Professor Lesley Yellowlees, CBE, FRSC, FINSTP, FRSE

Doctor of Science

Friday 15 July 2016 at 1.30 pm - Orator: Professor Tom Simpson

Mr Vice Chancellor

Why are there not more women in Science?

This is a question that many of us involved in academic science ask all too often, but perhaps still not often enough.  It is especially apt when we have exceptional examples such as today’s honorary graduand, Professor Lesley Yellowlees. She provides the perfect evidence of the outstanding contributions that women make to individual disciplines, in her case chemistry, and to the wider scientific community.

Professor Yellowlees, has an amazing, probably unique, collection of firsts. These started with a First Class degree in Chemical Physics in Edinburgh, graduating as the only girl in her class, perhaps presaging many of her future activities. To my personal dismay as an organic chemist, she admits that she did Chemical Physics to avoid doing any Organic Chemistry.  She became the first female Head of Chemistry in any major UK University, the first female to Head the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and most importantly, the first and only female President of the Royal Society of Chemistry in its near 200 year history, of which more anon.

But how did she get there? She was born in London, “within the sound of Bow Bells” and so technically she is a cockney, but had the good fortune to move to Edinburgh when she was nine. At school, she excelled at maths and science, one attraction being that, unlike say English or History it was possible to get 100% in an exam. Now, does this hint at a competitive nature? She says, ask her children – no quarter given at games just because they were under five! After her First in Chemical Physics she wanted a change from science so became an NHS administrator, mistake, but after a year emigrated to Brisbane with her husband Peter. There she worked as a research assistant on solar energy research which was to provide the stimulus for her future scientific career. While there her competitive nature manifested itself again. Her supervisor promised her a bottle of champagne for every 0.1% increase in efficiency of her solar cells. Suffice to say this resulted in a helluva leaving party when she decided to return to Edinburgh, having by now realised that she needed a PhD to succeed further in science.

PhD work progressed her interest in developing dye-sensitised solar cells. Dyes are coloured molecules, used to absorb the energy from sunlight. The only slight problem was that they needed to be synthesised. One particular multi-step synthesis exploded in the fume cupboard but, pragmatic as ever, she managed to scrape enough from the walls to characterise the compound and save her from having to do it again! Her PhD was followed by postdoctoral work in Glasgow and then back to Edinburgh, this time for good. It was about this time in the mid eighties that myself and other young staff in the Edinburgh Chemistry Department began to be aware of this new – I should add only - female member of staff who had materialised in the department. As the professoriate were not inclined to inform us humble mortals of developments - quelle change? - we asked each other who she was – no-one seemed to quite know, but to use the vernacular – well we a’ ken noo!

She developed an interest in electrochemistry and combined spectroscopic techniques, an area in which she has established an international reputation. She has extended the methods she developed beyond solar cells to other systems where the ability to study the precise movement of electrons is crucial, e.g. in liquid crystals, anti-cancer drugs, proteins and vitamin B12. This work was recognised by her election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

As her academic and research career developed, her evident talent for management and leadership was blossoming, both in Edinburgh at departmental and Faculty level, but also nationally through her work on many research council and Royal Society of Chemistry panels and committees. She was Head of the School of Chemistry and Director of the combined Edinburgh and St Andrews research schools, cleverly named EaStCHEM. In the 2008 Research Assessment exercise, she oversaw EaStCHEM’s rise to become the number one research school in the UK. This is a something of which she is rightly proud.  Since 2011, she has been Vice Principal and Head of the College of Science and Engineering, a role which makes full use of her exceptional managerial skills and also her particular ability to interact with people at a personal level.

But, what makes her so special? She has a wonderful talent for motivating people. She has been involved in outreach and public engagement in science activities for more than 20 years. This has involved interacting with over ten thousand people of all ages, through numerous demonstration lectures from Hong Kong to Sao Paulo, at science festivals, Christmas lectures, schools, colleges, and even shopping malls. Her aim is to enthuse and educate the public in all aspects of the impact of Chemistry and the workings of modern scientific research. She set herself the amazingly ambitious goal many years ago of presenting at least one public lecture every month – one which despite her many responsibilities she still realises.

The other MAJOR activity particularly dear to her heart is that of promoting women in Chemistry and science in general. She has spoken across the world to highlight what can be done to encourage women into science, and once there, to remain in the scientific workplace. This has been achieved through numerous talks, newspaper and magazine articles, radio and television interviews. Some of you may recall seeing Jeremy Paxman no less, survive being interviewed by her on Newsnight! Or was it the other way round? I think it is illustrative to share with you one of her quotes on what she sees as a problematic culture. “I don’t think it has to be a gender thing. If you can change the culture it benefits everybody – it’s just that women benefit disproportionately better”.  These activities have led to many awards – to list just a few: in 2005, MBE for Services to Science; in 2011, International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, “Distinguished Woman in Chemistry”; in 2013, Medical Research Council, “Woman Scientist of the Year; and in 2014, CBE for Services to Chemistry.  Truly a commanding woman.

From 2012 to 2014, she was President of the Royal Society of Chemistry. It is my opinion, and that of others, that she has been the best President we have had in modern times, and it is in no way meant as a reflection on her successor to say that it is great loss to Chemistry that, unlike US Presidents, you only get a single term in office. Lesley herself describes it as the best role ever. “Had a ball, travelled the world, met interesting people, spoke up for Chemistry and for women in science, took part in a play, visited Parliament and sat on the front bench, performed Chemistry experiments on the South Bank, fed a giant panda, ate and drank for Britain – what’s not to like!” Clearly a woman who loves life and lives it to the full. The National Portrait Gallery has two portraits of her and the Royal Society of Chemistry has a large portrait of her painted by Peter Edwards. In all of these portraits, her wonderful outgoing personality is evident. If you have not seen them I can recommend looking them up via her Wikipedia entry.

It is perhaps this force of personality, warmth and not least her infectious laugh that most people immediately associate with Lesley Yellowlees. All in the chemistry community have the greatest fondness for her as well as immense respect and admiration for her achievements.  To end with a personal anecdote, I was visiting the Edinburgh Chemistry Department a few years ago and by way of teasing her on her many achievements, I said, Lesley – should I kneel before you, kiss your ring or curtsey? No Tom, she said, just give me a hug.  Let me assure you all, a hug from Lesley is not to be sniffed at.

Mr Vice Chancellor, I present to you Lesley Jane Yellowlees as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

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