After completing her PhD in natural products chemistry and pharmacognosy at Middlesex University and in collaboration with the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew Gardens, Sandra Appiah decided to stay on and do a postgraduate certificate in higher education teaching. 14 years later she is still at the university, happily working as a dedicated senior lecturer in biochemistry.
“I’ve been here for a very long time,” says Sandra. “My speciality was originally in analytical chemistry but then I moved into biochemistry, which is what I teach now. I knew I wanted to follow an academic pathway at the age of 16. My main influence was New Scientist magazine – I don’t know how I got hold of it, but I remember periodically looking at the careers section and thinking about what scientists do and how much they get paid.
“I was really into science but couldn’t choose a particular area I wanted to be in, so I decided to become an academic with a view to one day becoming a professor. That was the driving force behind my PhD and other academic work – after 14 years I definitely thought that I would have become a professor by now, but I was very idealistic when I was young!”
Day to day Sandra teaches students across all levels, supervises Master’s level dissertation students and is involved in a number of university-wide diversity programmes.
I teach until I drop! I love inspiring my students to do their best. One of my PhD students graduated last year and he's now in the faculty team, so that’s lovely to see. And it’s also just about getting them to fall in love with science, even if they don’t stay in science. One of my previous students moved into business and started his own company, which I find very inspiring.
Sandra also oversees a very active research group of PhD students who are looking at naturally derived products on leukaemia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“We’ve had quite a few completions in the last three years, so I’m very pleased with that. Leukaemia is not one of the most prevalent cancers but it can have a very poor prognosis, like acute myeloid leukaemia for instance, as there are so many mutations. When you think you’ve found a drug for it, there’s drug resistance, so what I'm doing is looking at drug combinations and specific cell signalling pathways which are known to be mutated and will have enzymes involved in that area mutated.
“My research is very much biochemistry focused but the chemistry aspect is the drugs and getting the right combination of drugs to affect a particular target protein. In February 2020 – and just before the pandemic hit – I presented a paper at the fifth European Association for Cancer Research Conference at Bergamo, Italy with some of our findings.
“We found a protein called Bcl-2 which is an anti-apoptotic protein that’s overexpressed in a lot of cancers. P26 is the usual isoform, but my research group found another isoform – P15 – which has a smaller molecular weight. We have found P15 to be selectively expressed in some acute myeloid leukaemia cell lines and not other types of leukaemia or cancers, which was a huge breakthrough for us.
“We’re now looking for collaborators to do gene knock-in/knock-out experiments to see if it does actually have the functional work that we think it does because the drug combination that we studied was able to selectively target that protein and not the other isoform. So it’s all very exciting!”.
Let’s advance chemistry, together. Reach your full potential with RSC membership.
Sandra became a Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2013 and has since progressed to become a Fellow – joining the most prestigious membership category.
“I became a Fellow in 2019, and it’s been quite instrumental in moving my research group forward because of the recognition. I also think it’s been beneficial for my students as they feel important if their supervisor is recognised. I really appreciate being a Fellow and I’m currently looking at ways to get more involved with the RSC. I’m also in the midst of applying for chartered chemist CChem) status.”
In May 2020 and following the tragic death of George Floyd, Sandra decided to take more action on inclusion and diversity at her university, turning to the RSC’s Inclusion and Diversity Fund for support.
“If I hadn’t seen George Floyd’s death, I would still be in the lab looking at my cells and treatments in my own little world. It just shocked me that things like that are happening, and even though I'm black it wasn't on my radar at all. But now I think there’s a good appetite for change and I’m hoping to be part of it.
“If you look at the chemistry population, only 1% of us are black chemists. That’s a very small pool, so I thought it would be nice to showcase our work and see if we can bring it to the forefront. I think there’s always a connotation of being disadvantaged or discriminated against, but I know that there are great success stories out there that need to be brought to our attention.
“Within inclusion and diversity, my particular interest is to diversify the curriculum, and to diversify it you need to know what is already available. My long-term goal is to build up the capacity and network of black chemists, so I’m currently looking for professors and other black chemists who have work published to see who the role models are. The next step is to integrate their work into the curriculum, showcasing successful black chemists in our community.
Having the RSC say that this is a great idea is incredible, and I’m hoping to build greater collaboration with them throughout the project. I think they are quite proactive when it comes to inclusion and diversity – the quote about only one percent of the chemistry community being black chemists actually came from RSC research. I feel very proud to be able to work with them to change this dynamic now and in the future.
Sandra is only at the beginning of her RSC journey, with many years of engagement yet to come.
“I consider myself a chemist, and the RSC is a home for chemists, so I will continue my membership for years to come. The chemistry community and the ability to connect with chemists from all over the world is so important, and it’s nice to say you’re a member of something so well respected. I’m just very proud to be a member, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me in the future.”