Women in Engineering: shaping our world

International Women in Engineering Day takes place on 23 June. The international awareness campaign run by the Women’s Engineering Society aims raise the profile of women engineers and focuses attention on the amazing career opportunities available to girls in this exciting industry.

At NBIC, we work to inspire the next generation of scientists and encourage more young people to consider engineering as a profession. We asked our University of Sheffield academic partner, Applied Environmental Microbiologist Dr Katherine Fish, to share her story of how she entered the engineering world, and discuss the progress which still needs to be made in promoting and striving for more diversity within the sector.

The ‘light bulb’ moment

During my A-levels one of the topics that I was fascinated by was cellular biology, learning about these ‘invisible’ components that are the driving force behind all life was captivating. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to university and I wanted a degree in a subject I was interested in, which had flexibility and transferability. Opting for Biology I took full advantage of selecting modules from different departments and studied diverse topics from ecology, biomedical science, molecular biology and biotechnology.  Increasingly, I realised that what motivated me was a desire to use science to make things better and I struggled to see how I could do that with the skill set I had. Then I took a module on environmental microbiology and I was hooked! We had an inspiring lecturer who showed us the potential for applying the biological concepts and molecular skills we’d gained to find solutions to real problems. I especially remember this ‘light bulb’ moment when we learned about using microorganisms to clean up oil spills in oceans. Amazing!

Knowing that I wanted to focus on applied science, I decided to pursue a masters project combining biology and engineering (the microbial ecology of water treatment plants), which led to a PhD within Civil and Structural Engineering at The University of Sheffield; after all, engineers are problem solvers! During my PhD I investigated the microbiology of our drinking water distribution systems with a particular focus on biofilms (microbial communities) that form on the inner walls of these systems and can degrade water quality and infrastructure integrity.

 

Since graduating I have remained in engineering and continued my research as a post-doc within the multidisciplinary team at Sheffield. My research motivation is still the same as at that ‘light bulb’ moment – understanding and managing microbiology to solve problems. My research focuses on understanding how environmental variation and microbial management impact biofilms in urban water systems, and how biofilm responses impact water quality.

With ageing infrastructure, increasing urbanisation, growing populations and changes in water availability due to the climate crisis, not to mention an increasing awareness of the role water systems play in hospital-acquired infections, there is every need to better understand and manage these systems to protect water quality and public health. In my current role I have worked on industry and research council funded research projects, supervised students and had the opportunity to disseminate our research to a variety of audiences around the world. Currently, I am involved with several industry-facing, collaborative projects in the laboratory and field, which are concerned with the detection, monitoring and management of biofilm characteristics and impacts.

Women in Engineering: Shaping our world

Striving for diversity

Engineering is all about problem solving, using creativity and innovation to improve our environments (urban and natural) and, quite often, drawing on interdisciplinary skills to do so – none of which precludes any gender or background.  Yet, quite often people are surprised when I say that I work in engineering. Due to the breadth of disciplines within engineering I think the industry is uniquely placed to challenge and change the perception of what a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) career entails, especially what an engineer looks like and what they actually do.

I believe that we should all be promoting and striving for more diversity within engineering (not just with respect to gender). Successful engineering depends on teams and hence benefits from different personality types, learning/teaching styles and ways of thinking. Diversity is critical firstly, to better identify the challenges that society, industry and the environment are facing, and, secondly, to developing creative and innovative solutions to overcome these. I would say that the barriers to achieving more diversity within engineering are a combination of unconscious/implicit biases, a lack of role models and stereotyping, which still happens frequently and often leads to misconceptions as to what engineering actually is.

Overcoming these barriers requires action from all of us; employers, employees, society and the media. We need to improve the visibility of role models from different backgrounds and speak up about inequalities – calling out discriminatory behaviour of peers and being allies to those who are being discriminated against is something we can all do. Greater awareness and dialogue regarding unconscious bias would also be helpful, encouraging people to attend training and participate in discussion in this area to help us all to recognise and address this at a personal, as well as societal, level.

Engineering and, more generally, research, can be difficult to come back to after a career break because it is rapidly changing. Employers should seek to support people who are looking to resume their careers, for instance with family friendly policies for those with caring responsibilities or flexible working for those with health issues. Ensuring work environments that encourage equality and inclusion are clearly also important. Within higher education and research this been made more transparent by the Athena SWAN charter, celebrating and sharing good practice that encourages equality and ‘representation, progression and success’ for all.

Raising student aspirations

At Sheffield, we have a Wall of Women, which provides a snapshot of engineers from across the whole faculty at different levels of their career (undergraduate, postgraduate, industry professionals, researchers, and academics). This has been a popular and accessible way to challenge and break down the preconceived notions surrounding engineering.

Having role models and ambassadors to show the range of people and career options within engineering would certainly be beneficial. I have been fortunate to be in a position to volunteer for several STEM and outreach events at local schools, not just targeted at young women but encouraging equal opportunities for everyone, irrespective of gender, to explore the world of science and engineering. These always have positive feedback. 

An event that I particularly enjoyed was Sheffield’s Discover STEM summer school, which aimed to raise the aspirations of students from local schools whose family/personal circumstances may have deterred them from considering university or STEM careers. The questions were insightful and there was so much enthusiasm, as well as a lot of confused faces when I first said “I’m an applied microbiologist within engineering!” My biggest take-home from that afternoon was that many students had no idea of the multidisciplinary nature of engineering and the breadth of fields it encompasses.

Celebrating and sharing our achievements with others is extremely important and is at that heart of most STEM awareness campaigns. I have endometriosis, and spent a lot of time during my PhD in hospitals and surgery waiting rooms so I was very proud to complete my PhD without needing an extension and to pass with very minor corrections. I’m also very proud of winning my first grant as a principal investigator, which was an NBIC Proof of Concept award, funding an interdisciplinary project in collaboration with Akzo Nobel (a global coating company) and Welsh Water. The project entitled ‘Managing Aquatic Biofilms via Surface Manipulation’ aims to determine the suitability of applying an anti-biofouling coating from the marine industry to drinking water pipelines.

For me, I think that the best thing about working in engineering is having the ability to be part of making a real, tangible difference (hopefully!) for the better. Engineering is so integral to our everyday life. Think about what it would be like without our clean and waste water systems, travel networks (roads, bridges, rail, and air), modern technology (computers, mobiles), or, particularly relevant at the moment, medical equipment and vaccines. Quite literally, engineers are vital in shaping our world. Being a small part of that is very satisfying.

If you’d like to know more check out Katherine’s University of Sheffield web page, or you can email her at k.fish@sheffield.ac.uk

All photos supplied by Dr Katherine Fish, University of Sheffield

Dr Katherine Fish

Women in Engineering: Shaping our world
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