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Alpamayo Coaching on Tour – Catching up with the owner and Director of ConsultaChem Ltd, Dr Philippa Cranwell.

It was great to catch up with Philippa Cranwell as part of Alpamayo Coaching on Tour, despite not being able to meet in person on this occasion.  Swapping stories with Philippa bought into focus three different chapters, each characterised by different connectivities between our separate career paths.

There was the four-year period where both of us were at the University of Southampton.  Philippa as a student on the Masters of Chemistry (MChem) degree and myself in the second half of my time at Southampton.  At the time I was Director of Admissions and the MChem programme.  I think of this as a collaborative stage as I always considered my educator role as one of collaboration rather than direction.  This was followed by a parallel but offset-in-time stage, in which our paths did not cross yet there was some common ground that we each explored, albeit offset in terms of both time and location.  The most recent chapter is one of convergence in terms of our chosen approach to our unique areas of work.  Let’s see if what you read below makes some sense of that.

In the absence of a picture of Philippa and myself (as we met virtually) here is a picture I love. I often use it as a metaphor for the experience of a coaching partnership. It works just as well as being symbolic of a professional journey. Photo - Dr Jeremy Hinks

Looking back 20 years to the beginning of our collaborative stage I remember a talented, energetic and hard-working Philippa.  She was quick thinking while being willing and able to share opinions, with a directness that was sometimes a surprise, perhaps even to herself!  Another characteristic was kindness and an interest in supporting others, which has been a consistent thread throughout her career. 

Philippa was someone who took advantage of opportunities to learn outside of the mainstream curriculum delivery, whenever they presented themselves.  I remember her participation in the Organic Chemistry Summer School (OCSS), an extracurricular activity hosted in Southampton.  This was a four weeklong experience in which leaders from various science companies came in and ran a lab-based project, with the students acting as their staff.  It was a real eye opener for the participants in terms of what to expect working in the scientific industry.  OCSS was also an event with which I had a particular connection, having been one of those visiting industry leaders 10 years before.  I am not sure if this was a formative experience for her, but I had the impression it reinforced her interest in organic chemistry.  This area of specialisation was something she explored further on her MChem placement, spending six months at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).  It was no surprise that Philippa chose to take a placement overseas as another trait of hers is courage.  During her time at NTU her focus was on research.  She worked for Rod Bates, whose equal commitment to teaching and research I suspect had an influence on her future choices and who is part of a Singapore network that has stood the test of time.

Shortly after Philippa graduated from the MChem programme she decided to pursue PhD studies at a different university.  This was the beginning of our ‘parallel but offset-in-time’ chapter.  Her PhD was at Cambridge was with Steve Ley and she followed this with a postdoc with Erick Carreira at ETH in Switzerland.  For context, within organic chemistry you would be pushed to find two more high profile academic groups to work in at that time.

I have no equivalent experience although do remember both Ley and Carreira from my career in the pharmaceutical industry, a decade or two earlier!  I had a formative experience with Steve Ley in particular.  He was already well established as a high profile academic when I, a wet-behind-the-ears chemist in the mid1980s, met him during one of his consultancy visits to the company I worked for.  I remember having to battle my bosses to have the opportunity to present my work to our prestigious visitor.  They feared there was a risk of me making a fool of myself that would reflect badly on them.  I didn’t care about the former and perhaps was naïve about the risk of the latter.  Come the time for me to present, I did the job well … up until the point Professor Ley started asking questions.  I was a bit tongue tied and could see the ‘I told you so’ looks from my older, more experienced colleagues.  I was on the point of allowing someone else to speak on my behalf when Prof Ley asked if I would like him to explain it to me.  Not being sure what to expect I said ‘yes’. He came out from lecture seating with his famous little notebook and spent what seemed like an eternity explaining a mechanism to me as if I were the only person in the room.  It was an experience I remember so clearly as it was one in which I learned the importance of treating people as your equals.  It’s funny how such small experiences can have profound impacts.  This was one such for me and I am sure that Philippa can recount many from her time in Cambridge and Zurich.

The parallel but offset-in-time reference becomes more significant in the choices that Philippa made.  I claim no influence over these decisions at all but remember being pleased that she chose to take an educational role at the University of Reading where she herself describes herself as ‘coaching and teaching the next generation of scientists’.  That was exactly my commitment, expressed through a facilitative approach to teaching and leadership that was a precursor to my decision to broaden the remit of my coaching by setting up Alpamayo Coaching.  During her time in as an academic Philippa took many leadership positions that mirrored mine of 10-15 years earlier – hence that label for this chapter.  There is another parallel in the work that we have both done in representing on behalf of chemistry by taking up elected and committee positions with the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), where I am a past SEIB member and she has several current RSC committee roles.

However, what she did that was not part of my experience is develop her writing skills outside of research papers by co-authoring three chemistry textbooks; an experience that may well have influenced future career choices.  It was great to see her name in print alongside names of established academics who I had crossed paths with, in what is now the distant past!

Now we move onto the most recent chapter, one that has elements of convergence.  Philippa contacted me some time ago to talk about what it was like to step away from academia, as I had done.  Her commitment to ‘helping people and for having a tangible impact’ was undimmed but she wanted a new challenge.  She eventually decided that a pivot to a new challenge was right for her and took up a scientific position in the private sector.  While experiencing a sense of fulfilment for a while, Philippa became aware that she was reaching the ceiling of what she could learn.  She realised learning, and being able to pivot to new areas of science regularly were important to her.  During a conversation we had a few years previously she was alert to her personal values and whether they were being fulfilled or not.  When we spoke, she also noticed how she missed the intellectual freedom she had in academia, and she was now more aware of the impact of challenging work relationships in the SME setting.

On realising all of the above, Philippa set about exploring alternatives and found approaching companies, each with a specifically tailored CV, seemed not to bear fruit.  In conversation with some of her peers there appeared to be a shared experience of being seen as overqualified, with the belief that this was extrapolating to being seen as too expensive.  She revisited what mattered to her:  helping others, having an impact; engaging in new learning.  She thought about what she was good at:  picking up complex topics and making them accessible; ability to assimilate new ideas; an effective communicator.  She thought about the integration of work and life and how to manage this most effectively, as she is now the mum to two children.

Combining all of these variables, the possible pivot of setting up her own business rose to the top of the list of options.  ConsultaChem Ltd. came into being in 2024 as a vehicle for her services in technical content creation, as well as marketing and sales materials for science and technology organisations.

There we go then.  The loose weaving together of two careers to date, both by their different routes arriving at a place of establishing their own working environments.  As always, any conversation exploring someone else’s motivations prompts reflections on one’s own.  It was great to overlap with Philippa again and to make a connection between her and Ashley, a previous Alpamayo on Tour host, so that they might explore collaboration.  For now though, keep in mind that if you need a complex scientific story conveyed, get in touch with Philippa.  If you want to explore your own experience of complexity at work and in life alongside a thinking partner to challenge and support you, get in touch with Jeremy.

Thanks for your time, Philippa.  Next time we will meet in person.  Alpamayo Coaching on Tour will be back on the road very shortly!


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