Chemical bonding in the pool

Polly Arnold is happy to have traded MIT's 24-hour stress for Scottish teamwork. Olga Wojtas reports

August 14, 2008

Twenty years ago, Polly Arnold was in the first cohort of pupils taking GCSE chemistry and was bored to tears.

But this week, the reader in inorganic chemistry was named a "rising star" at a University of Edinburgh dinner at Holyrood Palace, hosted by the university's chancellor, the Duke of Edinburgh.

"I found GCSE chemistry incredibly uninspiring, but I had a fantastic teacher who promised me that it would get better," Dr Arnold said.

"She was right. The career-turning point was doing a full-year undergraduate research project at the end of my first degree. I suddenly saw the pioneering and the problem-solving side of lab research and realised how creative synthetic chemists can be, and how chemistry that appears initially to be of fundamental interest is often more relevant to the outside world than chemistry badged as 'applied' research."

Dr Arnold's choice of course at the University of Oxford was not an easy one as she had done well in both Classics and science at school. "My mother was quite instrumental in my decision, pointing out that you can't do chemistry in your spare time."

But Dr Arnold had no career plan and was completely unaware of her talent as a postgraduate student, terrified that she would be thrown out of her DPhil course at the University of Sussex for failing to get results.

She won a Fulbright scholarship to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a postdoc, but halfway through she noticed the hiring spree in the UK in anticipation of the research assessment exercise and landed a lecturing post at the University of Nottingham.

"It was a real shock to come back to the UK. MIT was buzzing 24 hours a day - you'd step out of the lab at any time and talk to people about chemistry. (At Nottingham) I would find myself alone at 8pm," she said.

"It made me realise that the way Britain functions, it's impossible to compete with the best American institutions."

But Dr Arnold adds that returning saved her sanity because MIT researchers were anxious to be seen at work, whether they were working productively or not. "It was extremely damaging to people's lives. There were very high stress levels."

She believes that the culture of presenteeism and constant working is behind a gender imbalance in her discipline.

"Even at PhD level, girls are close to 50 per cent of the chemistry population; we lose women at the postdoctoral level. One day the world... may admit that the number of hours at work and volume of paper output does not equate to quality of output. Maybe then, the people with fewer hours to spare but better brains will decide that these sorts of job are interesting after all, and we'll get a more normal distribution of people."

In 2000, a year after joining Nottingham, Dr Arnold was awarded a five-year advanced fellowship by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which allowed her to concentrate on research.

"I was very young when I started at Nottingham - 26 - and I'm grateful they took the risk of hiring someone so green. I spent seven very fruitful years there, developing my ideas, which some really talented students and postdocs in my group worked on."

But it was a groundbreaking development in scientific collaboration, Scotland's research pooling, that attracted Dr Arnold and her husband, Jason Love, senior lecturer in inorganic chemistry, to Edinburgh.

"It was very clear from down south that money was being injected (into chemistry) in Scotland and some very good appointments were being made. It meant that there was money available to hire both my husband and me, which is a rare opportunity," Dr Arnold said.

They were appointed by EaStCHEM, which brings together Edinburgh and St Andrews universities and offers access to the ScotCHEM network of Aberdeen, Dundee, Heriot-Watt, Glasgow and Strathclyde universities.

"We automatically have a lot more interaction with St Andrews in a very relaxed way. I have gone up there to do some crystallography and just popped into some colleagues' offices to talk about a big grant proposal, which I would never have done if we hadn't been research pooled - I wouldn't have known them."

Dr Arnold's current research aims to help develop ways of dealing with nuclear waste. "We try to make molecules that the textbooks say shouldn't exist. This might be by putting extra electrons in, or making bonds that shouldn't be 'makeable'. We do this with the heaviest metals in the periodic table," she said.

"Every weird compound that we make helps us better understand the chemical bonding and the behaviour of these metals in nature."

Dr Arnold cheerfully admits that she still has no carefully mapped career strategy.

"My whole game plan has been to do the best research possible and some excellent teaching - I try not to do too much so that the teaching I do is good. I took this job because you can do something different every day."

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