Research is such an unknown, but when it works it’s amazing

Professor Jacqui Cole EMBA2023 on her journey from a warehouse conveyor belt to award-winning interdisciplinary research scientist


In November 2022 Professor Jacqui Cole achieved something beyond her belief. She delivered the prestigious Royal Society Clifford Paterson Lecture for outstanding contributions to engineering. “I was super nervous and super excited all at the same time,” she says. The lecture was all the more exciting because, delayed by lockdown, she had to wait two years to deliver it.

Today, she is Head of Molecular Engineering at Cambridge University. But at odds with most research scientists, she initially left school at 16 – to work on a production line packing herbs and spices, as well as packing all sorts of items (car radios, books, beauty products etc.) to field promotions for retail.

“I left school and got a job because I thought that’s what you do,” she says. “I really loved that job. While I packed, the radio was on in the warehouse and I became very clued-up on what was in the Top 40! I could even drive the pump trucks. I thought it was cool.”

But Jacqui’s school had other plans for her. They called her back to see her GCSE results and persuaded her to do A-Levels. At this point, her career could have taken a different turn.

Discover fresh perspectives and research insights from LBS

“I liked the idea that you could obtain a map of data which you had to unravel like a puzzle”

“I chose history alongside maths, physics and chemistry,” she says, “and thought I might go on to the arts side of things. I even did my work experience at a museum, looking at historical artefacts and using chemistry to conserve them. I was really excited by that.”

At the end of the two-week work-experience placement Jacqui told the head of the museum unit that she wanted to become an archivist. His reply was swift and to the point: “You know this doesn’t pay!” When her A-level tutor advised her that science was more useful to the world, her decision was made. She applied and won a place at Durham University to study chemistry.

Now for the science bit

It was only towards the end of her undergraduate degree that Jacqui fell in love with research. “I was looking at crystallography, which involves the determination of crystal structures,” she says. “I liked the idea that you could obtain a map of data which you had to unravel like a puzzle and out would pop a 3D crystal structure. Even though it was a tiny, tiny niche discovery, my research was published. I was thrilled. Research is such an unknown, but when it works, it’s amazing.”

Being a practical person, Jacqui didn’t let go of her spice-packing job until she graduated, with first-class honours, from Durham. “I liked the release of going back to the warehouse, doing my packing job. I’d do all this intense studying, then I’d be home doing my normal job.”

Paying it forwards

Jacqui’s journey into academia quickly took on a life of its own. A whizz through her CV reveals two PhDs (in chemistry and physics); two Open University degrees (in maths and engineering); diplomas in physics and statistics; and a certificate in astronomy and planetary science. There was also a six-month secondment at Defra “to understand the government side of things at Westminster”. After a junior research fellowship at Cambridge, she took a 50 per cent job at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, where she lived on and off for five years. And later, a 50 per cent job at the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source near Oxford, to which she is still seconded.

“It’s the dream to have that opportunity [to collaborate], but the corporate world is very different.”

But Cambridge remains her home. In 2018 she was appointed as a Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) Senior Research Fellow, and promoted to a RAEng Research Chair one year later. She is now guiding 25 students through their PhDs. “It’s really important to train the next generation,” she says. “Partly it’s about paying it forward, but I also want to give them quality time. It’s important to have a bit of fun, too. Their level of progression from the start of a PhD to the end is massive, and at first it’s all very confusing – at least it was for me!”

Corporate callings

Given the demands of her day (and sometimes night) job, why – and how – did Jacqui find time to do an EMBA at London Business School (LBS), where she has now completed all core courses and is taking electives in Strategy and Organisational Behaviour?

“My research was suddenly receiving a lot of industry interest,” she says, “they wanted to collaborate with me. It’s the dream to have that opportunity, but the corporate world is very different. Progress in the academic stream can be years in the making, whereas the pressures in industry are very different. I wanted to understand the company mindset better.

“My interactions with industry are quite strong now and I’d like to consolidate that. So coming to LBS is partly strategic, but it’s really to function better within the corporate space.”

