Lesley Yellowlees

BSc Hons Chemical Physics, PhD 1975 and 1983

Your Time at the University

I enjoyed Chemistry, Physics and Maths at school but couldn’t decide which one to study at university. I opted to take Chemical Physics which allowed me to study all 3 for the first 2 years. Ultimately, I continued with Chemical Physics – a decision I have never regretted. In the 1970’s there were few places to offer Chemical Physics and the University of Edinburgh enjoyed the best reputation so I accepted their offer.

Kings Buildings was a very different place then to what it is now. The JCMB was being built and the Chemistry Building was being reconfigured to include lecture theatres and teaching labs. This resulted in Chemistry lectures in Scotland’s Rural College building at KB, Physics in the current School of Geography in Drummond Street and Computing in Nicolson Square and of course I enjoyed frequent visits to the student’s unions in George Square and KB.

Lesley Yellowlees

On completing my undergraduate studies, I married and travelled the world with my husband working for over 2 years in Australia researching the conversion of solar energy into electricity. I returned to Edinburgh in 1979 to study for a PhD in potential solar energy dye molecules. In order to characterise my dye molecules I had to develop a new technique which combined spectroscopic and electrochemical methodologies called spectroelectrochemistry. I continued extending this technique throughout my academic life applying it in many different areas of chemistry and biology collaborating with scientists all over the globe in the process. I can still recall, to this day, the excitement of analysing months of experimental data and rationalising the results in a new way. That spurred me on when research was not going well and convinced me to embark on an academic career.

Your Experiences Since Leaving the University

After completing my PhD I held 2 postdoc positions at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow whilst starting my family – a daughter followed by a son. I gained my first academic appointment at Edinburgh just as my son was born – and never left. Edinburgh is a great place to work, live and bring up a family.

Solar energy research remained my passion throughout my academic career with cheap, reliable, efficient and sustainable solar cells still the ultimate, unachieved goal. But it will happen. 

Working within a large world-leading, research intensive university such as Edinburgh has offered me tremendous opportunities throughout my career to grow my research, to build a research group, to teach students, to engage with the public and schools and to diversify into management roles. Thus, I was promoted to a professorship, was selected as Head of the School of Chemistry and then appointed as Vice Principal and Head of the College of Science and Engineering becoming the first female to hold the latter two positions. The award of a MBE followed by a CBE recognised my public outreach work. It has not always been a straight and obvious career path but I have enjoyed every role and learned much from them all. Teaching students was always my favourite.

Throughout my career at Edinburgh I was also heavily involved with the Royal Society of Chemistry. I found it hugely beneficial to be engaged at a national level with chemists from across the discipline. Ultimately I became their President – the first woman to hold this position in their 170 year history. It was a tremendous honour and privilege to be President, which involved meeting a rich variety of people, promoting the chemical sciences and travelling the globe.

Alumni Wisdom

Always look for opportunities and if they are offered to you say yes and grasp them enthusiastically. I’ve always thought that I never wanted to look back and wish I’d done something.

There’s no substitute for hard work but it’s important for your physical and mental health to find your work life balance. Therefore find out what gives you joy, and providing that’s legal, do more of it. For me it’s the company of family and good friends and laughing with them and at myself.