WHEN Professor Angela Russell was a young girl she watched in fascination as her father performed experiments in the family’s garage.

It sparked a passion in the five-year-old which only grew as she got older.

Now a Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at Oxford University she is also the co-founder of two university spin out companies – MuOx, which was sold in 2013 for £5m, and more recently OxStem, a regenerative medicine drug discovery company which has the potential to revolutionise how we treat everything from Alzheimer's to kidney disease.


All this has been achieved at the age of just 41, which Angela puts down to her own hard work and a series of inspirational mentors building her confidence – starting with her own father.

"He was a scientist but he went into banking and he was never that happy doing that," she said.

"I remember he asked me when I was 14 or 15 what I wanted to do for a career and I mentioned science and he told me to do something I loved."

Angela grew up in rural Norfolk and went to a small state school which didn't have a history of sending students to Oxford or Cambridge.

She credits a chemistry teacher, Dr Worcester, for giving her the confidence to apply to Oxford.

"He had gone to Cambridge and was the first person I knew with a PHD."

She recalled how he would talk to her about his experiments and ask her what should come next, which the teenager found she a knack for getting right.

Angela, initially thinking she would go into teaching, arrived at Oxford University to study chemistry in 1996 and admitted she was slightly apprehensive.

“I had preconceived notions that it would be full of snobs and rich people but that wasn’t the case and was much more inclusive – even more so now.

"I found a lot of people from a similar background and experiences to me and I never felt out of place."

This was, surprisingly, true from a gender perspective as well.

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Despite well-known issues getting women into STEM careers Angela found there was an even split among her undergraduate class.

"There wasn't that much difference but I first noticed the problem at Post Grad when I was one of three women in a group of about 30.

"There was a big drop off, with very few female role models in chemistry when I started."

Her love for research grew though and Angela went on to complete her D.Phil in Organic Chemistry in 2004, then won a prestigious Research Council Fellowship in Medicinal Chemistry in 2007 for Oxford University aged 29.

She has used her success to promote giving women the equal opportunity to advance in STEM careers both as part of her own research group the Russell Group and as part of the Athena SWAN Charter, which works across higher education and research.

"I think we have to understand what is wrong with a system, what is stopping women from going far," she explained, adding she experienced issues after the birth of her first child.

"I took six months off with her but I think my husband thought he missed out a little bit.

"It's about creating equal opportunity and thankfully things had changed so by the time I had our son we were able to share parental leave."

She added: "I met my husband Paul when we were both doing our PHDs, he's a scientist too and I think that means he appreciates what I do which helps."

Her most recent work has stemmed from her 2007 fellowship, which unusually was awarded jointly between chemistry and pharmacology.

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She said: "I've always been interested in chemistry, especially in how it impacts biology and can be used in medicine so it has a real tangible impact for patients."

Her research with OxStem focuses on the discovery and development of small molecules to manipulate stem cells, particularly for degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Her research group takes a different approach to the majority of research in this area, however, which manipulate cells outside of the body and then transplant them back into the patient.

Instead Angela and her team develop small molecules to trigger the innate repair process within the body.

She explained one of the problems with traditional stem cell research was that it was expensive due to the individual approach it took to each patient and the requirement for specialist facilities.

The ‘regenerative medicine strategy’ is an approach she, and her co-founders, applied when creating OxStem in 2014.

Though still in its early stages, funding is being sought so it can advance to practical trials.

Just as she was inspired by her own mentors, citing in particular Professor Dame Kay Davies and Professor Steve Davies who are fellow co-founders of OxStem, she also has a passion for teaching.

Describing it as a 'duty' to pass on her knowledge to develop the next generation of scientists ready to move forward with the research, she added there was a 'tremendous advantage' for students in Oxford due to being so close to the 'cutting edge of science'.

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She added: "I still teach at every level, including undergraduates."

Despite her love for her job Angela said she still made time to be there for her five-year-old daughter Sophie and three-year-old son William.

"I travel a lot for my job but bath time is sacred and I always make sure I'm in every evening."

The professor also relaxes by cooking – though said this hobby still sticks close to her scientific interests.

"I think it is quite like chemistry because it is about putting ingredients together to create something new."

To find out more about the work OxStem is doing visit oxstem.com.