Professor Lesley Yellowlees
Vice-Principal and Head of the College of Science and Engineering, Professor Lesley Yellowlees talks indecision, women in science and why she is the University of Edinburgh through and through.
|BSc Chemical Physics, PhD Inorganic Electrochemistry
|Year of Graduation
Your time at the University
I always enjoyed chemistry, physics and maths at school and, being a lot more indecisive then than I am today, decided to study chemical physics at university. The Edinburgh University curriculum was flexible enough for me to keep my options open in all three areas until the end of second year and so I came to Edinburgh unsure of what subject I would settle on but sure that I wanted to go to university and study science. In the end, I stuck with my original choice and graduated in chemical physics in 1975 – the only girl in my year.
In my first year, the miners went on strike, which resulted in intermittent electricity. Lectures could no longer take place in the Appleton Tower lecture theatres and all lifts were out of action. Lectures were held instead in the top floor labs in AT and I would arrive at my 9 o'clock lectures exhausted and out of breath. We had to pay a chemistry lab deposit at the beginning of each session. I can well remember the cheer that went up when a fellow student on checking their glassware dropped their drawer of pipettes, flasks and measuring cylinders and broke the lot.
My final year involved punch cards in which I always managed to get a hole in the wrong place, struggling with quantum mechanics, parties, hard work and the decision to leave science behind, I realised my mistake within a few months. On immigrating to Australia to take up a research position at the University of Brisbane, I started my lifelong passion in the field of solar energy. I realised that to have any chance of a successful research career I would need to have a PhD qualification and so returned to The University of Edinburgh in 1983 to study for my postgraduate qualification in inorganic electrochemistry. I found the transition from employee back to a student challenging but persevered and ultimately thoroughly enjoyed working for my thesis if not writing it!
The University has given me fantastic opportunities - I think if you were to cut me through the middle like a stick of rock I would read 'University of Edinburgh'.
Tell us about your Experiences since leaving the University
I studied my post-doctorate at the University of Glasgow and then returned to Edinburgh as a senior demonstrator in 1986 and have never left. I have held a variety of roles within the University, balancing my job with raising a family and have enjoyed a wonderfully fulfilling career hugely supported by family, friends and colleagues. My research concentrated on developing spectroelectrochemical techniques for the study of potential solar energy dyes and has resulted in many worldwide collaborations. I gained a personal chair in inorganic electrochemistry in 2005 when I also became Head of the School of Chemistry - a very exciting and demanding role that I loved. On completing my five-year term I then became Vice Principal and Head of the College of Science and Engineering which has enabled me to hone my leadership skills. The University has given me fantastic opportunities - I think if you were to cut me through the middle like a stick of rock I would read 'University of Edinburgh'.
Whilst pursuing my academic career I also worked extensively with the Royal Society of Chemistry, my professional body with 60,000 members worldwide. In 2012, I became their President - the first woman to hold that position in their 170-year history - what an honour and a privilege that was. My main objective during my two-year presidency was to raise the profile of women in science and engineering - a message that resonated in the UK and internationally. In 2005, I was awarded an MBE for services to science, and a CBE in 2014 for services to chemistry and elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Grasp opportunities with enthusiasm but don't regret not doing something and don't take rejection of manuscripts or grants personally.
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