Name: Professor Polly Arnold
Age range: 36-40
Research institution: EaStCHEM School of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh
Research career length: 14 years
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
A-levels: Mathematics, Physics & Chemistry
MA in Chemistry, Oxford, DPhil in organometallic chemistry, University of Sussex
Fulbright Scholarship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Lecturer, Career Fellow, then Reader at University of Nottingham
Reader at University of Edinburgh
Professor of Synthetic Inorganic Chemistry at University of Edinburgh
Polly Arnold’s research involves making and manipulating new molecules that may eventually help clean up some of the planet’s major environmental pollutants. Though her own career propelled her at what she describes as “nose-bleed speed” into a senior role, Polly wants more women to be in the powerful positions in science; and has used prize money awarded by the Royal Society for being a leading role-model, to encourage more women into science's best jobs.
I'm a synthetic chemist, which means I focus on making chemicals that the textbooks say shouldn’t exist. In particular we're looking at the heaviest metals, as science knows little about them. The reason why this research is important is that learning about the structure and bonding of these compounds can help develop ways of breaking down environmental (including nuclear) waste. Our highly reactive metal compounds can form bonds with some of the least reactive but most environmentally damaging substances. For example, a big challenge would be to make good use of methane (natural gas) instead of just burning it. The flaring of methane gas produced as a by-product in oil extraction that produces those dramatic oil wells, produces as much atmospheric carbon dioxide worldwide as is generated by the whole of France. If we can convert particular bonds in methane, we can transform all our natural gas reserves into valuable chemicals, and significantly reduce pollution.
One of the great things about research is that it gives you the training and empowers you to deal with everyday problems. You develop the ability to identify what the problem is and devise a strategy for dealing with it – this is an important life skill for dealing with all sorts of situations. I feel that this is particularly important for women since ‘problem-solving’ is sometimes considered to be a characteristic of men, though men and women are equally capable of doing it well. I was lucky in that my family is full of strong women and my parents were convinced that I could do anything I wanted to. It’s only recently that I’ve realised just how much of a feminist role model my Dad was.
In 2012, I was fortunate to be awarded the prestigious Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award for my achievements as a female scientist, and I have used the prize money to produce a film exploring why the University of Edinburgh has such a long and successful history of female chemists. It's called 'A Chemical Imbalance'. The challenge now is to ensure that women in science reach senior decision-making positions, as they are currently under-represented in senior roles, and that we continue to encourage them to apply for the scientific positions in the first place.
My own career progression was quite rapid. I have always enjoyed science, worked hard, and I was able to climb the scientific career ladder at ‘nose-bleed speed’. At school I was interested in lots of subjects but my mother encouraged me to study science A-levels, by reminding me that you can’t do science in your spare time. I chose chemistry at university because I didn’t want a desk job and I liked the problem-solving aspects of the subject. In my final year while doing my undergraduate project, I was invited to help on a side-project - which involved working with researchers at weekends and evenings. This experience showed me how different science looked from the research side...I was hooked.
I studied for a DPhil at the University of Sussex and was fortunate that my application for postdoctoral research landed on the desk of a person who had just read an academic paper I’d written, and liked it. I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, which allowed me to go to MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then I came back to the UK. So having spent time as a lecturer, career fellow and reader in Nottingham, I’m now a professor in Edinburgh.
Research is such an exciting and fulfilling thing to do. The media often paints scientists as weird solitary creatures with poor communication skills, but science requires both creativity and clear communication. It is also highly collaborative - which for me has meant travelling to some fantastic places. China, Singapore and San Francisco spring to mind, but there have been many other memorable experiences.
However, the most fulfilling part of the job is seeing my PhD students successfully completing their doctorates and making that transformation from a successful student to an accomplished researcher.