International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) an annual celebration of female engineers and their accomplishments, took place today, 23 June, 2017.
With women currently making up less than 10% of the engineering sector in the UK, INWED is an opportunity to raise the profile of female engineers, demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inspire future generations.
The current skills gap within the sector is only set to increase, with the UK alone requiring a million new engineers by 2020. This means that increasing the percentage of young women who choose to pursue a career in engineering is now, more than ever, an essential task.
We spoke to a panel of female academics and researchers in the Department of Chemical Engineering about their thoughts on some of INWED.
What initially sparked your interest in engineering? Why did you want to pursue a career in it?
EJ: When I first learned about climate change, I knew I wanted to be part of solving the problem. Engineering seemed like a good way to be part of the action.
CK: I come from a family of scientists and engineers, so a career in engineering seemed natural. I chose chemical engineering in particular because when I was finishing secondary school, I had a genuine interest in reversing the negative impact of industrialisation on the environment and protecting wildlife. Halfway through my first degree, I became fascinated with biology and then went on to work at the interface of biological sciences with engineering.
GTO: When I was younger, I was always trying to understand how and why the things around me worked. Being a naturally curious person prompted me take the engineering path.
MN: During the last year of high school, when we had to choose a degree course, I knew I wanted to specialise in a quantitative subject. Amongst the different options, engineering stood out to me. A degree in engineering gives you the tools to actively contribute to the innovation and advancement of current technologies. It’s still exciting for me to realise how, by studying engineering, you develop an underlying knowledge that allows you to understand the world around you, starting from natural phenomena to industrial processes.
CG: I was keen to pursue a career in engineering – biopharmaceutical engineering in particular – because I wanted to help create medicines that could effectively cure both cancerous and non-cancerous patients, and still do.
YSV: As far as I can remember, I have always been interested in science and technology. When I was a child, I used to wonder: “how does a television work?”, or, “why does a river flow?” My favourite subjects in high school were physics, chemistry, and maths. When I had to decide on my bachelor’s degree, I was hesitating between these three subjects and chemical engineering. In the end, I chose chemical engineering as it combines all of my favourite disciplines. I have always wanted to contribute to improving our quality of life by promoting sustainability. I thought that an engineering degree would help me to achieve this goal.
CP: I always loved science and engineering at school. My interest in chemical engineering specifically was sparked by inspiring people and mentors who successfully conveyed their passion for the subject. On a side, yet very important, note: these strong figures, both men and women, have taught me that a successful career in engineering (and elsewhere) is not about gender, it is about ideas and ambition.
What is your proudest professional achievement to date?
EJ: My proudest achievement came when, after two and half years, my team and I broke new ground and started construction on a project that I had taken from conception to reality.
CK: Since the beginning of my academic career, I have been working with collaborators in the biopharmaceutical industry to improve current practices. Companies usually work with my group on model drugs, which essentially will never be used in the clinic. My proudest moment came last year, when one of our industrial collaborators entrusted us to help them improve the quality of a drug candidate that is currently undergoing clinical trials. For me this was important for two reasons: I felt that it recognised the value of my research, and, most importantly, my group and I now have the chance to contribute to the development of a life-saving drug!
GTO: I’m proud that I have been able to design and build several apparatus from scratch and watch them working properly.
MN: Throughout my PhD studies at Imperial College, I have delivered tutorials to first year undergraduate students in two fundamental engineering courses (Fluid Mechanics; Heat and Mass Transfer). My proudest achievement was being awarded the Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy last year, in recognition of excellence in teaching. I was extremely flattered, as this meant I was making a difference in shaping the next generation of engineers.
CG: My proudest professional achievement is being the first girl in my entire family to obtain a doctorate degree (and from the world-class Imperial College with a full Departmental scholarship!). It is significant to my family, as both my parents were too poor to make their way to university.
YSV: My proudest achievement was when I got my Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University Complutense de Madrid in 2012. This fellowship gave me the opportunity to manage my own research project. In this project, I developed a new sustainable process to synthesize new materials that absorb carbon dioxide. I collaborated with Professor Trevor Drage at the University of Nottingham and we published the result of this research project in two journals and on the conference.
CP: I’m really proud of the fact that I lead a team of enthusiastic researchers working towards the same goal. Even more rewarding is when these researchers start their own successful career. The whole experience is exciting and energising!
What do you think is the greatest engineering challenge of the future? Are you working on anything right now that might help us face that challenge?