Jacqui is already in “that space”. The world’s biggest chemical company, BASF, contacted her out of the blue, looking for the best software tool for text-mining. She has been helping them with the digitalisation of their business and knowledge innovation.

Jacqui credits LBS for putting her back in the real world, as she started her EMBA just after lockdown. “I really love my LBS cohort,” she says. “I feel very lucky. After being cooped up for two years, we all felt the release in the same way and bonded really well.”

Equality, diversity and Inclusion

The science environment is known for being male-dominated, but that hasn’t stood in Jacqui’s way. She grew up mostly in Oxfordshire with two brothers, and lived on a street with 13 boys, playing football with them on the village green after school.

“I grew up being more comfortable in the company of men,” she says, “but it doesn’t take away some things that happen when you think, ‘Ouch!’ When I’ve come across a less-equality-type action, if I can, I ignore it. Often it can be unconscious bias, which I don’t want to diminish, but there aren’t always obvious solutions. If I see other women having painful experiences, I do my best to help. I also see a lot of guys helping women. For the most part I think men are, and want to be, equal.”

Things have changed dramatically over the past century. Jacqui talks about her favourite female scientist, Marie Curie, who went through a huge battle of the sexes before being given her dues.

“Try to believe that the majority of men are on your side”

“I was always super-impressed by her,” Jacqui says. “She discovered radium, undertook pioneering work in radioactivity and so many other things. She was married to Pierre Curie, who was also a scientist. There was all that interplay, who’s going to get the credit for things? She was finally recognised by the Royal Society, and became the only person to win a Nobel prize in two scientific fields. She died, it’s thought, because of the radioactivity. In a way she was like a saint, who died for their cause.”

What advice would Jacqui give to a woman starting out in science? “Approach it with an open mind, and don’t read too much into things,” she says. “It’s easy to feel threatened by the concept that you’re in a minority, but try to believe that the majority of men are on your side. Some of my strongest supporters have been men.”

Design-to-device pipeline: a conveyor belt for materials discovery

Jacqui began her Clifford Paterson Lecture talking about another historic scientist, Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin by chance in 1928. Nearly 100 years on, Jacqui doesn’t believe chance is the most strategic way to make discoveries.

“Chance is great if it yields results, but given my own data and logic training, I was keen to find a systematic way of working,” she says. “My design-to-device pipeline is about how AI, algorithms and data science combine to discover new materials for the energy sector. It’s a kind of ‘molecular lego’ – you put the bits together in a certain way to get a different object. Design the molecule you want for your ultimate goal.”

Jacqui is focused on sustainable energy, something she began working on in the early 2000s, long before the energy situation became critical.

Star struck

Looking back, Jacqui can see that she always wanted to be an innovator. “Becoming an inventor is a very primal kind of childlike ideology, and I still have a childlike take on things. I’m always looking into new things – I’m curious, I like puzzles. Give me an excuse and I’ll still play with Lego.”

History is another enduring passion. “My favourite periods are the French Revolutions,” she says. “Very bloody, but these eras have a weird translation to my innovative ways. These are huge turning points in a nation’s history, a chance to see a new world. Can you break through and make it better?”

Recreation wise, hiking and climbing keep Jacqui’s feet on the ground, while astronomy keeps her head in the stars. “On a clear night, camping in the mountains, I love seeing stars down to the horizon,” she says. “Climbers negotiate with the natural power of the mountains and their microclimate weather. The universe reminds us how tiny and insignificant we all are.

“I’ve seen so many great things. I’ve climbed an ice mountain in Patagonia. I’ve hiked up many volcanoes, one when it just happened to erupt! Hiking and climbing give me space to explore – that’s when your best ideas come. Contemplate nothing and ideas will pop into your head. Just free your mind.”


Executive MBA

Realise your leadership potential with our Executive MBA (EMBA). This transformative programme equips you with the business knowledge, leadership skills and networks to accelerate your career. Choose to take it in London or Dubai to suit your own plans