Prof Carmen Galan

"Chemistry is a bit like cooking; there are recipes you can follow but the most exciting developments often come from trial and error – how else are you going to discover new things unless you explore new possibilities?"

Carmen Galan is an Organic Chemist and an EPSRC Career Acceleration Fellow and lecturer. Prior to that, she held a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellowship in Chemistry.

Before joining Bristol in 2006, she did post-doctotral work at The Scripps Research Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Her lab, The Galan Group, is dedicated to employing synthetic organic chemistry as a tool to probe and manipulate the structure and function of biologically relevant molecules in order to study biological systems and potentially discover treatments for diseases.

I always wanted to be a scientist because I like to ask questions and discover how things work. Having a degree was great, but I wanted to know more.

I chose the area of carbohydrates not because I was instinctively drawn to research in this particular topic but because during my PhD interview, the professor who later became my PhD advisor (Geert-Jan Boons), explained to me how important carbohydrates were biologically and discussed with me some of the processes these complex molecules were involved in with regards to health and disease.

It was the medical part of the research that interested me mostly. Even though I did a PhD in organic chemistry, the project was very closely related to life events, so the connection between what you could do in the lab and the effect it might have on human health was clear.

Before I chose my degree I had two options - I could do medicine or I could do chemistry. I did not choose medicine because you have to memorise a lot of terminology and I hate memorising! I learn better if I understand the concepts and can make the connections. So I read about a chemistry degree and how the set of skills gained from such a degree could be used afterwards.

I wanted to understand more about the processes that take place when you get ill, and why a certain medicine works, what exactly it does in our bodies. During my PhD, I was fascinated by how many life events are mediated by carbohydrates. It was very easy to see the connection with common diseases, for example influenza, inflammation, cancer development, etc.

Am I going to be making a cancer vaccine tomorrow? The chances are no, but we develop tools that help chemists and biochemists understand biological processes that will get us closer to those type of goals. I can see that my research eventually will have implications down the line and we will help pave the way to make it a possibility.

I like learning and discovering new things. I really like working on the interface of chemistry and biology as I get to take part in both worlds. When you work in synthetic chemistry, you plan your experiments based on precedented work and try to build new molecules that nobody else has made before.

Sometimes, we develop new ways of making something, so that other people can then do it more easily. That is very exciting for us. When you deal with a biological system, it is very different; you do not necessarily understand the whole system, that is why you research it. I love the fact that you can put a molecule that you made and see what information you can get and try to understand how the system actually works.

Chemistry is a bit like cooking. Some people can follow recipes, I cannot, because I always think what would happen if I changed something, and sometimes the outcome is not so good!

It is about trial and error – sometimes you do not know exactly what you are going to get, but how else are you going to discover new things unless you stumble upon them?

This is not a 9-5 job. As a scientist, reactions do not stop just because you go home. When you write grants or ideas, you might find yourself waking up at two or three in the morning with an idea of what you need to write. I think that happens in many jobs but in science it is particularly true – you cannot not think about science. It is just part of who you are.

I have a young daughter and my husband is also a scientist, so I do discuss a lot of my science with him. I have been known to rehearse talks with my daughter– if I have a deadline for a talk the next day and she does not want to go to sleep sometimes I will say to her ‘come on, let me tell you a story’.

“She is seven, and of course she falls asleep saying ‘mummy this is really boring!’ In a sense, that is the nature of science – It is a passion, you can not drop it. If everything goes fine, there is less to discuss or you discuss your successes, but when things do not work, there is loads to talk about and it is useful to talk about it.

I never see a failure as a failure – when you fail, if you pay attention to why things fail, sometimes you find new avenues. When you are doing research you are following a particular road and say you want to go from Madrid to Paris and you know you want to take the train, sometimes you might find that there is a plane that will take you through Morocco which could be more interesting.

In my research lab, we started researching an area where we knew what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it, as it turned out it did not work the way we expected; but by actually paying attention, we realised that we could use what we discovered and develop a new idea. In a sense that is how research sometimes goes. Serendipity is important but being observant and not giving up is key.

To me the job of a scientist is about having your eyes open. It is about following the road and seeing how things work, and understanding what else can be learnt from the processes we are researching.

Failures are actually the best part because you can start asking questions about why something has not worked and often you can learn more from it.

I always tell students that research it is like being in a roller coaster. There are very good days when you feel you are at the top, but there are also very bad days... but as in a roller coaster, going up is just around the corner.

I think it is incredibly important to work with colleagues and to be able to share your passion for your subject with students. It is important that people appreciate what you are doing and why you are doing it. If you see someone who has the passion to continue in science, who is engaged in the subject and you can see how they learn and how they own their projects that is when you know you have done a good job. It is a great feeling to know you are training the scientists of the future.

Many women follow science up to the post-doc level and then some start to have families – like me – and some think they will not be able to cope with the job afterwards. In terms of women being interested in a chemistry degree, I have seen a 50/50 male and female split, perhaps the transition to following a career in chemistry does not happen because there are not very many female role models, but I know chemistry is trying very hard to change that.

Personally, I cannot think of a better job than this. There are always sacrifices, but I am sure that is the case with any job, whether it is academia, finance or any other post in the private sector. If you want to have a family you have to compromise.

It is not that there are not enough talented women out there, or that there are no women doing chemistry, it is that suddenly they have to decide what to do next and maybe there is just a lack of support. I am not sure if it is science or society that fails to provide that support. I always had a lot of support from my husband and my family. I think that if you really want to do it, then you find a way.

A scientist has to be determined because science will let you down more often than not, if you are not determined, then you simply could not do this job. Equally, a man without determination would not be able to make it.

I remember when I had my daughter, I spent the following year in a cloud; I worked very hard and still published papers but that first year was a bit of a blur, it was hard. But the point is that I did it and it is not impossible. I suspect in many other jobs it would be similar.

As scientists, we want to be leaders in our field. I do science because I want my work to be useful. I work in an area where we are building molecules to help us understand disease mechanisms and hopefully develop new therapeutics.

I want to get to that point where we are actually making something that people are going to use. I want to produce a methodology that can make it easier for others to put these building blocks together so that scientists can focus on the next challenge.

Yes, I do want to become a professor but not because I want to be called ‘professor’ but because I want to be that person that made those things happen and as a result something changed. That is what drives me.”

Prof Carmen Galan, EPSRC Career Acceleration Fellow, School of Chemistry


Watch Carmen discuss what it means to be a scientist in the 21st century in our new film Facing failure: what it takes to be good at science.

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