EJ: We only have one world, and we need to live in it sustainably. This challenge cuts across so many areas of our lives – all engineering is in some way related to it. I model renewable energy systems to see how we can make more green energy.
CK: We live in the century of biorevolution and we can now manipulate living systems in ways that were unthinkable until recently. There is widespread belief that advances in synthetic biology could change our day-to-day life, but this can only happen if they are translated into technically sound and financially attractive production processes. This is where engineering comes in: not only do we need to deliver innovative solutions, but we also have to do this responsibly.
GTO: For me, the main challenge will be trying to save the planet from ourselves. We need to consider the how we can introduce new technologies without having a huge impact on the planet, whilst phasing out old, less environmentally-friendly technologies that were only developed to meet short-term goals. Right now I am working in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which I think has an important role to play in this.
MN: I believe that eliminating the common stereotype of male engineers is a major challenge that society has to face, now and in the future. During my PhD studies, I have actively contributed to promoting engineering at different levels, speaking at events with schoolgirls and female undergraduate students.
CG: The greatest future challenge faced by the biopharmaceutical industry (or shall I say, the next ambitious task) is to make cheaper medicines that cure neglected tropical diseases, such as malaria. I am currently working on understanding and building a more economical and efficient design space for the biopharmaceutical process.
YSV: One of the greatest chemical engineering challenges will be developing sustainable products and processes that minimise the use and generation of hazardous substances whilst reducing energy requirements. During my research career, I have been helping to develop sustainable processes such as supercritical extraction of natural products. It’s essential that more processes like this are introduced.
I have also been studying the thermodynamic properties of CO2 mixtures relevant to CCS. In the last century, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have been rising steadily due to the combustion of fossil fuels. This in turn drives the continuing process of climate change, and threatens the health and wealth of humankind. CCS will be a crucial technology in the race to reduce anthropogenic CO2 emissions whilst continuing exploitation of fossil fuels.
Currently, only a small percentage of girls choose to pursue a career in engineering: how can we make engineering a more attractive option for young women?
EJ: I think girls are deterred from making bold choices early on in life, often in quite subtle ways. One of the consequences of this is that they are less likely to pursue more “unconventional” options in their studies and careers. For instance, why are young girls discouraged from being “bossy” in a way that boys just aren’t? I want to encourage girls to be bossy, take action and make a difference. Perhaps then we’ll have a more equal gender distribution of people working in STEM and making a difference in the world.
Sometimes, the message can also be more blatant: I was actively discouraged from studying engineering at university. My A-Level physics tutor laughed in my face and told me I wouldn’t be able to do it; my art teacher told me I was a sell-out.
The issue of sexism in the workplace has in no way been solved, and we need to ask why fewer women are staying in engineering in the long-term. I think we need to move away from a gendered world as far as possible. We’re all just people, aren’t we?
CK: I have often come across the perception that female engineering students or professionals are geeky and somehow different from everyone else. I think we need to break this stereotype by showing girls that we are normal, that we have families and responsibilities like everyone else, and that all of this is perfectly compatible with our engineering careers.
GTO: The key thing we need to do is to interact with younger generations and show them that it is possible to become a successful female engineer.
MN: In my opinion, increasing information is essential to promoting engineering. There should be more initiatives aimed at informing girls about engineering studies as well as career options. We need to show them that pursuing a career in engineering does not mean giving up on the dream of having a family. There are plenty of successful female engineers who have beautiful families. These women are inspirations to us all, and should actively contribute to these initiatives. Ensuring that women are kept informed of their options means that they can make responsible choices about their future, whilst having the freedom to realise their dreams.
CG: We need to show young women that the kind of work they can do as an engineer has the potential to be as beautiful as painting a piece of art, as heart-warming as preparing a Christmas meal for the family, and as satisfying as caring for the weak and the poor.
YSV: I think one way to attract girls in engineering degree is through mentorship programs for high school girls. Currently, I am participating in the Mentor High School Students program for CREST Awards. In this program, I am mentoring two female students who are carrying out a research project on microbial fuel cells. Throughout the project, I have met with them several times, and one of our meetings actually took place here in the Department of Chemical Engineering. We gave them a lecture about our research, a short lab tour, and visited the Carbon Capture Pilot Plant. This experience was very encouraging for them. They said that it had opened their eyes to more specialised areas within chemical engineering, and had left them more intrigued than ever.