Leicester’s showstopping chemist on his Bake-Off experiment

This year, we saw a familiar face on the Great British Bake-Off: alumnus and postdoctoral researcher in the Leicester Institute for Structural and Chemical Biology Josh Smalley wowed millions of viewers each week with his amazing bakes and – spoiler alert! – made it all the way to the final.

Though he didn’t win the coveted trophy, he left with two ‘Star Bakers’ and a ‘Hollywood Handshake’ to his name. His colourful creations, which often included ingredients from his own garden, included tributes to his hometown: a plaited bread centrepiece in the likeness of the Leicester Tigers’s mascot, and a chocolate box to mark the centenary of the University’s School of Chemistry.

Now he’s back working in the lab, he spared some time out of his busy schedule to speak to the Press Office about his experience.

How do you feel now that the final show has been broadcast? 

A big relief now I don't have to keep any secrets anymore! I'm so proud of my achievements on the show, what an incredible array of bakes to look back on, especially the showstoppers.

What were your favourite moments from the show?

Baking highlights are the showstoppers, I had such joy putting those together, being really creative with the designs. The biscuit burger received the first delayed Hollywood handshake ever and the sunflower pies and mille foglie were described as 'perfect' and 'I can't fault that' by Prue. You just can't ask for better than that, those memories I will cherish forever. Alongside the baking, some of the best moments were just being with the other bakers outside of the tent - they were such a wonderful group of people, I've gained 11 new friends for life!

How did you feel about joining the programme?

It was very daunting to be joining a show I've been a fan of for so long. Walking into the famous white tent for the first time and taking your place at your bench was just so surreal, I just couldn't believe it was actually happening. I really wanted to do a good job and produce bakes that I would be proud of when I look back, and I can confidently say I've achieved that.

Your day job featured throughout your time on the show, do you think your background as a chemist helped?

Being a chemistry researcher definitely helped during my time in the tent. Attention to detail, making sure I was organised and methodical in my approach, plus remaining focussed and calm so I could produce a quality product.

Dr Josh Smalley with a food mixer.Dr Josh Smalley with this years Great British Bake Off recipe book.

Have you been recognised on campus?

Yes, I've been recognised all over campus since my appearance on the show. Frequently being stopped for a selfie or some Bake Off chat, which I'm always happy to do! The support from everyone at the University of Leicester has been incredible throughout.

Tell us a little bit about your research and what you do here at Leicester.

I've been at the University of Leicester for 10 years, having completed my Undergraduate degree (MChem in Pharmacautical Chemistry), PhD in Chemical Biology and now working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Chemistry. My current research is with Professor Steve Bull on the development of peptidomimetic sulfinamide foldamers, and before that I spent many years working under Dr James Hodgkinson developing Proteolysis Targeting Chimeras (PROTACs) for targeting histone deacetylase enzymes for degradation.

You were an undergraduate and postgraduate here at Leicester too, what has your experience been like?

I've lived in Leicester my whole life so it is a very special place to me and I've loved my time at the University of Leicester. I thoroughly enjoyed my undergraduate years here and my PhD years have allowed me to experience and establish a multidisciplinary skillset, synthesising molecules in the chemistry lab in the George Porter Building and then evaluating them using in vitro assays and in cells over in the Henry Wellcome Building. This has set me in good stead for my future career.

Any words of advice you’d like to give to students, based on your Bake Off experience?

If Bake Off has taught me anything, it is to believe in yourself and be more confident in your abilities. A year ago I would have said there is no chance of me making it into the Bake Off tent and that I wouldn't have had the confidence to talk in front of camera or have the baking knowledge or skills required. But I look back now and wish I hadn't felt like that. I'm so proud of what I managed to achieve on the show, and I have come out of it with so much confidence in myself. I can't wait to see where my baking takes me next.

Top tip for all the amateur bakers out there?

Best tip for amateur bakers out there is to get to know your oven and to not rush your baking. Take time to read the recipe before beginning, then I promise you it will work!