How I became a chemistry professor

Lizzy Ostler, a professor of chemical biology and head of chemistry at the University of Brighton, shares her career story and her love of chemistry.

Lizzy Ostler, a professor of chemical biology and head of chemistry at the University of Brighton, shares her career story and her love of chemistry.

I have been a chemistry professor for just two years, although I have been a university lecturer for nearly 20.

I took both my BSc and PhD in Chemistry at the University of Bristol. In between, I spent a year working for a large pharmaceutical company. This convinced me that I wanted an academic, rather than industrial, career so that I could follow my own research interests.

Working my way up

After my PhD, I spent a few months leading a team in a call centre and then I got my first postdoctoral research job. Typically in science, you spend five to 10 years in fixed-term research posts before obtaining a permanent academic position, so I felt fortunate to be appointed as a lecturer just four years later.

Since then I have worked my way up, keeping my research funding and publications going whilst undertaking a full teaching load and gathering a wide variety of external advisory and internal management roles until I built my CV to professorial level. I am very proud to have managed all this in a highly competitive environment whilst also raising a fantastic son.

What I love about chemistry

Chemistry sits right at the heart of the sciences – and this allows us to develop direct solutions to all sorts of problems. Biology deals with more complex systems and physics tends to be more theoretical – but with chemistry, you can make entirely new materials and tools to measure things – and then see what they do. Chemists have a real impact on the world.

I also enjoy the puzzle-like element of designing new compounds and trying to find ways to make them.

Science at school

I found that I could get good grades in science subjects at school with much less effort than I had to put into languages and humanities. I always preferred problem-solving tasks over memorisation. My best grades were in biology and I was offered a place at Bristol University to study Veterinary Medicine. At that age, I mostly loved being outdoors with our farm animals but knew a career in farming was precarious.

However, I developed glandular fever, was hospitalised shortly after my A levels, and didn’t quite get the grades needed, so had a rethink whilst working as a groom and nanny for a year.

‘Good science’ degrees were (and still are) a great route into many interesting careers so I wrote to Bristol asking if they would take me on the Chemistry or Biochemistry degrees instead… and the rest is history!

Read more: How I broke down barriers to study physics at university

My career as a crime and forensic science professor

Doing a PhD

I really committed to chemistry in the final year of my BSc when undertaking research for the first time. Finally, the problem-solving part of chemistry came to the fore and learning all the fundamentals made sense – and I decided that I wanted to carry on into chemistry research. I spent three years as a PhD student undertaking my own project making compounds no-one had ever made before.

This was very satisfying, but just making them wasn’t enough…I wanted to see what they could do! Once I was awarded my PhD I moved to the University of Brighton to work as a postdoctoral fellow because there was a group there using chemistry to influence biological systems and this really inspired me.

Becoming a lecturer freed me to pursue my own research interests, which by then had developed to working on one of the greatest problems globally today – achieving healthy older age. My latest work gives us hope for developing drugs that will address the root causes of ageing and simultaneously prevent or reduce many of the problems (such as heart disease, dementia, poor immunity and arthritis) of being old.

Obstacles into chemistry

An (incorrect) perception that it is ‘hard’ is a common barrier to all students. I think this will tend to mean that people with lower personal self-confidence will avoid it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by adults “Oh I could never have done chemistry…” A great range of career opportunities for chemistry graduates also means that specialist subject teachers are in short supply (and most schools have to use biology specialists for more than half the chemistry teaching).  As a consequence, we lack advocates and role models for the subject at all levels in schools.

My advice

Be sure about what it is that motivates (and demotivates) you. It’s fine to continue in chemistry to degree level because you quite liked it at school – but it needs to be a vocation that really inspires you if you want to do a PhD. Having a PhD can close doors to other careers as you become seen as too specialised or less “moldable”.

There are plenty of other careers where you will still use what you learn in chemistry at A level or in a first degree – that’s the beauty of the subject – so take time to think about what will get you out of bed in the morning for the rest of your life.  If you really can’t imagine a life without research – go for it!

Overcoming challenges

Science, research and academia are all very competitive. It’s really important to avoid underestimating yourself and just go for it. I’m considered to be pretty confident and assertive by colleagues, but I’m still exhorted to put myself forward more than I naturally would. I also think that finding a niche where you are seen as ‘unusually excellent’ is key to surviving in any competitive arena.

I got my most useful experiences by putting myself forward for everything – even when I wasn’t picked it was noticed and I was asked to apply for the next opportunity. These experiences include being a member of the University’s Board of Governors, and most recently was the election to the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Education Division Council and also to chair of the RSCs Heads of Chemistry UK.

Make lists!

I’m also known for delivering before deadline. I take the view that if it’s on my desk I spend more time worrying about it than if I deal with it as soon as possible – so it’s more efficient that way.

I keep a rolling set of five-minute tasks (or broken down parts of larger tasks) on my to-do list – and pick these off in odd gaps between scheduled tasks. This helps me be productive in a really flexible way when my diary is rammed.  Also, I now keep a list of everything I have achieved (not just a CV) – I am frequently so busy that I forget what I already did when asked for examples – so my list comes in handy if I need to apply for something.

What I’d tell my younger self

Don’t worry… your hard work will pay off and it will all come right in the end!

I’m happy to answers questions any readers may have…

Lizzy Ostler is a Professor of Chemical Biology and Head of Chemistry at the University of Brighton.  She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and Chartered Chemist, as well as a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Her research is focused on designing and synthesising new compounds based on those found in ‘superfoods’ to investigate, and slow or prevent age-related ill- health. She lectures in Analytical Chemistry.

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