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New Director for Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence

Posted on 1 April 2022

The Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence (GCCE) in the Department of Chemistry has appointed Professor Helen Sneddon, previously a Scientific Team Director at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), as its new Director.


Professor Helen Sneddon.

The Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence (GCCE) is a world-leading academic facility pioneering green and sustainable chemical research. It has a strong emphasis on waste valorisation, clean technologies and providing high quality education and training programmes. Since its inception, the GCCE has been led by Professor James Clark. With Professor Clark stepping down from his role, the Department of Chemistry embarked on the search for a new Director.

Professor Helen Sneddon carried out her MSci and PhD at University of Cambridge, where she studied the use of dithianes in organic synthesis in Professor Steve Ley’s group. She then moved to University of California Irvine, to work with Professor Larry Overman exploring the catalytic asymmetric chemistry of palladium(II) as a Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 research fellow.

She then worked at GSK for 15 years. She started in Medicinal Chemistry, but became increasingly involved in making synthetic processes and research operations as efficient and sustainable as possible. In 2011, she successfully pitched that GSK should have a group focussed solely on Green Chemistry, and she has led Green Chemistry for GSK ever since.

During her time at GSK, she halved the use of chlorinated solvents across GSK’s UK R&D sites. This involved research into the scope and limitations of replacement solvents, and significant work to change pre-conceptions about solvent choices across the company. Professor Sneddon improved the routes to numerous drug candidates – via new routes, changes in reaction media or reagents, and reaction optimisation, including finding a suitable replacement for a toxic and environmentally-damaging chromium(VI) oxidant, where it had previously been considered impossible.

On becoming Director of the GCCE, Professor Sneddon intends to initiate new research on carbon-halogen bonds. Halogens are ubiquitous in the pharmaceutical industry – indeed, almost half of the best-selling small molecule drugs contain aryl halides. She intends to apply data-driven and experimental approaches to develop more benign ways of creating these vital molecules.

For some years, Helen has worked with the GCCE as a visitor, giving lectures and workshops to their Masters students. She plans to build on this and help refresh the undergraduate curriculum. She is looking forward to discussing with students how they would like to see additional industrial context and Green Chemistry incorporated in their learning. 

Professor Helen Sneddon giving a lecture in York.

Reflecting on her move to York, Helen said: “I’m incredibly lucky to be coming to work with such a talented team, with deep expertise across solvents, microwaves, biobased mesoporous materials, clean synthesis and sustainable organic synthesis.  I am looking forward to developing new collaborative projects across the GCCE and with the wider Department, and increasing the GCCE’s impact across academia and industry.”

Head of Department, Professor Caroline Dessent said: “We are absolutely delighted that Helen has joined the Department.  She brings an exceptional combination of academic achievement and industrial experience that makes her uniquely well suited for the role of Director of the GCCE. The appointment comes at an important time for the University of York, since it has identified sustainability as one of its key strategic priorities. Professor James Clark has been an international leader of the field of Green Chemistry over the last several decades, and we are confident that Helen will ensure the York's GCCE remains a beacon for Green and Sustainable Chemistry internationally.”