Published: 17 June 2016

Surrey celebrates National Women in Engineering Day

It was once said that “Scientists dream about doing great things. Engineers do them.” The University of Surrey invites you to meet the female engineers making wonderful things happen here.

National Women in Engineering Day is an international awareness campaign, taking place this year on 23 June, which aims to raise the profile of women in engineering and highlight the amazing career opportunities available to them.

Here at the University of Surrey we are strongly committed to equality of opportunity and the promotion of diversity for the benefit of all our staff and 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.

As such, 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.

This year, Surrey is celebrating National Women in Engineering Day by picking the brains of four of our brilliant female engineers.

Meet the women changing the face of engineering

Professor Yang Gao

Yang Gao is a Professor of Space Autonomous Systems and is the Head of STAR Lab within Surrey Space Centre (SSC) which specializes in autonomy and modeling, visual navigation, modern control theories, robot soil interaction and biomimetic mechanisms with applications to space systems and robots alike.

Professor Julie Yeomans

Professor Julie Yeomans is Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering Sciences, Director of the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Micro- and NanoMaterials and Technologies (MiNMaT) and Professor of Ceramic Materials. She will also be first woman to deliver the prestigious IOM3 Mellor Memorial Lecture at a high profile event for the ceramic community.

Dr Susan Hughes

A senior lecturer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Dr Susan Hughes works in fluid mechanics, maths and computing. Her research includes numerical weather prediction, intelligent transport systems, water quality and sustainable infrastructure.

Dr Suze Kundu

Dr Suze Kundu is a nanochemist, Teaching Fellow within the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering, and describes herself as a “material girl”. On Monday 20 June, three days ahead of National Women in Engineering Day, Surrey will also be hosting a live interview with Dr Suze Kundu on our Facebook page.


What inspired your love/interest of your subject? How did you get into engineering?

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. 


Did you have a female role model in engineering/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.


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!


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!


What is 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.


What would your advice be to aspiring female engineering and science students?

Julie Yeomans: Just do it!

Susan Hughes: Go for it!

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.


Do you feel that enough is being done to encourage women to pursue a career in engineering or help them see it as an attractive career choice? What could be done to improve current efforts?

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.

Get involved

Do you have any more burning questions? Get involved with National Women in Engineering Day by attending our live Facebook Interview with Dr Suze Kundu.

Join us on our Facebook page from 3pm on 20 June 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.

Get involved on social media too, by using #NWED2016 and #RaisingProfiles

Want to learn more? Discover our world-leading research and explore our courses in Chemical and Process Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Mechanical Engineering Sciences.

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