Build up your resilience: Meet Gillian Greenway

Professor Gillian Greenway is Professor of Analytical Science and Chemistry Head of Subject Group at the University of Hull. Her research career has focused on developing simple methods to measure very low levels of different chemicals in complex mixtures with the final aspiration to make the measurements out in the world, whether that is in the environment or a doctor’s surgery. For her Soapbox Science talk on Saturday 1st July in Hull, she will be talking about “How to measure chemicals.”



SS: Gillian, how did you get to your current position?

GG: Perhaps the greatest challenge in my career has been the fact that I had undiagnosed dyspraxia, which is a coordination-specific learning problem, in fact, I have just obtained a diagnosis!  Earlier in my career when I had to do a lot of practical work I was often a disaster in the lab and the fact that I became a chemist must show my determination.  I needed lots of practise at practical skills, but fortunately, I chose a degree with industrial placements and the day to day experience in the laboratory gave me the confidence I needed, after that, the number of breakages, spills and floods decreased.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

GG: My inspiration to be a scientist came from my family, my father and uncles were engineers, and my aunt was a pharmacist. I lived near the sea and when we went to the beach to play my uncle, who was a civil engineer had us using scientific principles to design dams. My mother and aunt had me naming and classifying plants, trees and birds.

At school, I was inspired by my chemistry teacher. He was very enthusiastic, and we used to have a chemistry club. My project was to analyse metals in the docks in Sunderland, which meant that most of the time was spent boiling down vast amounts of water to try to concentrate the metal ions to analyse them. For some reason, I didn’t get put off by that!

Later on my PhD supervisor Gordon Kirkbright greatly influenced me, he set up the department where I studied for my PhD in Manchester, the Department of Instrumentation and Analytical Science. It was a new idea, sponsored by the EPSRC, to put different scientific disciplines together since then I have always been involved in multidisciplinary work with engineers and other scientists.

To make this type of collaboration work you really need to be able to communicate with people from the other disciplines, which can be surprisingly difficult. It takes patience, as each discipline seems to have their own language, often with the same word having different meanings.

I was very lucky early in my career to have an excellent boss, Professor Alan Townshend.  In a time when there were very few women working in the area, and there could be a lot of prejudice, he was only ever interested in my potential as a scientist.  I would also very strongly recommend getting involved with professional bodies, the Royal Society of Chemistry provided me with excellent networking opportunities.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

GG: Although there has been lots of work in this area, there are still very few instruments that are working out in the field in a reliable way – trying to convert the lab based systems into something that really works is challenging. The sort of concepts that I’m working on are trying to make the systems robust, immobilising reagents, including redundancy and using engineering approaches to fault testing, and using feedback to find when it’s not working and determine how to overcome any problems. It is also important to do the chemistry in a different way – not just repeating the way it is carried out in the laboratory.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

GG: The opportunity to show that there are lots women scientists who love their work.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

GG: Fear and anticipation


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

GG: I would want to encourage collaboration.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

GG: Build up your resilience, publications will get turned down, research applications will be rejected, but listen to advice and keep trying.


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