Ian Bell

Chemistry BSc (Hons), PhD 1992 and 1996

Your Time at the University

I chose to go to Edinburgh for a four-year degree in chemistry because it was a top school and I loved the city.  I wanted to do a more general chemistry degree, as at the time I did not know what area I wanted to move into as a career.  This proved to be a great decision.

The things that stand out for me were the tutorials and the level of support that the staff afforded us.  This was extended to our lab work, where we spent a great portion of our time, culminating in our final year project:  Our first real taste of research. As I entered into my final year, I was fortunate to be selected for a summer placement with P&G in Germany.  At a time when degrees did not have a year in industry this was a great opportunity for me, especially coming from a small rural town in north Scotland.  The idea of working abroad was very exciting.  It was also in my final year that I began to truly appreciate chemistry as a whole, not just a series of discrete courses.  The interplay of organic, inorganic, physical and other disciplines truly enthralled me, and would colour the direction of my future career.

Ian Bell

My passion for lab work continued into my PhD, where my focus was on synthetic organic chemistry.  Still a highlight in my career, this is where I truly learned what it meant to be a chemist, disciplined and with attention to detail.  It also built resilience.  It took an entire year in the lab to eventually get my first novel cyclisation reaction to work a true landmark in my research.

As I came to the end of my PhD I had an epiphany and saw my future career opportunity.  Attending a corporate presentation, they described a role that would enable me to use my scientific training and apply it in a truly multi-discipline environment.

Your Experiences Since Leaving the University

On leaving Edinburgh I took my first steps on my career in the petrochemical industry.  I began with Exxon Chemical in the Southeast of England.  Specifically, this was in the petroleum additive industry – something that until then I was not aware of.  I undertook many roles and was afforded several career opportunities, taking me to a level of industry expertise, specifically this was in a formulation role.  A discipline that is not taught, rather is a composite set of skills and capabilities gained over time in the role.  During this time the company went through a Joint Venture and I gained my MBA.

I took on a new role within BP, as strategy analyst within their corporate R&D function.  This was an awesome role, ranging from seismic technology to renewable energy.  It allowed me to utilise the skills I had acquired in my MBA and be exposed to a very large company – ultimately helping me decide that I wanted to go back to a smaller organisation and back to more chemistry.

I joined Afton Chemical in 2008, a global leader in petroleum additives.  I have enjoyed a number of roles, as R&D Director for a business unit, Director for our entire product development teams, and Director for our fundamental research team.  Afton is a truly global organisation, and I am leading teams that are mainly in the USA and with key customers in Asia, resulting in significant global travel and opportunities to see the world.  While at Afton I was also accepted as Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.  I am an active member of the RSC at board and division level.

Alumni Wisdom

I think the greatest wisdom is to look at careers, jobs and one’s own potential through the lens of competencies.  Competencies are common across roles, companies and careers and as such are a great way to analyse one’s fit. (e.g. analysis and problem solving, collaboration and networking, dealing with ambiguity, performance bias,…).  Competencies and preferences can also be utilised to determine possible careers, by mapping one’s competency strengths and preferences versus a wider range of careers.  Doing so can open up a lot more avenues to explore as we look outside of academia.