Celebrating International Women in Engineering Day: Meet Michelle Hicks
International Women in Engineering Day (INWED), on 23 June, is a celebration of the incredible achievements of female engineers around the world. At Surrey, we mark the occasion with a chat with one of our brightest alumni stars – Michelle Hicks – co-owner of Firefly Creations, a theme park design consultancy.
The theme of INWED 2021 is ‘Engineering Heroes’. Who are your engineering heroes and why?
Werner Stengel, a true pioneer in the roller coaster industry, is a huge source of inspiration for me. He has pushed the boundaries of roller coaster design using his engineering knowledge to create experiences that are both safe and thrilling, and innovated elements such as the clothoid loop, which is now used on roller coasters around the globe.
What first got you interested in your field of engineering?
For as long as I can remember I have loved visiting theme parks and I wanted to choose a career that would give me the opportunity to get involved in the creation of these experiences. I realised engineering would be the perfect route into this industry when I attended a lecture about roller coaster design, and found that I could combine the subjects I enjoyed – such as maths and physics – with my love of theme parks to carve my own career path. From that point onwards I knew this was the route for me and I started learning more about different engineering disciplines before deciding to study civil engineering.
Could you tell us about your current role?
Firefly Creations designs theme parks and resorts, attractions and experiences around the world, from concept to completion. As co-owner, my role is to oversee projects and coordinate our teams of creative and technical professionals. By creating a collaborative environment and encouraging team members from all different backgrounds to input their ideas, we can identify unique solutions to make the impossible a reality and bring amazing worlds to life. There’s a real buzz and excitement as we see ideas developing from the initial concept stage all the way through to construction on site and opening day.
How did you get from studying as an undergraduate at Surrey to where you are now?
During my MEng in Civil Engineering I was sponsored by WSP, a large engineering consultancy, through the Surrey ICE/Scholarship Scheme, which gave me the opportunity to gain industry experience during the holidays and for my Professional Training placement year. On graduation I joined WSP where I had the opportunity to work on projects such as the redevelopment of London Bridge Station. As I gained more experience, I found that I most enjoyed managing multidisciplinary design teams. Combining my engineering knowledge with my passion for theme parks, I joined Merlin Entertainments as a Project Manager, and successfully delivered projects ranging from thrill rides to tiger enclosures! In 2020, I co-founded Firefly Creations.
What do you think are the main barriers to women pursuing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects?
I think the biggest hurdle to overcome is the decision to study engineering to begin with. Unfortunately there is still a common misconception that engineering is a profession more suited to men, which is 100 per cent untrue. To achieve the best designs, we need diverse teams from all different backgrounds as this brings different viewpoints and experiences which will ultimately identify better design solutions.
"There is a huge amount of work being done to show young people (and their parents) the huge range of opportunities within the engineering profession. While there is still have a long way to go, things are changing. Even since I began working, I’ve noticed increasing numbers of female graduates, which is a positive sign. These women will become the role models for future generations so it is vital we shout about their incredible work so more young women are inspired to pursue a career in engineering."
What challenges have you faced during your career, and do you think it’s been harder or easier to reach your goals as a woman?
I haven’t found that gender is a boundary to succeeding in an engineering career. Ultimately, success comes from your ability as an engineer so, provided you work hard and remain confident in your abilities, you will find great opportunities within engineering. The advice I would give to young women considering a career in engineering is that if you have the drive and passion to pursue this field, doors will be opened to a world full of exciting and rewarding career opportunities.
Who have been the influential women in your own career journey?
For me, there has been no bigger influence than the women in my family. They may not come from an engineering background but seeing the challenges they have been through, and their drive and determination, inspires me on the most difficult of days. Without their encouragement to follow my passions and work in the industry I love, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
If I had to pick one moment, seeing four incredibly beautiful tigers explore their new habitat for the first time was an amazing sight whilst I was working on Land of the Tiger at Chessington World of Adventures. We designed three enclosures connected by tiger bridges, allowing the tigers to explore their territory, mimicking their natural instincts in the wild. This project received an exhibit design award from BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) which is an amazing accolade, and testament to the team’s success in creating a safe, enriching habitat for the tigers and raising awareness of the importance of conservation.
What would you like to achieve in your career in the future?
I am looking forward to continuing to build the Firefly Creations team to be the leading innovators in theme park design. As a young engineer I was inspired by seeing the incredible structures of roller coasters when visiting theme parks and I hope the projects we are working on will have the same impact on the engineers of the future.
What legacy do you hope to leave for the next generation of women engineers?
I think Covid-19 has really highlighted the importance of spending time with your family and friends and creating incredible memories. I work in an industry where we deliver experiences that allow people to escape, experience new emotions and, most importantly, create memories with their loved ones. If the projects I work on achieve this, I will be leaving behind a legacy that touches the hearts of many, and that inspires me to carry on doing what I love.
Has Michelle’s experience inspired you to find out more the opportunities a Surrey degree in civil engineering can lead to? Explore our courses in civil and environmental engineering, including our Civil Engineering BEng (Hons)/MEng.