With multiple awards and achievements including being named on the Global Shaker Women in Science list 2020, Rebecca Ballantyne is dedicated to improving inclusion and diversity in science and wider STEM areas.
“At secondary school I absolutely loved science and wanted to pursue it, but I wasn’t sure which area to choose because it was just so vast,” says Rebecca. “There weren’t any female STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) role models for me to look up to, and so at that age I thought the only thing I could do was to become a doctor.”
After conducting her own research into scientific careers, Rebecca discovered the vast number of things she could do with science – albeit seemingly male-led. With a desire to achieve a broader understanding of science, Rebecca decided to study forensic science at university as it covered an extensive array of topics including criminology, science and law.
After a short spell working in pharmacology, Rebecca found a vacancy at Sellafield Ltd in the analytical services laboratory, where she worked for around 10 years. It was only during this time that she joined the RSC, shortly before taking a career break to have her daughter.
Although I had already been working in chemistry for many years, I didn’t join the RSC until 2014 because I didn’t realise I could. It wasn’t until I looked into membership that I realised my practical experience of working within the industry meant I could apply – it wasn’t just a case of having a specific degree, but working at an equivalent level and having the ability to evidence my knowledge and experience in chemistry.
“And it wasn’t just skills that Rebecca’s chartership helped with – it made her rethink where she wanted to be in her career, too.
“My chartership journey helped me realise my passion for developing people. It made me reassess my career, and although I love chemistry, I wanted to be in a position where I could help, drive change and influence a wider audience.
“I now work as a business change manager for the UK Alpha Resilience and Capability (ARC) programme. The UK ARC programme is a proactive long-term collaboration between the UK government, nuclear industry and wider nuclear sector. ARC seeks to identify targeted projects and investments in specialist nuclear facilities to sustain and enhance the UK’s world-leading alpha capabilities. My job is to lead the change initiative and ensure it aligns to our strategy. In today’s world, culture, business and technology are constantly changing. People are at the heart of any business and my focus is to facilitate and enable an environment where our people can excel and flourish."
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To help others complete their chartership, Rebecca is now a mentor through the RSC herself, and her mentee has just had his first successful recognition as a registered science technician (RSciTech).
“I’ve been able to give back to the RSC scheme by offering support and guidance to someone else. It’s so important to mentor others by sharing, learning and coaching them through the experience. And I take a lot from it too – seeing someone develop and grow as a person is so rewarding. It really reaffirms the importance of businesses actively investing, supporting and encouraging their employees to fulfil their potential.”
Rebecca works with the RSC to produce ChemCareers webinars covering her experiences and journey to CChem.
“I think professional and personal development is so important, and in my case, I believe the journey to achieve CChem was even more so. Being proactive and seeking opportunities to broaden and develop your own drive and ambition speaks volumes.
“I’m a passionate promoter of equality and diversity, and I think it’s important for me to get my message out there through the RSC webinars. I am a chartered chemist, but I didn’t follow a traditional path into chemistry. My background is in forensic science yet it wasn’t until I’d graduated that I realised chemistry was the path I wanted to pursue for my career.
Having worked in various chemistry roles, I was able to demonstrate my knowledge and evidence of an equivalent working level through a portfolio and assessment. I think it’s really important to take part in ChemCareers webinars to be visible, not just as a female chemist, but as someone who can show that the RSC is open to everybody and that chemistry is inclusive.
Alongside her role at Sellafield Ltd and ChemCareers work with the RSC, Rebecca does a lot to support inclusion and diversity – a passion ignited when she noticed her daughter from a young age falling into the societal roles and norms.
“Despite me working in chemistry, I could already see my four-year-old daughter’s aspirations fitting in with stereotypes, along with her belief that certain jobs are done by males and females. I think that’s when I felt I needed to step up and encourage others to look at science as a career option, regardless of background or gender.”
As part of her work to make science more inclusive, Rebecca works as a STEM ambassador, promoting science to children in groups that may not have external STEM support. Instead of delivering routine classes, Rebecca develops engaging bespoke sessions for individual groups, such as interactive storytelling for children in early years education.
“One of the first bespoke sessions I delivered was based on Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I used some of my forensics training to develop an interactive session where we had fingerprint examination and hair, fibre, and footprint analysis. It was about taking a story all children know word for word and making them look a bit deeper, using critical thinking and problem solving.
“At three and four years old, the children absolutely loved it. Their inquisitive nature and curiosity was so evident yet the teaching of mainstream STEM doesn’t begin until children are five-years-old. The feedback was amazing and that’s where I began to see the benefit in delivering bespoke sessions – it was all about making the science feel relevant, real and useful to the group.”
Rebecca now delivers bespoke sessions to primary schools, pupil referral units and secondary schools. The unique nature of her work has even resulted in an award and the recommendation that her teaching approaches should be included in the national curriculum.
I was invited to deliver STEM sessions for a group of girls in a pupil referral unit. They had become disengaged with science and wanted to work in the beauty industry after school, so I designed some sessions which focused on the science behind beauty.
"We looked at nail varnishes, peroxide and hair dye, and the colour and light chemistry of makeup, as well as the cosmetology industry and the development of new techniques. After a few two-hour sessions, the girls were a lot more engaged in their education, and the teachers were really pleased with the progress they had all made."
“That work actually led to a nomination for the ‘Improving Inclusion, Diversity and Equality within STEM’ award at the House of Lords in November 2019, where I won the highly commended award.”
Rebecca has also won the highly commended award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Science’ at the Woman of the Future Awards (2019), the ‘Equality and Diversity’ award from the British Energy Coast Business Cluster (2020) and been placed in the Global Shaker top 20 international female scientists in 2020 list, amongst many other achievements.
“It feels incredibly surreal. I’m from Carlisle, a small city in Cumbria, and to be listed alongside astrophysicists, astronauts and professors from all over the world is just amazing. I’d never set out to achieve anything on this scale – I just wanted to give back to chemistry so to be able to share my passion on an international stage was just fantastic!”
To further her outreach work and keep busy over England’s first national lockdown in March 2020, Rebecca founded a home-schooling hub for parents having to juggle working from home and teaching their children, based on 30-minute creative STEM activities using materials typically found at home.
“Kreative Kidz Cumbria was set up on Facebook to help families with children through the pandemic. At the peak, we were supporting 900 families in and around Cumbria. You just couldn’t timetable a full day’s worth of activities and work at the same time, so I wanted to support parents by providing quick activities with minimal materials where you could enjoy some time with your children by following structured and fun STEM sessions at home.
“I won the Cumberland Building Society’s 100 Thank Yous award for that, which was lovely. I was working full time myself and I was trying to teach my daughter at the same time, on top of running this website to help other parents. It was incredibly humbling to receive an award, especially given the amazing work our keyworkers were providing in our communities.”
One award Rebecca is yet to achieve is Fellow (FRSC) from the Royal Society of Chemistry. “I’d absolutely love to become a Fellow with the RSC one day as it’s something I really aspire to. Personal and professional development isn’t something that should ever stop, as we must continue to challenge ourselves and move out of our comfort zones if we are to grow as a person.
“To anyone wondering whether to join the RSC, my advice is what have you got to lose? The RSC is a chemistry community, and membership can help you reach out to like-minded people. The only thing that’s going to come from joining is positivity. You’re going to learn, you’re going to develop and you’re going to work more effectively. I had no idea just how many doors would open for me when I began my journey of self-reflection and growth with the RSC. It all started when I pushed myself from my comfort zone and set myself a goal to become a chartered chemist.”