Lesley Yellowlees
Credit: Royal Society of Chemistry

Divvying it up

Lesley Yellowlees is skilled at smashing glass ceilings. For more than 30 years, she has risen through the ranks at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, where she is now vice principal and head of the College of Science and Engineering. An inorganic electrochemist, she is the only woman appointed president of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) in the society’s history. Along the way, she has avoided extreme hours and managed to maintain a vibrant family life by staying focused and organized and taking advantage of high-quality child care.

I don’t think you have to work the long hours that people seem to think you do, to be able to succeed in academia.

—Lesley Yellowlees

Yellowlees is dismayed at the number of women leaving careers in science. “I see so many talented and wonderful young women starting out. … I think they could have a great career and then they drop out.” She calls it “a colossal waste.” Pursuing a career in science is not always easy, but she encourages young women to be creative in finding “a solution that suits you.” When she can, she helps them find it.

Academic success

Yellowlees’s interest in research was sparked as she pursued an undergraduate degree in chemical physics at the University of Edinburgh. When she finished, though, she took a job as an administrator with the National Health Service. But she soon missed science, so when she moved to Australia with her new husband, Peter, to experience life abroad, she secured a research position in solar energy at the University of Queensland. The 2-year experience convinced her to commit to an academic career. Realizing that she needed a Ph.D. and that it could be done much quicker in the United Kingdom—and feeling a little homesick—she and Peter returned to Edinburgh.

During her Ph.D., Yellowlees discovered something unexpected about how the three bipyridine ligands in a ruthenium compound used in dye-sensitized solar cells accept electrons. Scientists thought they shared a molecular orbital so that all were reduced simultaneously, she explains. “What I showed was that you stepwise reduce each of those bipyridine ligands in turn.” She also designed a novel spectroscopic cell that allowed the change in the ultraviolet-visible spectrum of her dye molecules to be observed as they were reduced.

The work provided a springboard for Yellowlees, who secured her first academic position in Edinburgh in 1986 after 3 years of postdoctoral experience. “I established my research niche … early in my career,” Yellowlees says. “This led to many exciting and rewarding collaborations” in fields ranging from solar cells and liquid crystals to biology.

Yellowlees was promoted to head the university’s inorganic chemistry department in 2002, and she became the head of the School of Chemistry 3 years later. In 2011, she took up her current role as vice principal and head of the College of Science and Engineering, supervising some 2000 staff and 7500 students. She started her 2-year term as president of the RSC in 2012. She stepped down last year.

On balance

“I don’t think you have to work the long hours that people seem to think you do to be able to succeed in academia,” says Yellowlees, who has two grown children: Sarah, 30, and Mark, 28. With good time-management skills, she maintains, you can get everything done in fewer hours than you might think.

As a young faculty member, Yellowlees was able to organize a mix of paid and family child care that she was completely happy with. “We divvied it up. [Peter] did the morning; I did the evening,” she says. Her parents and sister both lived in Edinburgh and were always around to help out. If you know your children are being well cared for, she says, then you don’t have to worry about them and can focus fully on your work. As a result, she was able to meet the expectations of her colleagues at a time when she was the only member of her department who was a mother and the only parent with young children. She traveled freely, something many academic parents struggle with. “Again, it just required me to be organized. You know about conferences a long time in advance.”

Yellowlees is an outspoken role model for female scientists, encouraging them to do whatever works, whether it is working from home when necessary, seeking flexible hours, or working part time. She starts with her own staff, helping them make suitable arrangements. Years ago she helped to arrange part-time work for Carole Morrison, today a reader in structural chemistry at the university, when she returned from maternity leave after her first child. “Lesley pointed out to my funders how this was a wonderful opportunity for them to be able to demonstrate that they were supporting family-friendly values,” Morrison says.

Yellowlees encourages other women to be creative in combining work and family commitments, citing an example from her own life: For many years she organized departmental seminars, sometimes acting as a host during the evening. “When I was supposed to entertain them and take them out, I'd often invite them to have tea back at the house,” Yellowlees says. “You can find solutions that are maybe a bit different,” she adds. “People sometimes like the difference.” 

Yellowlees has used her influence to promote a more family-friendly working culture. In 2014, Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry became the second U.K. department to receive the top award from the Athena SWAN Charter, which encourages universities to combat the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering.

Over the course of her career, Yellowlees says, she has seen more and more mothers balance academia with a young family. But women are still falling off the academic career ladder in disturbingly large numbers, she adds. Her key message to young female scientists: “You’ve got to get your priorities right, decide what it is you want to get done, and just make it happen.”

Takeaways

- Establish the research niche you will be known for as early in your career as possible.

- Accept opportunities when they arise.

- Network extensively at conferences, and join a professional society.

- Find child care you are confident with so that you can focus when are at work.

- Seek flexible or part-time working arrangements if you think they will benefit you.

- Hone your time-management skills.

- Be creative.

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