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Celebrating women in engineering

Considering a degree in engineering? Meet the female engineers making wonderful things happen at the University of Surrey.

To mark Women in Engineering Day, we spoke to some of Surrey’s leading female engineers to get the low down on why they decided to study engineering, the highlights of their careers and what it’s like to work in such a traditionally male-dominated field.

Meet our engineers

Professor Yang Gao

Professor of Space Autonomous Systems

 

Professor Julie Yeomans

Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering Sciences

 

Dr Susan Hughes

Senior lecturer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

 

Dr Suze Kundu

Teaching Fellow within the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering

 

Live video Q&A with Dr Suze Kundu

Watch the videos below to find out what inspired Suze, learn about her fascinating research and hear what advice she would give to those considering a career in engineering.

Part one

Part two

Learn more about our female engineers

How did you get into engineering? What inspired your love for the subject?

Yang Gao: My father was an engineer and my mother a journalist so I had representations of both areas growing up. I was always more attracted to the technology side. If an electrical gadget like the TV remote was broken in our house, I wanted to fix it!

Julie Yeomans: Actually, I didn’t start out wanting to be an engineer. I loved maths and science and studied materials science at university. I was initially a Chartered Scientist then over the years I became more interested in the application of my work, especially in an industrial context and hence moved into materials engineering and became a Chartered Engineer. I think this shows that it’s never too late to become an engineer!

Susan Hughes: I went to an all-girls grammar school where young ladies, like myself, went into humanities, nursing, teaching or social sciences. I really liked maths and physics but I wanted to do something more applied rather than just the “pure” subjects. So engineering was an option. At the time, I didn’t have the confidence to commit to a specific engineering discipline but instead I found a course at Nottingham University called Mathematics with Engineering. This was perfect for me as it was essentially an applied maths degree with all the applications/options being taken in the different engineering subjects, so it was here that I got my first taste of engineering. 

Suze Kundu: Honestly, I didn’t know I was falling into Engineering! I did an undergraduate degree in Chemistry, and a Masters in Analytical Chemistry, where I first stumbled into researching nanomaterials with awesome applications. I guess I hadn’t realised it at the time, but the application driven nature of that work so obviously tends towards engineering. I did my PhD in Materials Science and Engineering, and have been teaching in Engineering faculties ever since!

Did you have a female role model in engineering or science when you were younger?

Julie Yeomans: I had an absolutely fantastic female chemistry teacher who really encouraged me, but there weren’t that many other females around. I remember being fascinated by articles on television programmes, such as Tomorrow’s World and also The Great Egg Race.

Susan Hughes: Unfortunately, there weren’t many females in my area at the time. However, I was very inspired by Ann Dowling (now Professor Dame Ann Patricia Dowling DBE, FREng, FRS) who became the first female professor at Cambridge University when I was working at the Whittle Lab at Cambridge University. 

Suze Kundu: Not really. I was very lucky in that I had very positive role models that encouraged me to follow what I loved doing. Gender never really came into it, although I wonder how much of that has to do with the fact that I went to an all girls school. My most awesome teacher was a man though, Mr McVicar who taught Chemistry at Croydon High School, but all teachers were brilliant at giving us the confidence to do what we wanted, and to do it well. My parents were also really encouraging of that, and are very much to thank for me being in a job I love doing!

What particular aspect of your discipline intrigues you the most?

Julie Yeomans: For me it’s about solving puzzles, from basic science such as why does one ceramic material crack in a different way to another, to more application-driven questions such as how to balance cost and performance.

Yang Gao: Ten years ago, the opportunity to explore the potential of robotics in space –taking the role of Technical Lead on a European Space Agency project – prompted me to join the University of Surrey. At that time, the space industry was waking up to the fact that to make a real impact, spacecraft needed to become more intelligent. Human presence in space is massively expensive and there’s a limit to what can be done remotely. With on-board autonomy, a space vehicle can use the knowledge it gathers from its environment and make the decision that enables opportunistic science. And that’s really exciting.

Susan Hughes: I really feel that I have three disciplines – fluid mechanics, maths and computing, which all offer different components. The fluid mechanics has a practical element associated with it and the chance to work with flumes and experimental rigs is always exciting and sometimes unpredictable. The mathematics offers the academic rigour and poses many problem solving challenges and both these subjects are closely inter-linked with the computing. The big challenge with computing is that it is always such a rapidly developing and changing field that it is a constant battle to stay up-to-date with the changing technology!

Engineering is a great career choice but people are put off by misconceptions. If you are good at science and maths, love solving problems and want to make a difference then there is a branch of engineering for you.

