Philip Robinson introduces you to RSC ChemNet’s new team member
By day she is Francesca Burgoyne, the RSC’s new education executive, looking after all aspects of ChemNet. But by night she could be Ophelia, Juliet, Elisa Dolittle or a host of others as she treads the boards in theatres around Cambridge. It’s the perfect balance of work and play(s) but there was a point, back in secondary school, when she had to make a tough decision: ‘I was torn between doing stage management and biochemistry,’ Francesca recalls. It wasn’t easy to decide, but a residential course at the University of Nottingham sealed the deal: ‘Chemistry in the lab [at school] seemed abstract but [at Nottingham] we did a forensics course and I could see that chemistry was real and an impact on everyday life.’
It’s a choice she has never regretted. ‘All my teachers said that with a degree in chemistry I could do whatever I wanted; the career prospects for chemistry graduates are great.’ And Francesca has certainly proved them right, with a career that has seen her working in research, analysis, publishing and now education.
Francesca studied chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, ‘a beautiful city’, where she completed a Master’s degree. During her studies she continued to sample real life as a chemist by taking a placement year – working in pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline’s labs as an analytical chemist. Her final year research project – developing a biosensor using carbon nanotubes – also gave her a taste of life as an academic. But rather then tempt her into the lab, these experiences made her eager to see what else chemistry had to offer. And there was plenty. ‘Chemistry gives you so many transferable skills: analytical thinking, problem solving, time management. You also have to be resilient, because things don’t always work’. So, after graduating, Francesca set about looking for jobs outside the lab, but her resilience wasn’t required in this case – she landed her first interview and moved to Cambridge to join the Royal Society of Chemistry’s publishing division. ‘I wanted to use my chemistry knowledge to help in disseminating science,’ she explains.
Looking after ChemNet members
It is this passion for sharing knowledge that brings her to her latest role as an RSC education executive, looking after the resources, competitions and events available to ChemNet members. And she couldn’t be more excited about it. ‘The team organises a really great range of events, from lecture tours to lab visits and quiz nights,’ says Francesca, one of which recalls her own decisive encounter with chemistry: ‘It was a trip to a forensics lab in Swansea. You became a criminal investigator for a day and saw all the analytical techniques they use – it was a really exciting day.’
Although acting remains only a hobby, the skills she has learned on stage do come in handy (‘I can give a really good presentation’) and she still harbours a fallback plan for the future: ‘I used to belong to a youth theatre company and one of the other members was a chemist. We always said that if we got stuck, we’d start a pyrotechnics company for theatre,’ she laughs.
Francesca’s example shows just how versatile a career in chemistry can be and she has some advice for anyone feeling uncertain about their future: ‘I knew so many people at school that knew exactly what they wanted to do, but I didn’t. And that’s ok – just go out and experience as many different things as possible because you will find your niche.’
Pathway to success
2012–present, Education executive, Royal Society of Chemistry
2011–2012, Development editor, Royal Society of Chemistry
2009–2011, Publishing editor, Royal Society of Chemistry
2005–2009, MChem with a year in industry, University of Edinburgh
2003–2005, AS-levels in maths and theatre studies. A-levels in chemistry, English and physics. Coloma Girls’ School, Croydon
This article was originally published in The Mole