Strong role models is key: Meet AnnMarie O’Donoghue

AnnMarie O'Donoghue PicAnnMarie O’Donoghue is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry in Durham University; her research group works on organic and biological chemistry with a particular focus on Sustainable Chemistry and Organocatalysis. Here she tells us how having mentors and role models from an early age have been key to her pursuing a scientific career in academia and how she draws inspiration from her female predecessors in Organic Chemistry as well as enthusiastic, determined undergraduate and postgraduate students. Catch AnnMarie on her Soapbox on Saturday June 18th 2016 in Newcastle where she will talk about “Sustainable Chemistry: Organocatalysis and Mimicking Nature”.



SS: How did you get to your current position?

AOD: Following PhD studies in University College Dublin completed in 1999, I secured a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellowship for postdoctoral studies in the University of Buffalo, the State University of New York, in the laboratory of a well-known biological chemist, Professor John Richard. I spent three and a half years in this position and was fortunate to work on a broad range of projects. John was very supportive and encouraged me to orally present at a range of top international conferences. I was also given the opportunity to deliver undergraduate lectures and supervise a variety of students of different levels in the laboratory. I believe that this time in the US was particularly formative for me in making the transition to being an independent researcher. After a second enjoyable postdoctoral position in the University of Cambridge funded by a Marie Curie Fellowship, and a short term lectureship position in the Department of Chemistry in University College Dublin, I moved to my current position in the Department of Chemistry in Durham University in October 2005.


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

AOD: A variety of people and places! The support of my husband, parents and family has always been key. I wanted to pursue a career in academia from my teenage years. I was strongly influenced early on by my Dad who was an industrial chemist for his whole career. The idea of working in a scientific laboratory was never alien to me as a result. I grew up in a small university town in Ireland and the local university played a big role in our lives. In secondary school, my Maths teacher was particularly influential and strongly supportive. He took a group of us to various events including a Maths Olympiad in University College Dublin. I was in a very small school and my Chemistry class consisted of only 2 female and 6 male students. In those days, safety was less of a consideration than today and we did a broad range of exciting experiments that are probably not permitted now! I embarked on studies for a Natural Sciences degree in University College Dublin as it allowed me the option to continue both Chemistry and Maths to advanced levels. I have been fortunate to have excellent mentors throughout my studies in university. Thinking back, the Department of Chemistry in UCD had strong female Organic Chemistry academics as role models, which was unusual for the time. In fact the Eva Philbin Medal was one of two awarded to top Chemistry students in UCD in honour of Prof. Philbin who was Professor of Organic Chemistry in the 1960’s to 1970’s, and I was privileged to receive that medal. Although my PhD advisor, Prof. Rory More O’Ferrall was male, we shared a laboratory with the research group of another female Professor of Organic Chemistry, Prof. Dervilla Donnelly, who was well-known and respected internationally. In fact, I recently was told a story that when a famous US organic chemist came on a lecture tour of Britain and Ireland in the 1980’s that Dervilla was the only female Professor of Organic Chemistry at the time! Looking back now, I believe that all of these influences meant that I did not second-guess the pursuit of a career as a female chemist in academia.


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

AOD: I find many aspects of my research/work stimulating. In my laboratory, we are interested in understanding mechanisms of organic and biological reactions. We use different methods and techniques to probe which reaction pathway is followed. Constructing large organic molecules is challenging and I enjoy the challenge of using my knowledge of organic chemistry in piecing together molecules like a jigsaw puzzle. As an academic, I am lucky to have the opportunity to both teach and pursue research simultaneously. I very much enjoy interacting with undergraduate and graduate students on a regular basis. My PhD advisor used to say that it ‘helps keep you young and enthusiastic’ and I agree with him!


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

AOD: I was originally contacted by a member of the Soapbox Science Newcastle team. I fully support the activities of Soapbox Science. I have a seven year old daughter myself and want her to have a positive view of women in science as she grows up, and not be discouraged by older societal perceptions of science careers being predominantly applicable to males. I think that increasing the visibility of women in scientific careers and mentoring women scientists from an early stage are both key to achieving this aim. Soapbox Science achieves both of these objectives.


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

AOD: A bit of everything but predominantly the excitement of a new challenge! I am sure it will be a fantastic learning experience.


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

AOD: There are still many barriers to women progressing to the top of the career ladder in academia. Societal perceptions and attitudes certainly continue to play a role. When I went back to work after maternity leave with my twins, I felt very conflicted. Of course, I missed my children and there was the wrench of changing from seeing them all day to only seeing them in the evenings. There were feelings of guilt and of being a ‘bad mother’ by using the University Nursery rather than looking after them myself, however, I was also still ambitious and very much enjoyed my chemistry. I would definitely have benefited from mentoring and a sympathetic ear at the time from a colleague in the same or a related scientific career who had gone through similar experiences. With the ‘Athena Swan’ initiative, hopefully universities are realizing the importance of mentoring at that important transition time. Breaks for maternity leave and part-time working, particularly for laboratory-based subjects, need to be carefully considered and managed to ensure continuity of research programmes. It is not as simple as just ‘allowing’ these options, it is also important for management in departments to pay due attention to the associated implications for advancement (and survival!) of scientific research careers in academia.


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

AOD: Go for it! Sometimes academia is portrayed as being a career relatively incompatible with having children. Although life is extremely busy, as for any Mum juggling a career and a family, I find academia very rewarding. In general, it has proven a relatively flexible job. When my children have been ill and I needed to stay at home at short notice, this has always been possible for me. I do encounter prejudiced attitudes, however, that is not unique to academia. One advantage of being a female academic in organic chemistry in a field largely dominated my men is that you and your research tend to be remembered!

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