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Helen Fraser

Helen Fraser is a lecturer in the department since 2005.

Helen with a big pink hat

When I was 11, I wanted to be Prime Minister - my politics were pretty extreme (as my parents frequently remind me) and I loved sports (like gymnastics, swimming and hockey) and secretly wanted to be ballerina. A few years of thought later, I decided, via careers as extreme as being a teacher, a ballerina, and an embryologist, that I wanted to do something to do with space.... I didn't know what - just something.

I was very lucky: by pestering my Dad I got work experience after my GCSEs in GEC Marconi Research - and spent my first summer meeting students, going to parties, doing scientific research - oh and earning money and scaring the wits out of my mother doing driving practice for my driving test. But by the end of the summer my mind was made up - I wanted to be a scientist - doing something to do with space…and marched into school at the start of 6th form and changed from chemistry, maths, geography, and French (!!!) to chemistry, physics, maths, and further maths - the swotty option!! (Luckily, I was still doing sports and dancing…oh and climbing mountains in my spare time with the scouts.)

Now years later, I am very glad for those few weeks of work experience and how they changed my life. What I really really (still dream) of doing is being an astronaut - but alas, being British this is a dream beyond reach - unless I am willing to change my nationality…which will involve giving up my passion of my life - astrochemistry (more on that in a minute).

Not content to be branded a strange old man with grey disarrayed hair - I am a young vibrant female who makes the most of life and the opportunities it offers me. For example…I left school in 1990 - and whilst my girlfriends were in Ilfracombe on holiday - I flew off to the Weizmann Institute in Israel - on a fully paid trip (excluding my spending money) with 70 other young people from all over the world - and basically spent the summer doing research in real labs, as well as visiting the Red Sea, Dead Sea, Mediterranean, and Jerusalem. I can even say - I was there - at the end of the summer, Sadam Hussain walked into Kuwait - and the whole mood of my stay was sombered (or sobered?) up!!!

Helen hiding behind a vacuum chamberGetting home, I went first to ICI as a sponsored student - working for a year in chemical plants in the North of England. I then studied for a BSc in Physics and Chemistry at Manchester uni - interweaving my studies with playing football for the university, raising over £10,000 for charity and a humongous social life…oh and working and travelling around Europe each summer.

Then…before starting a PhD in Cambridge, I worked for Club 18-30 - yes the 18-30, having the funniest and most tiring summer of my life in Corfu, and once again doing something totally different. During my PhD, I often got to travel to Europe with my work - France, Germany, and Austria - though the best trip was after I won a National Lecture competition - and as a result was invited to attend the annual gathering of Nobel prize winners in Lindau, Germany, meeting many many famous scientists. But it wasn't all work - during the time I was doing my 'training' in research (a PhD is key to a career as an academic), I was playing football for a national league team, swimming, rowing and of course wining and dining and attending balls and all the Cambridge social life has to offer.

After my PhD, I moved to Nottingham - I was in my first job and started working in the field of research I am still in: Astrochemistry. What is that? Well you can read more about my research here, but basically it is the study of molecules in space, how they get there, what role they play in the universe, and how we can get from just atoms and electrons to the prebiotic molecules that are the building blocks of life. In essence, I research how stars and planets form and whether there is life in the universe…

Of course, I now do this in Strathclyde - where I am just since 2005 a lecturer in physics - this means that alongside my research I am now working hard to teach students on their own Physics degrees, and contributing to the smooth running of the university… Since Nottingham, I have been working in America (California, San Francisco to be precise) and the Netherlands (where I lived for 5 years). In between, I've had the chances to travel in America, South America, Africa, the Middle East, Far East and Europe - I have friends all over the world - and still managed to play football, dance, row and swim at various times. Currently the big thing is distance running and swimming and dancing - healthy body healthy mind!!

Looking back - all this success, travel and experience has come from a simple decision over 18 years ago - to study Physics A level, and then study physics at university…I love my work - I have to work hard, but its fun - every day is different - and my dreams have almost come true - amongst other things, I work often now with scientists and astronauts at ESA the European Space Agency - I have friends and colleagues working at NASA, and I am successfully contributing to the human understanding of our universe…so who knows…with a little more time and dedication I might still be on that manned mission to MARS - why stop dreaming even when you have the best job on earth…there may be an even better one on MARS!!!!!

 HF blowing a giant soap bubble A tyical conference outing HF working real hard (reading Dan Brown's book) HF all dolled up for a public understanding engagement