academia, but this has been delayed and because of the current pressures we have redesigned the project to look at some outcomes due to Covid. Research had shown that females working with children at home are publishing less and there are extra pressures being applied to PhD students due to no cost extensions and we also wanted to look at the physical environment students were working in. So we restyled the research project and put it to the RSC and yet again they showed their flexibility and supported this new piece of work.
“To be honest I don’t think I have ever asked them for something, and they’ve said ‘no’. As long as you explain why it benefits people in the community, they don’t say no. They are really open to doing the right thing and helping people and not just the elite. The RSC is really approachable and responsive and makes things happen. They have helped me, and I hope I have helped them benefit the wider chemistry community.”