Crossing continents and convening taskforces – a life in chemistry
Professor Anju Massey-Brooker is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry with multiple awards in academic research and industry and has recently accepted the roles of member and secretariat for the RSC’s Sustainable Polymers in Liquid Formulations (PLFs) Task Force.
We spoke to Anju about her life in chemistry, her new role, and cat-sitting for a former RSC President...
Going back to the beginning, what’s your first memory of being interested in chemistry?
I spent my formative years in the famous city of Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) in Uttar Pradesh India, at Saint Mary’s Convent School and later at Sacred Heart Convent School, where I enjoyed performing experiments in the chemistry labs. I elected to read Chemistry with Biology at Panjab University and was fortunate to secure first position in the region in my undergraduate degree. I was selected into the Indian Institute of Technology to read for my master’s and later my MPhil at Panjab University, receiving first class honours in both.
Next came a big change – winning a scholarship to Cambridge University from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Trust to conduct my PhD research in Organometallic Chemistry, developing novel osmium and ruthenium clusters under the supervision of the late Professor Lord Lewis, a former President of the Royal Society of Chemistry. I was asked to continue my research at Cambridge as a postdoctoral research fellow associated with Robinson College.
What was it like working with Lord Lewis?
I loved my time working under the guidance of Professor Lewis. That period was a highlight in my life. It was such a multi-cultural group with researchers from around the world. It was also quite large but Professor Lewis took the time every week to see how each individual’s project was going and lend his experience and wisdom generously. There was an expectation set for exceptional science grounded in technical rigour. Habits and skills that I developed and learned from others in that environment helped me for the rest of my scientific career.
My abiding memory though was one of feeling like I was in a family, which was personally important to me with Cambridge being my first venture outside India. Jack, as he became known to me, extended that personally. I would look after his Master’s House when he and his wife travelled as they often did. It was a wonderful experience although his cat Amber never took a liking to me! That became the job of my boyfriend, who subsequently became my husband. Jack was there at our wedding and helped me in my transition into an industrial scientific career. I miss him.
How did your research develop into an industry career?
Whilst completing my postdoctoral fellowship I was recruited by Procter & Gamble (P&G), from where I retired in 2021 as a senior technologist, formulator and business leader after 28 years.
During that time, I led numerous product and technology innovation programmes, generating several billion dollars of sales around the world and enabling P&G’s expansion into new markets in central and eastern Europe and South America.
I worked on some of P&G’s best-known products, including Tide, Ariel, Fairy and Cascade, inventing more than 50 patents, authoring more than 20 peer reviewed publications and receiving awards for innovation in nanotechnology in cleaning products and polymers and colloids.
How did you come to be involved in the Sustainable PLFs Task Force?
My academic and industry-based expertise is in polymer and surfactants formulation science, while my role at P&G allowed me to project coordinate numerous collaboration programmes between industry and academia, funded by UKRI and the European Commission and act as industrial supervisor on more than 40 PhD, EngD and post-doctoral programmes. In addition, I’ve been a member of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and on the advisory team of the Circular Economy Network.
So I think a combination of my scientific knowledge and background of collaboration across sectors led the RSC to appoint me for the dual role of taskforce member and secretariat, which I am honoured to hold and determined to make a success.
Why is the work of the taskforce so important?
36 million tonnes of PLFs are made and sold worldwide for US$125 billion each year. Thousands of different PLFs exist, with a wide range of uses, from helping paint stick to your walls to hydrating your skin in moisturisers.
But their production, use and storage is putting a huge strain on the environment – releasing carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, using up finite resources and generating physical waste. So there is a need to address the sustainability of PLFs by changing the way we make and use them. The RSC established the Sustainable Polymers in Liquid Formulation Task Force to tackle these challenges, working to create a collaborative and joined up strategy, leading to a step change in innovation towards sustainable PLFs.
Why is it important that the taskforce is industry-led?
Industry makes chemicals, produces products for end users and manages end of life waste materials, so it’s no coincidence that we have chosen to create an industry task force for this stage of the project.
Members were carefully selected to represent the sector in which their organisation operates and the value chain they are part of. We have representation from Afton Chemical, BASF, Croda, Crown Paints, Dow, Northumbrian Water, Scott Bader, Unilever, United Utilities and Walgreens Boots Alliance.
But the Taskforce reaches wider than industry – it’s supported by a key stakeholder group with representation from academia, research and innovation, research laboratories and policy makers, all with the expertise to scrutinise and critique the outputs of the task force.
What do you hope it can achieve?
Before we talk about the ‘what’, it’s important to understand the ‘how’. We’ve chosen to adopt a mission-oriented innovation methodology because it enables us to co-design innovation policies oriented toward global challenges.
Mission-oriented innovation is sometimes described as ‘big science deployed to meet big problems’. The ‘big problems’ of pollution, climate and demographic change become the focus of innovation, replacing ‘innovation as usual’ with its focus on growth through the deployment and commercialisation of science and technology. We get the ‘big science’ by improving the coherence of innovation between public, private and civil initiatives and investments.
That coherence will allow us to engage a wide innovation network, catalyse funding and support for R&D into advanced materials and develop and test new processes in chemicals and materials.
The ultimate goal is to create new policy for a smooth conversion from fossil reliance to sustainable PLFs.
You mentioned that you’ve retired from your role in industry – how are you enjoying your retirement?
I’m busier than ever! Since my so-called ‘retirement’ from P&G last year I’ve been honoured to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and have returned to academia, teaching the next crop of chemists as part of my new honorary positions as Professor in Practice at Durham University and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham.
I also sit on several senior advisory bodies responsible for developing strategic plans across a variety of topics, including at the EPSRC, the Centre for Doctoral Training and the UKRI-funded Transforming Foundational Industries Research and Innovation Hub.
Equality and inclusion have long been a passion for me. I co-led Procter & Gamble’s Equality Diversity & Inclusion European Forum, driving a programme for gender equality at all levels at P&G and mentoring several women to achieve their career potential. I’ve carried on that work since retiring from P&G and now co-lead international women in STEM Initiatives via the Indian Institute of Technology alumni group and work with various international charitable organisations including Mothers’ Union, which works to develop communities, strengthen families and advocate for change. So yes, quite busy!
Given all those responsibilities, how do you unwind?
Away from the stimulating world of science, I love to spend time with my family and friends. I also enjoy travelling and learning about local and international history. I live in Newcastle upon Tyne, close to the Northumberland National Park, a beautiful part of North East England which is steeped in ancient Roman and medieval Anglo-Scottish history. I enjoy walking, so you’ll often find me on one of our unspoilt beaches, in the shadow of Bamburgh or Dunstanburgh castle.