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Overcoming adversity to get a PhD in chemistry

Liana Allen

Overcoming adversity to get a PhD in chemistry

8 July 2011

Despite a difficult childhood, Liana Allen is on the way to a PhD in chemistry.

I had a difficult start in life but now I’m doing a PhD in organic chemistry. So I want to share my story in the hope it will inspire others.

My biological parents were very young when I was born. They did the best thing they thought they could do for me: I was given up and I grew up in foster care. Unfortunately, I didn't have a good experience and I ended up having to leave an abusive home when I was just 15. As a consequence, I learnt to look after myself. I just assumed that after school I'd have to go straight into work and support myself.

At secondary school I was always more interested in maths and science than anything else. At A-Level I took chemistry, physics and maths. It didn't bother me that I was often the only girl in the class - I had some inspiring female science teachers to look up to.

I wanted a career in science, but despite always doing well at school, for a long time I didn't think I'd be able to come to university at all. Luckily, when it came time to start applying to universities I was with new and very supportive foster parents. They encouraged me to explore all the funding options and I ended up being classed as an 'independent student'. After filling in a lot of paperwork, I was granted a bursary from the government to pay my tuition fees as well as a full student loan, so I was able to accept a place at the University of Bath to study chemistry.

Now, seven years later, I have a Masters degree in chemistry and am almost at the end of a Ph.D with Professor Jonathan Williams. During my undergraduate degree, I realised that hands-on, practical research was what I loved most and that's why I decided to stay at university for another four years (despite a lot of people thinking I was mad!) to do full time research. This PhD. is simultaneously the most frustrating and rewarding thing I've ever done. There are some weeks where nothing seems to work, but they're all worth it for that feeling when you discover something completely new. Again, I often find myself the only girl in the lab, but it doesn't bother me because I love what I do.

Through doing a PhD, I've also gained lots of experience in supervising and helping other students through their undergraduate degrees. Recently, I've visited a local college to run a spectroscopy workshop and talk to the sixth form students about studying chemistry at university. I've also had the opportunity to travel to some amazing places like Paris, Beijing, Hawai'i and San Francisco to attend chemistry conferences, for which I'm incredibly grateful.

I hope this PhD will help me continue on in a research career. Next, I want to get a post doctoral position in a research group and continue on from there. I'm not really sure where I’ll end up or what I’ll end up doing - I just know that if you want something enough and are prepared to work hard, you can make it happen.

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