Photo: The Biophysical Society

Chemist Dame Carol Robinson is President of the Royal Society of Chemistry and was recently (July 2019) awarded the Royal Society’s Royal Medal (aka “Queen’s Medals”). She was the first female Professor of Chemistry at Cambridge and then at Oxford, where she is currently Dr Lee’s Professor of Chemistry, Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory – and she’s helping make sure she’s far from the last!

Robinson didn’t go straight into college – instead, at the age of 16, she began taking classes in sewing and cooking to please her father, then went to work at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer as a technician. Much of her work involved using a technique called mass spectrometry (“mass spec”). Traditionally used to identify chemical compositions, Robinson would later go on to adapt the technique to study protein complexes, even “complex” ones in the gas phase using electrospray mass spectrometry. This has enabled her to gain insight into the proteins that help make other proteins (ribosomes and molecular chaperones) and the proteins embedded in cellular membranes acting as gatekeepers to control what can go into and out of cells.

Robinson’s career trajectory hasn’t been “traditional” and she’s become a vocal advocate for erasing the idea that there is a “traditional” way and instead embracing the multitude of paths scientists can take and roles they can serve in. She started a term as President of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2018 and one of her main priorities during her tenure is to give technicians “more credit” by accrediting skills and increasing their standing in the chemistry community, and easing the journey from industry work to academia.

Speaking of that journey… While working as a technician at Pfizer, she was fascinated by the science and her keen interest in learning was spotted by a supervisor who suggested she start attending night school. And she did – for about seven years she worked during the day and attended college at night, filling in any gaps by reading and teaching herself. After receiving a Chemistry degree, she switched to full-time schooling, earning a master’s degree from the University of Wales and a PhD from Cambridge. After graduating, she took 8 years off from working to have and raise three children.

She loved the time with her children, but maintained an interest in science and, after coming across an advertisement in a science journal she was reading at the library when her kids were at “story time” she took a position running the mass spec facility at the University of Oxford and conducting her own research “on the side.”

She became a professor at Oxford in 1999. She subsequently became a professor at the University of Cambridge, then returned to Oxford in 2009. Throughout her successful career she has utilized the skills she learned while working as a technician, in particular her deep knowledge of mass spectrometry.

Mass spec had been used to study proteins before, but previously, scientists had focused on studying proteins in the “solution phase” (bathed in liquid). Her years of experience with the equipment had shown Robinson that more information could be gained if she could study proteins in the “gas phase” as well.

The equipment wasn’t set up for this, but neither that, nor her colleague’s skepticism could deter her, so she used her deep understanding of the intricate makeup of the mass spec to adapt it and successfully use it to study large proteins and even groups of them to gain information about their shapes and interactions.

One of her recent innovations has been further adapting the technique to study membrane proteins. These proteins are hard to study because they’re used to being embedded in oily membranes not liquid water. To study these proteins in water, scientists often encapsulate them in detergents. Robinson developed a method to keep the proteins in the detergents (and thus water-soluble) until the entered the gas phase and then, in the gas phase, strip away the detergent and analyze the protein.

Her many awards include election as a Fellow of the Royal Society (2004), foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2017), and the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2013 and used the prize money to organize a retreat for female PhD students.

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