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One of my Professors at university told me that engineering is about finding the things that aren’t good enough in this world and designing a way to make them better. For me anyone can be an engineer if you have ideas and a drive to improve things you see around you.
When I was younger I loved coming up with inventions for games and projects which I made my sisters and cousins try out all summer holidays. I’m hopeless at mental arithmetic, but when maths became less about numbers and more about patterns and variables I realised I could understand it. But I wanted to study something that I could relate to the real world more easily than theoretical equations.
I was interested in the challenge of reducing global warming and of changing our energy system to something more sustainable. This link to power, energy and its impact on the earth led me to study physics and geology at Cambridge University and later a Masters in sustainable energy at Edinburgh University’s Engineering Department.
At university I became an active member of an organisation called Engineers Without Borders where I found a community of enthusiastic people who wanted to use engineering to improve lives in the developing world. I went on to coordinate EWB’s UK outreach programme. This involved lots of running round the country trailing plastic bottles and sacks of sand, getting lost trying to find school carparks. We ran workshops at schools and science festivals to encourage young people to think about engineering not just in terms of building cars and bridges, but as a tool for bringing access to clean water, electricity, or food for people living in poverty. This was an area of where I found many more women were inspired to get involved.
At university I was lucky enough to study with many inspiring people. One was Professor David MacKay, a great scientist and communicator, whose now famous work Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air [see www.withouthotair.com] is obligatory reading for anyone interested in this field. Around when I was finishing my masters degree Prof. MacKay was appointed to the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate as their Chief Scientific Advisor. As someone who knew nothing about politics I hadn’t considered a career in Government before, but I realised many of the influential decisions on energy systems are made from within the public sector, so I decided to try it too.
Since then I have worked in different parts of Government with short stints in industry too to learn what it’s like to construct and operate real projects in offshore wind, geothermal energy and anaerobic digestion (that’s turning rotting things into energy). Now I work in the UK Embassy in China, the world’s largest energy consumer and producer, where my team’s role is to support partnerships between UK and Chinese energy companies.
My advice for other women considering engineering or science is to go for it. Try to surround yourself with people who you admire and you will be most likely to enjoy whatever you do. And look broadly when you are thinking about which cause you want to choose to apply your skills. Almost every organisation needs engineering minds, not just laboratories and factories.