Professor Julie Yeomans, Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering Sciences

What are your future research ambitions?

Julie Yeomans: I’m still working on trying to unify our understanding of various fracture events such as those involving thermal shock, impact and wear; I’m not sure that will ever be complete!

Susan Hughes: I’m very versatile in terms of my research. I research across several disciplines ranging from numerical weather prediction, intelligent transport systems, water quality and sustainable infrastructure. I would like to see this continue in the future. 

Yang Gao: My research interests are motivated by promoting AI techniques in space, including computational intelligence, robotic vision and biomimetics and low-cost engineering design for space systems and missions to the Moon, Mars, Europa and beyond!

Suze Kundu: I managed to get a patent on the work I did when I was at UCL studying for my PhD, which falls into an area of photocatalysis. My future research dream would be to see that being adopted in a range of applications, from clean energy generation (such as artificial photosynthesis and solar fuel production, my area of expertise) to self-cleaning glass.

What's the most rewarding aspect of teaching your discipline?

Julie Yeomans: I’m passionate about materials and it’s great when students understand why that is and hopefully want to join in too!

Susan Hughes: Definitely the students! I thoroughly enjoy engaging with students at all levels. In the first year, the students have never experienced any fluid mechanics before and are often quite baffled by new concepts. Towards the end of the year, they are much more confident and successfully tackling most questions. By second year, the students are in their stride and do more applied fluid mechanics, group work and developing posters. The banter is much more of a two-way process and the students really embrace the subject. For me, the most rewarding part is watching this transition over the two years and seeing the students mature, develop new skills and gain much more confidence in fluid mechanics.

Yang Gao: I lecture Electronic Engineering undergraduates and postgraduates on space robotics and space mission designs and I’m keen to dispel the myth that science and engineering are ‘for men’. Regarding the perception that women are somehow less suited to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects than men, I would say that this is categorically untrue. Intellectually, women tend to have qualities that are extremely important in science and technology R&D – such as attention to detail and patience. It is rewarding to be able to nurture these qualities in my students and show them that women can be successful engineers.

Do you have any advice for aspiring female engineering and science students?

Yang Gao: Subjects like maths and physics – which you need to study to become an engineer – are often perceived as ‘hard’, but my advice to girls is to try to relate these subjects to their daily life. Artificial Intelligence is actually very close to human life – it’s all about mimicking human reasoning and human intelligence.

Part of my job is to study human behaviour, and I think that when men work in a field where there are few women, it’s natural for them to find it easier to speak to their own gender. Once you have developed your technical competency, and colleagues have seen evidence of your work, your gender becomes a non-issue.

Julie Yeomans: Just do it!

Suze Kundu: Stay curious! Curiosity will take you through the really mundane days in the lab where nothing works, knowing that the next breakthrough is just a repeat experiment away. It will also take you to places that you had never expected your research to take you, whether that is Parliament, into schools, and even on to TV.

Susan Hughes: Go for it! 

Do you feel that enough is being done to encourage women to pursue a career in engineering?

Susan Hughes: A lot of work is being done to encourage women to pursue a career in engineering and we have some excellent female ambassadors in the field as well as professional bodies such as WES (Women’s Engineering Society) which specifically support female engineers. But we can always do more.

There are two areas that I believe need targeting. Firstly at the school level (year nine pupils), before girls have chosen their options so that they do not miss out on the opportunity of selecting engineering as a career choice. And secondly at the postgraduate stage, to encourage women to stay in the field, especially if they wish to combine family and/or part-time work and maintain their career profile.

Julie Yeomans: I think it is a great career choice but people are put off by misconceptions. If you are good at science and maths, love solving problems and want to make a difference then there is a branch of engineering for you; you just have to look around and find the one that suits you best.

Yang Gao: I believe things are changing for the better. It’s noticeable that there are an increasing number of women in this field now, both in academia and industry. When I have meetings with industry partners, it’s really inspiring to see both men and women, not just across the engineering field but in leadership positions.

Engineering at Surrey

Want to learn more?  Explore our courses in Chemical and Process EngineeringCivil and Environmental EngineeringElectrical and Electronic Engineering and Mechanical Engineering Sciences and discover our world-leading research.

Supporting female engineers

The University of Surrey is strongly committed to equality of opportunity and the promotion of diversity for the benefit of all our staff and students.

We are proud to employ leading female academics across all four of our engineering departments. Their expertise and passion for their subjects provides an integral contribution to Surrey’s world-leading research and their teaching both inspires and informs the learning experience of our students.

We currently hold Bronze Athena Swan awards in multiple areas, including the Institutional Award and a Department Award for our Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering

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