Dr Helen Sharman, first British astronaut, returns to the Department of Chemistry

Dr Helen Sharman receiving her honorary awardUniversity of Sheffield alumna Dr Helen Sharman returned to her home city on Thursday 20th of July to officially open the Diamond building and receive an honorary degree.

Dr Helen Sharman completed her BSc degree in chemistry in 1984, from this very department, where incidentally she was the personal tutee of Nobel-Prize laureate Prof. Sir Fraser Stoddart. Helen then obtained her Ph.D. from Birkbeck, University of London, before working for Mars Confectionary in 1987.

She is most famously known for her achievement in 1991 when she became the first British astronaut and the first woman to visit the Mir space station.

Responding to a radio advert in 1989 for the upcoming Anglo-Soviet Project Juno, Dr Helen Sharman was selected from 13000 applicants to blast off to the Mir space station. While on board the space station Helen carried out various medical and agricultural experiments involving seed growth and protein crystal formation.

The mission itself lasted only for eight days, but Helen returned to Britain as a national heroine.

A montage and summary video, put together by the Science Museum for the 25th anniversary of her flight can be viewed on Youtube through the following link.

Helen has since achieved recognition for her outstanding achievements, being awarded an OBE in 1993 and several honorary degrees from different institutions. She is an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and has been awarded an honorary fellowship at the British Science Association in recognition for her outreach work, communicating science and encouraging the next generation. [1]

She currently works as Operations Manager for the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London (see here for an interview about her experience in space and her outreach work).

Dr Helen Sharman receiving honorary degree

Helen's inspirational words

Helen’s return to Sheffield coincided with her officially opening the Diamond building which caters for Faculty of Engineering students with 19 specialist engineering laboratories as well as teaching, library and IT facilities.

"What really excites me about the Diamond is the interdisciplinary nature of the engineering that’s being encouraged here, because life doesn’t work in silos.

"The other thing is the openness of the labs for practical use – you get such a good feeling about how our machines behave, if you actually make things yourself. And to be able to make changes, think on the spot and have a go - it’s a hothouse for innovation.

"I think engineering students at the University of Sheffield have a truly wonderful building in which they can best create the solutions to engineering problems of the future."[2]

Graduating chemistry students from the department were also treated to Dr Helen Sharman receiving an honorary award from the University, recognising her lifetime achievements which was presented by Prof. Charles Stirling.

Helen delivered an inspiring speech her love of Sheffield and Science and engineering as a whole. The full graduation ceremony can be viewed on our facebook page through the following link including all of Dr Helen Sharman's speech.

"Today is the beginning of a new chapter in a world that is full of opportunities. A university education is a platform with which to launch into the future. My degree has shaped my life, but when I first graduated I could not have imagined the opportunities it has allowed me to explore."

Dr Helen Sharman meeting Zoe Smallwood former editor of Resonance

A follow-up from Resonance

One of the feature articles of Resonance issue 5 was a telephone interview, conducted by postgraduate researcher Zoe Smallwood, with Dr Helen Sharman on the 25th anniversary of her mission to space. Zoe, along with current Resonance editors Beth Crowston and Joseph Clarke; and MSc student Bryony Parker, had the opportunity to speak with her during the day, talking about what it is like to study Chemistry at the university and how a chemistry degree sets up a world of opportunities.

About the opportunity to speak with Helen, Zoe said:

"She was very friendly and a pleasure to talk to, and seemed really interested in Resonance and our experiences as students. We spoke about what my PhD involved, as well as about the department itself. Her speech at graduation was lovely, and her message to make the most of the opportunities that come your way was very inspirational. I really appreciated her taking the time to speak to me, both for the initial Resonance interview and on graduation day."

For more photos from this year’s graduation ceremony see here, and for this year’s prize winners read our article here.

Written By:
Joe Clarke

With thanks to Dr Helen Sharman, Zoe Smallwood, Prof. Mike Ward and Prof. Mark Winter