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Women in chemistry, Dr Ana Belenguer

Dr Ana Belenguer, Postdoctoral research assistant

Dr Ana Belenguer is a postdoctoral research assistant reporting to Professor Jeremy Sanders. She has been working with Professor Sanders on various projects funded by EPSRC grants since 2002, initially on Dynamic Covalent Chemistry (DCC) in solution.  Since 2009 she has been pioneering the field of solid state DCC by ball mill grinding. Since the end of 2014 Ana has been associated to the Hunter research group

Tell me about your job, what do you do? 

I am an expert in high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and liquid-chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS), and a good deal of my time is taken up helping colleagues and students with separation problems. But the rest of the time, I am working on the synthesis of organic reactions in the solid state using ball mill grinding. This is a very new area of science, which is poorly understood.  We have a multidisciplinary team, lead by Jeremy, and collaborating with Giulio Lampronti, a crystallographer from the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge and Aurora Cruz Cabeza, an expert in crystal lattice calculations from the Chemical Engineering & Analytical Science department at the University of Manchester. We are a very enthusiastic team sharing our interest in understanding the fundamentals of this new field of science.  I’m combining my preference for organic synthesis with my expertise in analytical chemistry. 

How did you get into chemistry?

My father was a chemist specialising in physical chemistry. He built an industry in Spain manufacturing laboratory equipment. His circle of friends were all either professors in chemistry at the University of Madrid or academics in research facilities in Madrid. My father expected me to follow a scientific career. I attended the German School in Madrid (my mother is German), and although I became fluent in German, mathematics was very poorly taught.  So, I chose chemistry rather than physics, which of course is applied mathematics, because my mathematics was weak.

After finishing my degree specialising in organic chemistry, I started to work in the quality control department in the pharmaceutical industry in Madrid. I knew from the beginning that this was a mistake as I was not financially driven but I was curious about science.  I moved from Spain to Germany and on to England in that industry, learning chromatography, a new technique to me, on the way. I took a risk and left a permanent job to do six months' research in the chemistry department at City University in London.  But, luckily for me, the research job was extended and I obtained my PhD. I must confess that I did not know what to do on completion of my PhD, so I went back to the pharmaceutical industry but this time to a research and development facility, hoping it would be similar to working in academia.  Unfortunately this was not the case but I progressed. I became leader of a chromatography group with SmithKline Beecham and later an analytical manager in PowderJect Technologies, a start-up company. 

Finally, I spotted a research job, here, advertised in New Scientist.  And now I am very happy and settled working in this research environment. 

What's the most rewarding thing about your life in chemistry? 

I like research and I enjoy working in a research environment where students, postdocs and research leaders are motivated by science. I especially enjoy working with Prof Jeremy Sanders because he is motivated to discover the fundamentals of the research topic his group is working on.  Our research discussions normally move around his scheme on the different progressive stages of research: 
“Data-->Information-->Knowledge-->Wisdom”.  We obtain data, which when processed becomes information; leading to knowledge and, if we’re lucky moves on to wisdom. I feel very strongly that nothing is beyond a good explanation.  I enjoy expanding my mind and feel privileged, and spoiled, in the department; having the opportunity to attend so many talks about the latest discoveries in a variety of fields, not necessarily my own. 

Do you think being a woman in the department has helped or hindered your career? 

No, I honestly think that gender was not even a consideration in my suitability for the jobs or even in the day to day working with my colleagues. However, I had one experience of gender discrimination. My English husband had a computing job in Nurnberg, we were living there, so naturally I applied for a position at the University of Erlangen – I thought I could do my PhD there. I was told by a very old fashioned male professor that women should be at home cleaning the house. I took that comment to mean the poor professor had lost his mind!

In my opinion, success depends on the attitude, determination and research skills of the individual.  I think the lack of balance between male and female group leaders in the department has to do with the fact that, for whatever reason, women are more reluctant to apply for a key academic position even if their skill sets are the same as the male applicants.  I think unless the academic system can persuade females to apply for these positions the gender imbalance in the department will not be resolved. 

What would you say to postdocs or academic related staff starting out on a career? 

I think postdocs and PhD students need to consider how best to progress their careers. In the past, there was very little advice and people were totally confused. For example, most people didn’t realise that there is a time limit on applying for fellowships after you’ve completed your PhD. Postdocs are contract workers without links to colleges, unless they studied in Cambridge as an undergraduate or postgraduate. In the past, there was no infrastructure to advise postdocs where to apply and what to do to progress their academic career if this was their preference. So, particularly for women, if they want to have a family, they must be aware and develop a strategy for moving ahead with their careers.