Maggie Hartford meets a woman who left school at 16 but is now a senior academic

Carol Robinson, the first female professor of chemistry at Oxford University, is an inspiration for many reasons.

Firstly, she left school at 16. Secondly, she took an eight-year break to have children — something practically unheard of in a competitive field where academics are rated on the amount of research published.

She considered both mere hurdles to be overcome, much like her parents’ disdain for education.

Prof Robinson, 58, who was made a dame in the 2013 New Year Honours for her pioneering work on mass spectrometry, faced a double-whammy when growing up in Folkestone — she was a girl, and her family didn’t see the point of going to university.

“My parents had three children and they didn’t expect any of us to go on. They had left school young themselves,” she said.

“So when I passed the 11-plus, I could have gone to grammar school but I went to a technical school because my father thought it would be more useful. You did typing, needlework and cookery.

“I worked in an office in the holidays and I remember thinking that I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”

Luckily she had also taken science O-levels, and landed a job as a lab technician with pharmaceutical company Pfizer.

“Someone there told me I should have gone to university and my company sponsored me to study part-time at technical college.”

It took her seven years to reach degree level, studying early in the morning and late at night before and after work.

“It was a long slog doing it that way and it was almost unheard of as a way to get into Cambridge to do a PhD.”

But that was what happened.

She went straight from being one of two girls in a class of day-release students, including workers from the Chatham dockyards and East Kent coalfields, to the dreaming spires on the fens.

“I had been surrounded by miners and dockers. It seemed very strange to them, going to Cambridge.”

So did she have problems fitting in?

“I had a good time on the whole, though I often felt like an imposter. I think some people do try to make you feel that. You have to stand your ground. I was older than the average PhD student.”

She puts her success down to the fact that she became fascinated by mass spectrometry – a technique for examining the structure of molecules.

“One of my referees from Pfizer for Cambridge said ‘she’s got green fingers in spectrometry’. It was a new field, still in its infancy then, and I had seven years of experience in it. I think I became pretty good at it.”

Then, having broken so many barriers to become a scientist, Carol gave it all up to have children.

“I don’t regret doing it. I wanted to be there for my children when they were tiny.

“At one time I had three children under four. It was probably one of my happiest times because I enjoyed seeing them interact.”

But she admits it was difficult to return to academia.

“I think it’s easier now with the Internet but I was living in Slough, a long way from a university, so if I wanted to look anything up I had to find a library.

“But then I read an advertisement in the New Scientist for a post-doctoral post in Oxford in mass spectrometry.

“I was competing against current researchers and I felt very disadvantaged. I was lucky that someone remembered me from Cambridge and said: ‘Let’s give her a chance’.”

She added: “Everything had changed when I got here. It was all linked to computers so I had put myself on an IT course before I went back to work.”

During the year-long post-doctoral contract, she managed to make her mark and secured a Royal Society fellowship with 10 years of funding.

Since then her rise has been meteoric.

She was the first female chemistry professor at Cambridge, then back at Oxford, and now has a team of 30 working under her.

She believes her unconventional background helped her pioneer a new way of using mass spectrometers to look at more complex molecules, including potential drugs for diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Her practical, hands-on education also helped – at one point she took a drill to one of the instruments to see if she could adjust a valve which was holding back the research.

“I never envisaged that I would be a professor. I always advise my researchers now to just get on with their work and then your career takes its natural course.”

Her latest prize is a prestigious L’Oréal-Unesco Award for Women in Science.

She is the European recipient of the £66,000 annual award given to those who have made great advances in science. It is designed to support female scientists and encourage more women into the profession.

Prof Robinson said she had not yet decided where the grant money would go, but that she would “try to do something imaginative and a bit different” to encourage women scientists.

While there is a 50-50 split between men and women chemistry undergraduates, few women opt for research careers.

Only 30 per cent of the world’s researchers are female, according to Unesco’s Institute for Statistics, while only 10 per cent hold top academic positions in their chosen field. She has already organised women’s away days and mentoring, “trying to get to the bottom of why they don’t apply for positions”, and rehearsing how to present results at conferences.

“I would like young women to think that science is an attractive career. I do think it helps to have women in more senior positions because it gives you something to aspire to.”

She says women in her field seem to gravitate to her team, particularly women with children.

“There are some very fine scientists who are highly focused and get on with their work. They might go home earlier, but work very hard when they are here.

“It’s actually quite a good career for women with children because it’s quite flexible.

“You can easily do some work at home in the evenings when the children are in bed. And if you take a career break, it’s easy to keep in touch via the Internet.”