Volunteering with the Royal Society of Chemistry has helped her stay connected with her core subject, enhance her CV and grow her network along the way.
With this strong foundation, Sarah successfully applied to study chemistry at Loughborough University.
"When it comes to chemistry, I always felt that I could understand the concept and then apply it to a problem. I like that about it. Yes, there are more hours involved when you decide to study a practical science, but I think it makes it a much more sociable course. If you're sharing a fume hood with someone for four hours, you are going to talk to them!
“If you'd asked me when I was a first or second year if I was going to do a PhD, there's absolutely no way I would have said yes. In fact one of the reasons I went to Loughborough is because they have such a good year in industry. But actually my placement helped me work out that path wasn’t for me.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do until my final year when everyone has to do a research project. I chose to focus on physical chemistry and I absolutely loved it. We were in the lab for eight weeks designing experiments, carrying them out and analysing the results. That was when I realised, actually, another three years doing this could be great!”
After a year out volunteering and gaining work experience, Sarah embarked on her PhD at Manchester with a focus on technologies for waste gas clean up. This was when Sarah started getting involved with outreach and the Royal Society of Chemistry.
One of the academic members of staff was doing loads of outreach work, a lot of it funded by the RSC. I was part of a cohort of PhD students who went into schools to talk to seven- and eight-year-olds and get them excited about science. I really enjoyed it.
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Realising the benefits of a Royal Society of Chemistry membership, Sarah signed up and took advantage of the social side of the organisation from the off.
“We did a lot of wine tasting! The Manchester Younger Members Network was amazing. There were loads of fun events where we just paid a fiver to go along and it was a great time to let off steam. But I also realised that it was the right moment to become a part of a proper professional body, I knew it would be good for my career.”
Upon finishing her PhD, after working as a volunteer recruitment manager at the charity she had been mentoring at previously, Sarah sought advice from the RSC to help her find her first permanent job.
This is another reason I owe the RSC a lot. I went along to one of their careers surgeries in Manchester. One of the RSC advisors was in the habit of keeping cuttings of unusual jobs that chemists could apply for, one of which was for a Space Academy project manager. They didn't necessarily need somebody with a space physics background. So I applied and was honest when it came to the gaps in my knowledge. But I got the job!
A once regionally, now nationally funded education project, the National Space Academy uses space as a context for teaching STEM subjects. From student workshops to teacher CPD courses and careers forums, Sarah helped to organise events that inspired a wide audience.
“It was an incredible place to work, so much fun. It’s actually been going for 12 years now, which is something I'm really proud of, because I know that I helped to set some of those foundations.”
However, while working at the National Space Centre, Sarah realised that she wanted to stay grounded within the chemistry community and saw the Royal Society of Chemistry as a great way to do so.
“I was working with some amazing chemistry teachers, but really I had very little to do with chemistry. So that's when I started being a very active volunteer for my local section. It was my way of keeping in touch with the chemical sciences and the wider chemical community.
“I started out as Secretary at the East Midlands Local Section and now I’m Chair of the Lancaster and District Local Section. We’ve had a real drive to get younger people on the committee and to have better representation from industry and academia, which has been hugely successful. One of the things that really helped was the younger members symposium, which we organised and hosted in 2012. We basically put on an entire academic conference that had about 120 people in attendance. There were panel sessions with different themes and lots of different speakers.
“Organising events like this and being an active member of the local section has given me a lot of valuable experience. I mean, I’ve always been a pretty organised person, but this role has taken it to another level! My planning and communication skills have developed also. And these things translate straight into my day job."
But most important to me is the networking aspect. It’s so important to manage and maintain wider connections and the RSC helps hugely with this. I’ve got to meet a huge variety of people who I never would have done otherwise. You can’t put a value on it, but it's vital to have those wider connections. It’s how you find out about jobs and new opportunities. The little nuggets of information I pick up through people I meet, I use them in my work to inspire others. I feel I can talk more knowledgeably about the chemical sciences because of the people I meet through my RSC volunteering
While at the National Space Academy, Sarah was impressed by the work of STEMNET, which would later merge to join STEM Learning, the UK's largest provider of education and careers support in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and went on to apply for a job in the Yorkshire and Humber office.
As well as running the well-known volunteer STEM Ambassador programme, STEM Learning provides continuing professional development courses for teachers, with a big emphasis on digital skills across the board.
“The flexibility that I have to make my own decisions about what's important for my region in this role is brilliant. And I work with some really, really amazing people, both within the organisation and through the local partners we collaborate with.”
Most recently, Sarah has become chair of the RSC’s North West Steering Group, set up as a way of sharing best practice amongst local sections.
“Each local section sends a representative, then there’s also an academic, an industry person and a younger member rep. If there are any policy changes coming in that might affect members, the group is a forum to discuss them and filter the messaging out more widely.”
Sarah’s dedication to her Royal Society of Chemistry volunteering roles resulted in her winning the coveted Volunteering Award in 2017, which recognises those who have made a personal impact enriching other people’s lives and helping the chemistry community.
Sarah is an advocate for the opportunities the RSC provides to enhance your CV.
A lot of people think volunteering is just to do with kids and animals, but that’s not true. There is so much professional volunteering out there! My involvement with the RSC gives me extra opportunities and is great for the CV. In the end, you get out what you put in.
Although Sarah is both driven and ambitious, she admits she’s not one for a five-year plan. With her adaptive, dynamic approach to life, she is ready to respond to whatever opportunities the future might bring.
“A previous colleague of mine had a great presentation about careers. You think it will be this nice little step ladder. Very straightforward. But then she shows a slide labelled ‘My career’ and it’s basically a big scribbly line! You just don't know where you’ll end up. But I truly believe, if you do things like science, engineering and maths, the doors don't get closed on you. They get opened. That's the story I want to tell people. The vast majority of people have no idea what we want to do, so actually it's more about keeping your options open.”