Published: 14 May 2019

Spotlight on Winnie Mac

Winnie graduated in 2018 with a BSc in Chemistry and now works as a researcher. Her inspiration to succeed and give back to society is Michelle Obama whom she met when the former First lady visited her school in 2009 to encourage pupils to believe in themselves and their potential. In 2018 she was reunited with Mrs Obama when she made an emotional return visit and was invited to join the stage with her.

Winnie Mac at her graduation and with Michelle Obama
Winnie Mac at her graduation and with Michelle Obama

Tell us more about meeting Michelle Obama

The two things that I remember from the first time I met Michelle Obama was that she too thought being smart was really cool, and that it was important to reach back and help others, even if you hadn’t made it yourself yet. At the time, it really encouraged me to work harder at school especially with exams looming. Also, during my A-levels, I went back to volunteer and help younger students with their Maths GCSEs. The school was really happy with the quality of my work which lead to a job offer. I continued going back, even when I was a student at Surrey! 

I was so excited to join Michelle on stage but at the same time I was also very nervous in case I messed up my words, especially with the large audience of students and reporters. Once it started, I felt immediately comforted — she answered all of our questions engagingly and she spoke of things that a lot of us can relate to such as relationships, finding our passions, and imposter syndrome to name a few. 

I was invited onto the stage because of the work I did with helping girls with their maths studies, and Michelle Obama was very interested with mentoring and female education. I had no idea that volunteering at the school six years ago would lead to anything other than the satisfaction of helping younger students understand and enjoy maths more. I felt really happy that the school still remembered me and the work that I did to invite me back for this amazing experience.

Joining Michelle Obama on stage was a surreal experience. When I got off stage, before I even had time to gather my thoughts about what had just happened, I was immediately inundated by lots of reporters — a far cry from my typical day! 

What attracted you to choose the University of Surrey and to study your course here?

The location. Surrey was far enough for me to move out but close enough to visit home whenever I missed my family and friends in London. The applicant day was also a really pivotal and insightful day. Some people overlook the importance of these days, but it was enough for me to not consider other universities because of their organisation of the event or the lack of enthusiasm from staff. However at Surrey, I met and spoke to chemistry students and could gauge their enthusiasm for the course. I heard about the benefits of a placement year, which Surrey offered as part of all chemistry degrees. The staff were friendly and sounded really enthusiastic about the department. It gave off an atmosphere that I really wanted to be part of. 

What were the best things about your course?

The flexibility of the chemistry degree, you can go on an industry year on both BSc and MChem degrees, something a lot of chemistry departments around the country only offer to MChem students. I thought that the range of optional modules throughout the years on offer were interesting too. 

Also, I loved the fact it’s quite a small course. I knew everybody in my class which I learned from friends at other universities isn’t very common. Lecturers generally knew all of the students better that way. The fact that lecturers were familiar with each of us and, with the fact there was an open door policy, it meant we could pop in and ask for help and advice when we needed it. 

A special mention to the ChemSoc for all the years I was there. A really fun, engaging and proactive society. It organised events that gave me the chance to meet chemists from other years. I particularly enjoyed the ChemSoc Revue and the annual ChemSoc Balls!

How did you change as a person during your time as a Surrey student?

Like most people moving out for the first time, I grew up and learned to be more independent. Learning to look after myself through managing my finances, cooking for myself and keeping fit. I got to explore my interests further by joining BakeSoc, picking up a GGA (Global Graduate Award) class in Mandarin, meeting new people from the ABACUS (Association of British and Chinese University Students) society, attended lectures given by PhotographySoc. By taking part in all these societies, I learned how to balance my interests with work better.

What do you do now and what do you find most enjoyable about your line of work?

After graduating, I returned back to work with FormFormForm Ltd/ Sugru as a researcher, where I previously spent my placement year working as a laboratory technician and research assistant. What I find most enjoyable is working with and learning from a multi-disciplinary team of scientists to help tackle tricky formulation/process problems — it’s very satisfying when you follow up a new lead and it shows promising results!

How did your time at Surrey influence your career?

Throughout the whole of my degree, I had modules that helped me with CVs and cover letters whilst also helping me develop transferable and employability skills. This really helped me with job applications and interviews, particularly in my second year when I was applying for internships. Additionally, having spent a year in industry as part of my degree means that I have relevant work experience that I can always use and apply in the future. 

Please tell us about your Professional Training placement

I worked as a research assistant and laboratory technician at FormFormForm Ltd/ Sugru and my placement was fully funded thanks to the Royal Society of Chemistry through the Small Enterprise scheme. I spent the year working on various projects involving mechanical testing, developing a method to predict the shelf life of silicone putties and new product development. As a result of my contributions, I was named as a co-author on a filed patent application. 

How can students hoping to work in your profession make the most of their time at Surrey?

Talk to your personal tutor and regularly. I always made an effort to make our meetings, and always found it helpful whether it was advice or going through my CV or applications together. 

Join societies, you’ll be surprised at how much people are interested in your extracurricular activities, and how much you can talk about them. I remember the head of R&D took one look at my CV and asked me about the baking society and handed me a pen to draw out an experimental procedure for something I was planning on baking. 

Additionally, think about joining professional societies, usually student memberships are really affordable. I joined the Royal Society of Chemistry in my first year and it proved really advantageous. I got discounts on specialised chemistry books, attended conferences and seminars at a discounted price and received a copy of their magazine to read every month. To top it all off, my placement year was fully funded by them! 

What is your happiest memory of your time at Surrey?

When I was nominated by Professor Mulholland, and then selected by Roche to attend Roche Continents in Salzburg, Austria. I felt so honoured to be able to represent the University, and, as one of two science undergraduate students, it felt amazing to connect with really talented and experienced scientists and musicians. It really was an unforgettable summer full of art, music and science! 


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