Published: 21 June 2017

Celebrating women in engineering with students Agnieszka Suliga and Emily Smith

To mark International Women in Engineering Day on 23 June 2017, we talked to PhD student Agnieszka Suliga and EngD student Emily Smith to get the inside track on what attracted them to engineering, and the exciting discoveries they are making every day.

Agnieszka is studying for a PhD in carbon fibre reinforced materials for space missions within the School of Mechanical Engineering Sciences, while Emily is a ‘Research Engineer’ on Surrey’s Engineering Doctorate (EngD) programme in MiNMaT (Micro and NanoMaterials and Technologies), working with global technologies and materials group Haydale.

What inspired you to get into engineering?

Agnieszka: I was good at maths and science and chose engineering as I thought it was a good, career-oriented choice. Luckily I found I loved it! As part of my Materials Science degree course we developed composites for healthcare applications using natural materials such as crab shell, which I found particularly interesting.

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.

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

Agnieszka: Well, I’m the first person in my family to pursue Higher Education, but I like to think I’ve been a role model for my younger sister because she’s now studying chemical engineering – her niche is the chemistry of beauty products.

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!

Why did you decide to pursue a doctoral programme (PhD or EngD) after your undergraduate degree?

Agnieszka: My Masters programme (studied in Krakow, Poland) was focused on industrial applications of CFRP materials and I wanted to go further down this route and explore the carbon fibres applications in more detail. I found the project at Surrey on development of CFRPs for space applications and I just knew it would be my thing!

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Emily: I love getting a good or interesting result. It can be a headache finding out why things happen the way they do, but if you can apply the result to something else, then you could be onto something life-changing. It’s the tiny progresses every day that could eventually lead to a Nobel Prize!

What are your future career ambitions?

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!

Emily: I’d like to stay in the renewable energy research sector. I think it’s vital we work hard to address the problems with fossil fuels and implement alternative energy storage solutions such as electrochemical energy storage and hydrogen fuel cells.

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

Agnieszka: I would say: don’t be afraid of engineering. And don’t be discouraged by some of the rather dry-sounding modules you may study as an undergraduate. There are a world of possibilities in emerging fields like nanoengineering and smart materials – it’s all about finding that topic which fascinates you. 

Emily: Find something that really interests you. Being fascinated by the topic you’re studying or researching helps a lot! I think there’s a really good environment at Surrey for female engineering students – we’re lucky to have some great female role models in the Department of Mechanical Engineering Sciences, including Professor Julie Yeomans (Head of Department) and Noelle Hartley, who manages the EngD programme.”

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.

Emily: From my experience as a STEM ambassador, there are lots of events where school students can find out more about science and engineering. I’ve been involved in helping to organise a ‘speed dating’ engineering event, for example, and presented a plasma show at the Big Bang Fair in Swansea. However I do think engineering needs to become part of the national curriculum, in order to really show school students what the opportunities are.”

Engineering at Surrey

Want to learn more? Explore our courses in Mechanical Engineering Sciences 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.

Share what you've read?