Women in Science: What have the chemists ever done for us?
Let’s face it: there is wonderful chemistry in everything that surrounds us. Chemistry is behind simple things from colourful clothes, makeup and other beauty products to delicious fresh food and drink. Never believe the labels that say “chemical free” – it’s impossible.
Chemistry is also behind state-of-the-art screens and batteries in our smartphones and laptops. In fact, the latest iPhone has around 40 elements in it. The heart of a smartphone, the display, would not function without indium tin oxide, a transparent conductive material that can be coated onto glass. In fact, most of the things we use and enjoy every day rely on innovative chemistry.
I love to highlight the importance and relevance of chemistry in our everyday life, and last Monday, during Soapbox Science, I had the opportunity to do it on the streets of London. Blowing the trumpet for chemistry is part of my job, there’s no shortage of good tunes.
William Perkin’s synthesis of mauveine, the first synthetic organic chemical dye, is one of my favourites. In the second half of the 19th century, Perkin was experimenting in synthesising quinine, a substance used in the treatment of malaria. He worked in his makeshift laboratory at the top of his home and while he was unsuccessful in his attempt to synthesise quinine, he noticed that having rinsed out his flask with alcohol the solid dissolved gave a purple coloured solution.
He patented the new dye and opened a dyeworks at Greenford on the banks of the Grand Union Canal in London. The accidental discovery gave birth to the synthetic dye industry, revolutionized fashion and sparked enormous interest in the commercial applications of chemistry. Purple cloth became inexpensive to produce and very fashionable, as anyone can see today. I love wearing bright colours, especially purple, and I have to thank chemistry for it.
Other discoveries have been accidental – but no less helpful. A group of pharmaceutical chemists at Pfizer in Sandwich, Kent, synthesised a compound called Sildenafil while conducting research into drugs that could help with high blood pressure and angina. Clinical trials showed it had little effect on angina, but a big effect on something else. Pfizer named the new product Viagra.
The UK has been a world-leader in medicines discovery and research. Over the last 30 years, chemistry has tackled a major challenge: identifying the blockbuster drugs to serve the needs of patients. Tamoxifen is a great example. This drug changed the way breast cancer is treated: in the 1950s, a woman who developed breast cancer had less than a 70% chance of surviving more than five years. Today she now has a 90% chance.
Chemistry has been responsible for numerous discoveries that have changed our world and the economic impact of the chemical sciences on our economy is larger than you probably expect. Chemistry-related industries contributed £258 billion to the UK economy, or 21 per cent of UK GDP, and those industries supported six million jobs in 2007. To continue this success we need appropriate funding. It is possible in an age of austerity – as Germany and Japan are showing – to increase science funding. We must never forget that ongoing fundamental research is essential to ensure a steady stream of scientific and technological breakthroughs. Fundamental research is essential also to ensure that we maintain a highly skilled and innovative workforce and that it is well placed to adopt and advance new ideas, to successfully exploit new technologies and to develop better products and services.
At the Royal Society of Chemistry we work hard to inspire young people to study chemistry. The RSC is the largest non-governmental supporter of chemistry education in the UK: in 2011 we spent £2.5m on chemistry education and in the last decade we have spent a quarter of a billion pounds in advancing the chemical sciences.
To conclude I want to stress once more the important role research will continue to play in the health and wellbeing of our society; and British chemists will continue to search for solutions to some of the most important technological and societal challenges.
The next time we use our mobile phone or laptop, or when we take some medicine for a bad cold, or when we dye our hair or put some makeup on, we should consider that for all these things we have chemistry to thank.
Lesley Yellowlees is president of The Royal Society of ChemistryTagged in: chemicals, chemistry, science, Soapbox Science, women in science
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