Published: 21 June 2017

Celebrating women in engineering with PhD student Stella Totti

To mark International Women in Engineering Day on 23 June 2017, we talk to PhD student Stella Totti to get the inside track on what attracted her to engineering, and the exciting discoveries she is making every day.

Stella is in the final year of a PhD in cancer tissue engineering within the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering.

What inspired you to get into engineering?

I was very interested in chemical processes and expanding my knowledge of mathematics to solve problems, so I soon realised that engineering – particularly chemical and process engineering – was what I wanted to do with my life.

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

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?

I realised during my Master’s studies that I wanted to enter research, and biomaterials for tissue engineering was of great interest to me. Pursuing a PhD gives you so many experiences and skills. You not only deepen your knowledge in your field, but also learn that the only way to succeed is to fail a couple of times.

What’s your PhD/EngD project all about, in a nutshell, and why do you find this such an exciting topic?

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.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of your chosen discipline?

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.

What are your future career ambitions?

My aim is to carry on with my research in tissue engineering applications but, as an engineer, I’m versatile, and I’d be happy to work either in academia or in R&D within industry.

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

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?

I think things are getting better and today, women have an active role in both engineering and science. The number of female researchers seems to be increasing both in academia and industry – but there’s always room for improvement.

Engineering at Surrey

Want to learn more? Explore our courses in Chemical and Process Engineering, including our Chemical and Process Engineering PhD, and discover our world-leading research.

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.

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