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Voices of Chemistry: Prof. Lesley Yellowlees

Every science needs a spokesperson, and chemistry has a good contender in Professor Lesley Yellowlees. Professor Yellowlees holds the Chair in Inorganic Electrochemistry at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the new head of the College of Science and Engineering, and has recently been elected President of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

FD:  The UN has declared 2011 to be the International Year of Chemistry. Do you feel that this has an impact on what you do?

LY: I feel that it has an impact on anybody who does chemistry, because it’s a chance to showcase the benefits of chemistry to society at large. We’re surrounded by the wonders of modern chemistry, it makes our living much nicer. So yes, I think everybody should be excited about it.

FD: Do you think that people often don’t realise what exactly chemistry does for them?

LY: I’m sure most of the population don’t understand what chemistry has done for them. I’m wearing a very colourful, bright pinkcoloured jumper – that wouldn’t have been possible without synthetic dyes. We wouldn’t be able to live in the bright colourful world that we live in without chemistry.

FD: So I guess the main benefit of having the International Year of Chemistry would be to help the public understand chemistry more...

LY: … and to celebrate what chemistry can do. I think it’s also interesting that it’s the anniversary of Marie Curie as well, and I think it’s good that two come together and that people can just stop in their busy lives and appreciate what it is that chemistry has done for them and what it will hopefully do for them in the future.

FD: Would you say that Marie Curie is the most famous chemist of all time?

LY: She’s probably the most famous female chemist, and probably one that most people know. To win one Nobel Prize is wonderful; to win two is pretty extraordinary. If somebody is remarkable enough to win two Nobel prizes then their life is worth remembering I think.

FD: What would you say are the main achievements of chemistry during the last decade or so?

LY: I think probably the things that stand out for most people are where chemistry has worked with another discipline. Biology has become much more molecular, and chemistry is after all the study of molecules. We understand now that all the wonders of biology are actually made up from chemicals doing things. Another area is the overlap between chemistry and physics, particularly in the area of finding new materials that we need to develop the ever-burgeoning technological age.

Equally I think where chemistry is going to play a role in the next ten years is working together with scientists and engineers to tackle problems such as energy or drinkable water for everybody. I think all the societal issues that concern people right now require disciplines to work together to come up with solutions.

FD: Is that going to be the next big challenge?

LY: I think there are plenty of big challenges, and that’s where it’s exciting, and where everybody who is a scientist should get excited. I think that’s where, if you go and speak to young people in schools, that’s what excites them, if you say to them, “How are we going to solve the energy crisis?” Particularly if you come from a developed country such as ourselves, we depend on having energy, we depend on having electricity, and if we want to boil a kettle or watch television or even just light our homes. Nobody wants to do without it.

FD: You happen to be the first woman president of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Why do you think it took so long to elect a woman?

LY: There’s all sorts of answers I could come with for that one. When I took [the job] I didn’t realise I was going to be the first woman president. That’s not why I took it; I took it because I believe in the Royal Society of Chemistry. As a chemist that’s the job you want, it’s the job I wanted, to be president, because you can then go and help spread the word about chemistry to members and non-members alike.

FD: If you could teach a person just one thing about chemistry, what would it be?

LY: How useful it is, and to embrace it and welcome it, and not be frightened by it. But if I had to give one specific thing, I’m reading a periodic tables book just now, and I do think the periodic table would be one thing from chemistry that I would give to people and I would say, “Here’s quite an interesting way of putting down all the elements.” And then you can use that to describe lots of different things, but that would be probably the one thing I would give everybody.

Frank Dondelinger is a PhD student at Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland

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