You can be feminine and still be a successful scientist
Dr Hazel Cox is a senior lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Sussex and Director of Student Experience in the School of Life Sciences. Her area of research is quantum chemical physics and computational chemistry.
I grew up in Liverpool in the 1980s. All my mates left school when they were 16 and went on Youth Training Schemes and then out to work. I was lucky that my parents supported me and believed in education. But in a deprived area it’s a luxury to do that.
From about the age of four, all I wanted to do was sums. I found in maths a beautiful and elegant logic. I wasn’t interested in the ”let’s pretend” with dolls.
I had to study A-level science at a boy’s school because they didn’t do it at my school. This was good training for my professional life as a scientist as I have always been in a minority with regards to my gender.
Maths has the power to impact on any field and applying maths to quantum chemistry problems enables me to use my passion to understand the fundamental building blocks of life – atoms and molecules, the world around us.
I am working on a new theory of quantum chemistry. In my lab I am going back to the drawing board to understand how electrons interact with each other, to see how far we get developing methods based on the correlated motion of electrons, which is important for accurately explaining chemical phenomena.
I am also using standard quantum chemical methods to determine the reaction pathways for chemical processes, and am doing this in collaboration with experimental chemists. This could lead to a better understanding of how to design more efficient catalysts, important in many areas of chemistry such as medicinal chemistry.
I’ve been nominated and elected to be Great Britain’s representative for the International Society of Theoretical Chemical Physics. The president of the society heard me speak three years ago at a conference in Hungary and has invited me to speak at the Congress this July in the USA. I’m usually quite modest, but this is exciting.
I am just as passionate about teaching. I have two teaching awards – an Ensleigh-UCU Life Changer Award and a Sussex Teaching Award. I love being able to inspire students and to make them love something about their subject. I listen to them and let them come up with ideas. That’s what empowers them.
Baroness Susan Greenfield showed me you could be feminine and true to yourself and still be a successful scientist. I saw her give a talk at the Association for Women in Science and Engineering, and she wore a black leather skirt and rooted around in a huge leather handbag to find a pointer. After that, I stopped trying to fit in, and started being myself.