The elements of success

Initiatives to raise the profile of chemistry will benefit everyone, says Marcus Freed
Click to follow
The Independent Online

"Chemistry is life," explains Dr Simon Campbell. "Everything we touch is a product of chemical science. A world without chemistry is simply impossible."

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) is about to launch its Campaign for Chemical Sciences, which is a multi-pronged crusade to raise the profile of the discipline among schools, universities and public funding bodies. Dr Campbell is the Society's President-elect and the campaign will be underway by the time his tenure begins this month.

A deep understanding of chemical science is necessary for the development of most things we take for granted in everyday life, ranging from the materials needed in mobile telephone technology to tackling environmental problems such as sustainability and renewing natural resources.

"You can use chemistry to create new medicines that will benefit your relatives and the rest of society," says Dr Campbell, who himself was closely involved in the development of three major drugs that have been of massive benefit to millions of people. In his work as a synthetic organic chemist he worked on Norvasc, the fourth best-selling drug in the world, which is used to treat angina and hypertension, but his pièce de résistance was the idea to start the Viagra project, which he followed through to commercialisation in 1998.

Studying chemistry at A-level or at university or college not only opens up opportunities for a laboratory-based career, the transferable skills involved in its study can take graduates in many different directions. Perhaps it's time to get out the Bunsen burner and take another look at the periodic table.

'Being in the classroom is what I love'

Dr Kay Stephenson, director of studies (former head of science), Felsted School in North Essex; BSc, PhD and PGCE at Durham University

It really drives me mad when people say that chemistry is just about experiments and explosions - it requires an understanding of processes and abstract concepts.

It isn't an easy subject. You have to be able to think in abstract, be logical, analytical and creative. But studying the subject gives you a huge insight into the world around you - because everything around you is chemical.

There is real excitement at the fringes of chemistry with the development of new materials. An understanding of chemistry and its applications is phenomenally important for the economy of the country. We simply will not be able to maintain the technological advances we've made in the past without people who have the knowledge and skills gained from studying the chemical sciences.

From this September I'm going back to being head of chemistry, even though I'm now the school's director of studies. This decision has raised a few eyebrows and some people think I am taking a step backwards, going from a senior management post back to full-time teaching, but I know it's the right decision.

Being in the classroom teaching chemistry is where I enjoy being most. It's what I love.

'Chemistry gave me a career direction'

Nigel Shepherd, senior consultant at the management consultancy, ER Consultants; GRSC (Kingston University), MBA (Cranfield)

I was drawn to management consulting because of the challenge. It's complex, dynamic, varied and often requires working with difficult issues. My science background gave me the analytical and critical reasoning skills which are so valuable in management consulting.

Originally I never had a clear direction of what I wanted to do for a job. Chemistry was one of the subjects that I was good at and it seemed to point me in the general direction of a career.

I quite liked the analytical work because it concerned problem solving. You are given something and have to ask: what is in this? What is it made up of? If you've got a polluted food source or water source, you've got to find out what's in it.

A lot of the chemical sciences are things that we can't see in their process but we draw conclusions from the effects they cause. This relates to my job now with ER Consultants when I solve problems in companies, such as working out why morale is low in an office environment. You have to analyse the problem by understanding the processes that led to this point, which, like the laboratory work, is tracing a pattern of cause and effect.

'I always knew I would study science'

Kirsty Goddard, video journalist, BBC Channel Islands; BSc (Liverpool John Moores), MSc (Imperial College)

There was always something magical about chemistry for me. When I was very young, I remember reading books where potions were made using chemistry sets. I used to spend hours playing with mine in the garden shed and I always wanted to understand how different compounds combined and made something else with different properties. There was never any doubt in my mind that I would be a scientist first of all and then see where my career took me.

When I was doing research I found that telling people about my work was the most enjoyable part and decided I would pursue communication as my career. It may seem that what I do now has nothing to do with chemistry, but if I didn't have all the skills I learnt from my chemistry background I wouldn't be where I am today. Since moving away from the bench I've tried my hand at print journalism, the Web, radio and now television. I've been lucky enough to figure out what I want to do and to use the experience I have to my advantage.

Chemistry may be quite a tough degree to do, but I find my scientific background invaluable to me in everything I have done since I stopped doing research.