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Meet the lecturer: Dr Lesley Howell

In this blog, we spoke to Dr Lesley Howell, Senior Lecturer in Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry at the School of Physical and Chemical Sciences (SPCS). Dr Howell explains how she became a lecturer and her passion for teaching.

Dr Howell joined Queen Mary in 2017 from the University of East Anglia, where she was a Lecturer in Medicinal Chemistry. She teaches many undergraduate modules including Practical Chemistry, Pharmaceutical Chemistry and Advanced Pharmaceutical Chemistry.

What do you enjoy most about your role at the School?

I enjoy interacting with my undergraduate students. I enjoy being able to share and impart some knowledge and hopefully inspire them. I have a substantial teaching role, across all four year groups, and I enjoy how diverse the student population is here. Students have many different backgrounds in terms of the qualifications they come to Queen Mary with, and their social backgrounds as well. I enjoy the interaction, whether it’s formally in a lecture theatre, more informally in the corridor or in general conversation. Every day is different because of that interaction with the students.

How did you get into teaching?

When I finished my PhD, I decided against a conventional postdoctoral position and instead took on a six-month fixed-term teaching position. This shorter-term post then led to a two-and-a-half-year position which allowed me to do both teaching and research, so I was still able to get papers published. In January 2012, a lectureship position was advertised at University of East Anglia, which I applied for, and after around six months I became confident that this was the career for me. It's something I really enjoy.

I enjoy interacting with my undergraduate students. I enjoy being able to share and impart some knowledge and hopefully inspire them.

Why did you decide to work in Pharmaceutical Chemistry?

I did an undergraduate degree in pure Chemistry but took modules in Medicinal and Biological Chemistry. I then did a year in industry working at the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. Although I was working as an analytical chemist in research and development, I felt more at home in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and working in that environment stimulated my interest. I decided to do a PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry, focusing on designing and synthesising molecules with the potential to treat cancer for personal reasons as my mother had cancer when I was younger, so cancer research was an area I always felt drawn to. Once I completed my PhD and had the training in Medicinal Chemistry, combined with some of the teaching I did with Pharmacy students in Medicinal Chemistry and my experience at GlaxoSmithKline, this area of Chemistry became a very natural fit for me.

What was your experience of your year in industry?

You learn so much doing a year in industry. There might be areas that you don’t enjoy, but in my experience, you get to see how the whole industry works. For example, we had an overview of what intellectual property did, what biology did, what pharmacology did, what the animal guys did as well as what the chemists did! You felt part of the company and could understand how your role contributed to the wider industry. You learn so much about being professional and if you bring that back into your third or fourth year of study, it’s a big advantage.

Do you have any advice to students looking to get into Pharmaceutical Chemistry?

If you can do a year in industry, do it. However, it is very competitive, so if you can’t get a placement, try to get a summer place in an academic lab either here at Queen Mary or another institution closer to your home. Any research experience you gain is going to make your CV stronger, make you stand out from other candidates and make you more employable.

What do you like to do outside of teaching?

I like to walk my dog who is an 11-year-old cocker spaniel. We live in a very green area so we have nice places to walk. I have a two-year-old daughter so she keeps me very busy as well. A new hobby of mine is gardening and I’m a reluctant exerciser – I don’t overly enjoy it but I know it’s good for me so I do it.

Finally, what’s the best thing about working at Queen Mary?

I think one is the diverse student population and how well everyone integrates. Secondly, the support from my department – for me personally, moving from one institution to another, the support for academic staff here is really great.

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