Career Path: Putting the pieces together

11A Zoe Wilson photo
CareerI have always felt a bit like rather than choosing to study chemistry, chemistry chose me.

There have been several times in my life so far when my career could have turned out completely different. These include when my inspirational high school chemistry teacher came out of retirement so my school would have a teacher for my final year and a chance conversation with my future PhD supervisor at a university open day which led to me completely changing my major before I started university. Even the decision to apply for a Royal Society Fellowship to move to the United Kingdom from New Zealand after my PhD (despite the fact that I was terrified of moving to the other side of the world, and quite convinced I wouldn’t stand a chance of getting the fellowship) could be considered to be a turning point. For this reason I have always felt incredibly lucky to have ended up in a field that I find so fascinating.

I would describe myself as a synthetic organic chemist – which basically means I find ways to make nature derived molecules from simple chemical building blocks. I work in the lab of Professor Steven Ley at The University of Cambridge as a Post-Doctoral Research Associate. Additionally, I am a Fellow at Murray Edwards College where I enjoy getting to discuss the intricacies of chemistry with such intelligent and friendly students.

One of my main interests is the synthesis of natural products. Natural products are complex molecules which are created by organisms for an array of purposes, whether it is defence from other organisms or to help keep the organism alive. These molecules often turn out to have interesting bioactivity, and many have been the starting point for pharmaceuticals used today.

What fascinates me about these molecules is putting together their complex structures in as elegant way as possible. They present a significant challenge because they often contain multiple reactive parts within the molecule. This means you have to plan the order which you will try to assemble the pieces incredibly carefully in order to build the whole molecule without destroying what you have already made. Often we need to be creative and invent entirely new ways to make the chemical bonds we need.

So why should women consider becoming chemists? Synthetic chemistry teaches you to think in a creative but critical way, as not only do we have to dream up interesting and clever ways to do things, we actually have to physically make the molecule to prove that our ideas were good (which is immensely satisfying when achieved!). Also, in a field where (especially at the higher levels) women are currently sadly underrepresented, bringing together people of different genders, backgrounds and opinions to think on the same problem from different perspectives, offers the potential to come up with solutions for the big problems – and you could be part of that!

Zoe Wilson
Fellow

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