"We PhD students had a great support network in each other: we always felt free to bounce ideas off each other and try out different approaches to find solutions.”
Currently Head of Engineering at German process and mechanical contractor Kinetics, Teresa Kho has fond memories of her time at the University of Surrey, where she undertook her PhD almost 20 years ago.
She remembers: “I didn’t quite feel ready to work in industry directly after my undergraduate degree and had become interested in the research being conducted at the University of Auckland where I studied. Professor Hans Müller-Steinhagen, who had supervised my final year project at Auckland, was moving to Surrey and I ‘followed’ him because I really wanted to work with him on one of his areas of research: fouling in heat exchangers.”
Teresa found Surrey to be a great experience – not only successfully studying for her PhD, but also meeting her future husband, who spent three months at the University as an exchange student.
She says: “We PhD students had great support from the academic and lab staff, and the electrical and IT groups. We also had a great support network in each other: we always felt free to bounce ideas off each other and try out different approaches to find solutions.”
Teresa balanced her studies with some part-time work, giving tutorials to undergraduates. “Far from being a burden, this teaching work helped me to see the diversity of a class’s academic ability which was really interesting.”
On leaving Surrey, Teresa landed her “dream job” working in R&D for Alfa Laval in Copenhagen. She explains: “This meant I was working for the manufacturer of plate heat exchangers – in fact I’d done research using their plates for my PhD. With the company’s incredible resources at my disposal, I learnt to execute projects with a more commercial aim in mind.”
Then relocating to Germany to be with her husband, Teresa was faced with the challenge of learning German, which she admits was a challenge – but one she managed to overcome. Moving away from R&D, she took a role as project engineer/manager for a company building sulphuric acid plants.
Teresa subsequently joined Kinetics, which is focused on providing ultra-clean systems and piping, mainly for the electronics and pharmaceutical industries. Starting out as a senior project manager in the company’s applications group, she later became actively involved in technical sales support and was eventually appointed as Head of Engineering in 2016.
She explains: “Part of my task is to coordinate with and support the sales department with cost calculations, P&IDs (piping and instrumentation diagrams) and offer preparations when a request for a quotation comes in. Once a project is won, my team helps to execute the project with the different departments. Being Head of Engineering, with a great team, has definitely been the highlight of my career to date.”
Teresa believes that making the decision to study chemical engineering as an undergraduate has opened many doors, and she recommends it as a very practical degree for people attracted by the physical sciences.
“I loved chemistry in school, and was lucky to have great chemistry teachers, but I didn’t have enough passion for the subject to study it alone for three whole years at university. My father, who was an engineer, had a profound influence on me, and I also enjoyed maths and physics, so I thought chemical engineering would be a good combination.”
As a woman forging a career in what is still a male-dominated world she says: “Women are making an impact. There are only a handful of women engineers in my circle of work but we try to support each other, adding value to the work we chose and love.”