Celebrating Women in Engineering
To mark International Women in Engineering Day on 23 June 2017, we talk to some of Surrey’s ambitious and inspirational PhD and EngD students to get the inside track on what attracted them to engineering and the exciting discoveries they are making every day.
Emily Smith is a ‘Research Engineer’ on Surrey’s Engineering Doctorate (EngD) programme in MiNMaT (Micro and NanoMaterials and Technologies) within the Department of Mechanical Engineering Sciences, which involves her conducting research for global technologies and materials company Haydale.
Hashini Thirimanne is based in the ATI (Advanced Technology Institute) within the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, and has recently won Surrey’s ‘3 Minute Thesis’ competition 2017.
Agnieszka Suliga is studying for a PhD in carbon fibre reinforced materials for space missions within the Department of Mechanical Engineering Sciences.
Paschalia Mavrou is studying for a Practitioner Doctorate in Sustainability within Surrey’s Centre for Environment and Sustainability, working with Unilever to explore ways of reducing food waste through better moisture migration management in food products.
What inspired you to get into engineering?
Emily: I studied chemistry as my first degree and found my way into engineering from there. I’m quite practical and liked the fact that engineering is more product based than pure science.
Adela: Born and bred in a family working in engineering and science, I don’t know whether I inherited the genes or grew towards this field myself. I think it started with shadowing my father as he undertook DIY tasks around the house.
Did you have a female role model in engineering or science when you were younger?
Emily: My mum had studied chemistry and worked at Exxon Mobil in the petrochemicals division, so she was a pretty big role model for me. I also had an A level chemistry teacher who was very motivating – I remember her encouraging us to blow things up!
Paschalia: Not specifically, but at school in Greece I had wonderful teachers who didn’t see ‘male’ and ‘female’ students, but rather pupils who were willing to learn (or not).
Stella: I had an amazing female maths teacher who encouraged me never to give up until I reached my goals. I also remember being very excited and inspired by the biography of Alice Augusta Ball, the African American chemist who developed an injectable oil extract which was the most effective treatment for leprosy until the 1940s.
Why did you decide to pursue a doctoral programme (PhD or EngD) after your undergraduate degree?
Emily: I began to research industrially relevant PhD opportunities and got in contact with Professor Robert Slade at Surrey, who told me about the EngD. It sounded right up my street: you’re based in a relevant company doing your own project, and finding your own research style, but with the academic and facility support from Surrey.
Hashini: I love doing research – finding new things is the main point for me! The unique thing about this PhD opportunity is that the ATI is a truly multidisciplinary centre which actually delivers something to society.
Adela: From all the environment-related subjects in my undergraduate studies, I was especially drawn to the water topics. I focused both my graduation project and my Master’s dissertation on water issues and I wanted to acquire better knowledge of the subject – so the next logical step was a PhD programme.
What’s your PhD/EngD project all about, and why do you find this such an exciting topic?
Emily: I work with global technologies and materials group Haydale researching carbon nanomaterials such as graphene, and using a plasma treatment to change the properties of these materials. This enables them to be employed in supercapacitor devices which are used for regenerative breaking on electric cars and in emergency applications such as the fire exits on an aeroplane. In the future we need to be able to store much more energy to make the best use out of renewables and save us from the impending energy crisis, so this is a very exciting area to work in.
Hashini: I’ve developed an ‘X-ray detector’ which is thinner than paper, flexible, and powered by watch batteries. This can be used in cancer therapy to accurately evaluate how much dose needs to be given to patients and – because it can be wrapped around the relevant part of the human body – performs better than conventional detectors.
Agnieszka: For space missions you need lightweight, flexible materials like plastics and polymers to minimise the payload weight, but these are very prone to degradation. I’m looking at how the environment of Low Earth Orbit degrades materials, and developing protection strategies so we can make them more robust and feasible for future missions.
Paschalia: Working with Unilever I’m modelling moisture migration in composite food systems during storage. Consumers tend to reject foods with altered sensory attributes due to moisture migration between the different compartments – for example a jam sandwich biscuit which goes soggy due to moisture from the jam. Reducing food waste is a key task in our fight against climate change, so solving this problem is very important.
Stella: My PhD research focuses on the development of a 3D engineering platform for pancreatic cancer studies and treatment screening. By studying how cancer progresses in a more realistic microenvironment than using conventional 2D systems, we gain very useful information about the cancer cells’ behaviour and evolution, and how they respond to treatments like irradiation and chemotherapy.
Adela: Alongside the ongoing development of new products used in our everyday life, there’s a need to keep emerging pollutants below approved levels. This is the case with metaldehyde, which is widely used to control snails and slugs in the UK. My research aims to develop innovative adsorbents to retain and eliminate these pollutants.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your chosen discipline?
Agnieszka: When I talk about my work, the reaction from other people is usually “wow!”: space is a topic which fascinates most people. I also like the fact that as a PhD student you can be your own boss and pursue your own ideas. I find that Surrey really values ambition and individuality.
Stella: Creating materials that mimic human tissue is a major challenge and requires a multidisciplinary approach using the principles of chemical and bioprocess engineering, material science and biology. It’s incredibly rewarding to know that my work could contribute to improving outcomes for people with cancer.
Adela: I’m a big nature lover and I do my best, every day, to reduce my carbon footprint. Besides helping me to develop professionally, being able to make a contribution towards reducing pollution through my PhD is very meaningful to me.
What are your future career ambitions?
Hashini: I plan to continue working on my detector, which we have now filed a patent on, and hopefully see it being used in hospitals and other environments such as airports.
Agnieszka: I’d like to see what it’s like to work in industrial R&D, still within the field of materials for space applications. To be able to see a piece of the material I’ve developed actually flying would be an amazing experience!
Do you have any advice for aspiring female engineering and science students?
Hashini: Challenge yourself and be a hard worker. When I started my PhD I had to learn the ABCs of physics and engineering because I knew little about these areas. It was tough to begin with but ultimately rewarding.
Paschalia: If you liked science at school, then study it at university! As you build up complexity you’ll find that you enjoy it even more.
Stella: Engineering demands an interdisciplinary approach and critical thinking to find solutions, which can be hard. Dare to try it! In my experience your motivation and willpower can lead you wherever you want to go. My gender has not had an impact on my goals.
Do you feel that enough is being done to encourage women to pursue a career in engineering?
Agnieszka: Girls are smart: we just need to show them the possibilities and they’ll develop the passion.
Paschalia: I think the most important thing is to teach school children about each discipline so that they can make informed decisions about their studies. In one of my first lectures at university, we were asked to describe what a mechanical engineer does. Most students thought it just involved designing cars, and these were people who’d chosen to study mechanical engineering!
Engineering at Surrey
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Supporting female engineers
The University of Surrey is strongly committed to equality of opportunity and promoting 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 Department Awards for our Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Department of Mechanical Engineering Sciences.