Rachel O'Reilly

2019 United Kingdom Award Finalist — Faculty

Rachel O'Reilly

Current Position:
Chair of Chemistry & Head, School of Chemistry

University of Birmingham

Polymer Chemistry

Recognized for: Creative, functional, and comprehensive synthesis of polymeric materials with advanced properties and functions

Areas of Research Interest and Expertise: Polymer Chemistry, Bioinspired Nanotechnology, Template-directed Synthesis, Precision Self-assembly, Materials Science


BA, MSc, University of Cambridge
PhD, Imperial College London (Advisor: Prof. Vernon C. Gibson)
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, IBM Almaden Research Center, USA & Washington University in St. Louis, USA (Advisors: Prof. Craig J. Hawker & Prof. Karen L. Wooley)
Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, Research Fellow
Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship & Mays Wild Research Fellowship, Downing College, University of Cambridge
Professor of Chemistry, EPSRC Career Acceleration Fellow (CAF), University of Warwick

Prof. Rachel O'Reilly is a polymer chemist revolutionizing the synthesis of soft materials. DNA, RNA, proteins, and polysaccharides are all examples of naturally occurring polymers inside every cell of our body. Millions of years of evolutionary pressure have forced these polymers to work in concert to produce higher-ordered living organisms. Bioinspired polymer chemistry has become a source of incredible innovation in the creation of synthetic materials in recent years, and Prof. O'Reilly has combined this approach with fundamental science to create a variety of novel synthetic constructs. The scope of Prof. O'Reilly's work covers the synthesis of molecules that vary in size by over four orders of magnitude. At the smaller end of the scale, she has designed molecules that serve as non-invasive probes that have tunable emission spectra for reporting the location and assembly state of polymeric structures inside the body. These reporters could be useful in tracking nanoparticles to determine their intracellular fate. Prof. O'Reilly has also used DNA in the programmable synthesis of materials. This approach takes advantage of the ability to encode information into a strand of DNA that can then be read and used to assemble different building blocks in a predetermined sequence in a manner similar to the translation of mRNA into polymeric proteins within the ribosome. Prof. O'Reilly has a number of other research projects including the creation of novel micellar nanoreactors, ways to introduce complexity into self-assembled materials, and the creation of stimuli-responsive materials that could have an impact in the controlled release of pharmaceuticals.

"It is a huge honor to be named a Blavatnik Awards Finalist in the field of chemistry for our work in the area of precision materials science. I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with inspirational mentors and fantastic students, researchers and colleagues throughout my career. Their support, as well as that of my family, have enabled me to explore my love of research."

Key Publications:

  1. M. P. Robin, A. B. Mabire, J. C. Damborsky, E. S. Thom, U. H. Winzer-Serhan, J. E. Raymond, R. K. O'Reilly. New functional handle for use as a self-reporting contrast and delivery agent in nanomedicine. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2013.

  2. W. Meng, R. A. Muscat, M. L. McKee, P. J. Milnes, A. H. El-Sagheer, J. Bath, B. G. Davis, T. Brown, R. K. O'Reilly, A. J. Tuberfield. An autonomous molecular assembler for programmable chemical synthesis. Nat. Chem. 2016.

  3. R. McHale, J. P. Patterson, P. B. Zetterlund, R. K. O'Reilly. Biomimetic radical polymerization via cooperative assembly of segregating templates. Nat. Chem. 2012.

  4. M. C. Arno, M. Inam, Z. Coe, G. Cambridge, L. J. Macdougall, R. Keogh, A. P. Dove, R. K. O'Reilly. Precision epitaxy for aqueous 1D and 2D poly(ε-caprolactone) assemblies. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2017.

Other Honors:

2018Royal Society of Chemistry Industry-Academia Collaboration of the Year (with BP)
2018Journal of Polymer Science Innovation Award
2017ACS Macro Letters, Biomacromolecules, Macromolecules, Young Investigator Award
2016Royal Society of Chemistry Gibson-Fawcett Award
2014SCI/RSC McBain Medal
2013American Chemical Society Mark Young Scholar Award
2012IUPAC-Samsung Young Polymer Scientist Award
2012Royal Society of Chemistry Hickinbottom Medal
2008Macro Group UK Young Researchers Medal
2007Royal Society of Chemistry Meldola Medal


In the Media:

University of Birmingham - Birmingham Chemist to Help Preserve Mary Rose Historic Ship

Chemistry World - Ribosome Mimic Assembles Made to Order Molecules