Rachel O'Reilly: polymer chemist

I study polymers, and how they work...
19 February 2020


Plastic - a polymer


I study polymers, and how they work...

Polymers are extended chains of simple molecules called monomers. By using different monomer building blocks, a huge variety of polymers, each with different properties and structures, can be created. Complex polymer molecules can contain hundreds or even thousands of monomer molecules, and the processes of evolution has resulted in many very complicated natural organic molecules that are the constituent parts of every living thing. These include the carbohydrates that form energy storage molecules like glycogen, the proteins that make up our muscles and even the nucleic acids, like DNA, that store the biochemical recipes that makes us who we are. Alongside all this complexity, there are also much simpler, synthetic polymers made by humans from fossil fuels. Everyday examples include substances like PVC, nylon, and Teflon. The relative simplicity of what polymer scientists have been able to achieve so far, when compared with the variety and intricacy found in nature, demonstrates the ‘gap in the market’ for intrepid scientists to create new materials with advanced properties.

My research group has been based at the University of Birmingham since 2017.  At the moment there are 25 postdoctoral researchers and PhD students – from a total of 12 countries – in the group, and they study the processes and outcomes of polymerisation mechanisms in different ways: looking at methods of catalysis, investigating how to create responsive polymers, creating DNA nanomaterials, and nanostructure characterisation. The international nature of the group is important: there is a diversity of ideas and contributions that creates great dynamism.

Much of the work of my group is based on trying to mimic natural, biological materials, such as viruses and cells, and their component parts.  The group members engineer polymers that ‘self-assemble’, thanks to attractant or repellent properties possessed by different parts of the chain components, or that can produce controlled release or cascade reactions such as seen in commercially-available ‘slow-release’ vitamins. Creating nanoparticles for effective and highly-targeted drug delivery is also an important part of the group’s research, such as our part in a European research project to promote the growth of neural stem cells in the brain.

My interest in chemistry began in solving problems during practical science classes at school, and this practicality and problem-solving underlies much of my research today.  The study of polymers has a clear role to play in addressing global concerns such as healthcare, energy storage, and the sustainability and transformation of plastic. These are challenges that require ambition and bold ideas and demand the attention of those with passion and ability. I welcome the big asks, because the way to address these is through mentoring and encouraging talented young scientists, and contributing to the development of the scientific community. We all have a role to play in encouraging a ‘can-do’ attitude in others; encouraging them not to be afraid of changes, challenges and the big ideas. This kind of encouragement is something that I am blessed to have had from my father and now from my husband. I hope to pass this spirit of encouragement on to my daughters and their peers in turn.

At school I realised I had a talent for Science and I enjoyed it – unfortunately quite in contrast to my experience of humanities subjects – and I decided to pursue that interest to the best of my ability, wherever it would lead me.  After degrees at Cambridge I earned a PhD at Imperial College, supervised by Vernon Gibson, studying the design of novel catalysts in building polymers through polymerisation reactions. After postdoctoral research at the IBM Almaden Research Center in California, I returned to Cambridge to work as a researcher, holding two Fellowships. It was at Cambridge I first set up my own research group, looking at new routes to create materials at the interface of polymer, organic and inorganic chemistry.

I joined Warwick University in 2009 and was promoted to full Professor at the age of 34. I’ve been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry since 2013 as well as one of the Society’s 175 Faces of Chemistry. In 2017, I moved to Birmingham and was honoured that the vast majority of my research group made the move with me. During my time at Birmingham, I’ve received awards from the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Journal of Polymer Science Innovation and was delighted to be selected as a Finalist in the prestigious Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in the United Kingdom. These awards not only recognise the importance of the topics we study, but serve to honour the contributions of the researchers and graduate scientists I work alongside.

The future of my group members and their peers is a primary motivation of mine, to ensure that emerging and early-career scientists are advanced and connected internationally. The ‘alumni’ from my group now include assistant professors, postdoctoral researchers, and scientists working in industry.  They are educators and innovators, and based all over the world. Collaboration is vital in such an interdisciplinary field, and these professional and academic relationships are the foundation of excellent work.

Influencing the younger generation is one of the many elements in my newest role as Head of the School of Chemistry here at Birmingham. I oversee all aspects of the University’s teaching of chemistry, as well as having oversight of the outreach work that happens in local schools – which has included children coming into the school to do practical science and to experience a university environment where ‘useful learning’ is both encouraged and rewarded.

Academia gives me the chance to influence others in a really positive way.  Within the School of Chemistry, and more broadly within Birmingham University, I’ve championed the creation of an advisor and mentor network for early career researchers, with input on a range of specific areas. I’m also keen to develop communications and management skills of talented scientists, to enable them to make the most of their careers and opportunities. Unlocking the best talent available is a recurring theme in all my efforts, as well as trying to find time to carry out my own research!

In terms of scientific next steps, creating new materials is still the driving force in everything we do, with the natural world providing plenty of inspiration and examples. There are new materials and functional properties to discover, which could have life-changing applications in medical devices and nanoscience. We can create and influence cell membranes, increase the uptake of drugs to increase their effectiveness in the body, and create new easily-transportable drug formats. Understanding how to create thermoresponsivity and luminescence could be incorporated into smart materials that can react to their environment and ultimately lead to safer working in harsh or extreme environments.

My research goals are wide-ranging, but the commonality between them is that I hope always to be creative in generating potential solutions to the challenges we face as a society.  I’m passionate about the contribution of science, in the value of originality and in promoting a diversity of outlooks. My professional goals really centre around the students and researchers with whom I work: having my team be one of the most vibrant communities of scientists and attracting excellent people. With great individuals and ideas, and a common passion for endeavour, we can ensure scientific study transforms the world...

Rachel was recognised by the Blavatnik Awards 2019 for Young Scientists for her creative, functional and comprehensive synthesis of polymeric materials with advanced properties and functions.


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