Celebrating International Women in Engineering Day

Centre image credit: Women’s Engineering Society / www.inwed.org.uk

Every year on June 23 International Women in Engineering Day is celebrated around the world. The day celebrates the careers, accomplishments and contributions of all women and girls involved in the field.

Here, we speak to women in engineering at Oxford as they offer advice to budding engineers, explain difficulties they encountered, and the global impacts they are trying to make.

We hope you will join us in celebrating this inspiring group of women.

Avery Louise Bang

Avery is an MBA 2016–17 of Saïd Business School, and the CEO of Bridges to Prosperity

When did you decide to pursue engineering?

By the time I started thinking about university focus areas, engineering was already at the top of my list. My father was an engineer, and I was born with a passion for creative problem solving: imagine a little pig-tailed girl obsessing over piles of Legos, and that pretty much sums up my childhood. In the larger picture, my father helped me to see the heroism in engineering, and the importance of pursuing a career that serves society at large which made the decision to study engineering quite easy for me.

What difficulties have you come up against?

I often come across professional contexts where people are surprised to find out that I have a graduate degree in engineering. Despite enjoying other parts of my business, I really love getting into the details and nerding out about design and programming and can keep up with the best of them in my particular area of expertise.

What advice would you give budding women in engineering?

Be persistent and realise that there is limitless potential in our chosen field. The old guard may not look or sound like us, but we will be the leaders who will design and build for the challenges of the next century.

What is your proudest achievement?

Building a social enterprise which has connected nearly one million people in rural communities around the world is truly humbling. But I also teach a graduate-level engineering course back at the University of Colorado in Boulder, which is one of my most professionally challenging, but satisfying accomplishments.

What is your favourite part of working with the University?

Coming to the University of Oxford has been such a treat. Where else in the world can a person leave a debate at the Union between world leaders and have dinner in a grand hall of the likes of Christ Church. One year has not been long enough to absorb all that this town has to offer.

How does your own research have an impact on the world beyond the lab? What impact do you hope it will have?

Bridges to Prosperity is innovative both in our modularity of design, and in the way that we repurpose recycled materials such as cable and steel pipe in order to build low-cost, durable infrastructure.

What is the creative aspect of your approach or solution?

My time here at Oxford has been focused on how to get more of this low-cost pedestrian infrastructure financed, shifting the organisational specialty from a technological one, to one of mobilising financing for the rural last mile.

Gladys Chepkirui Ngetich

Gladys is a Rhodes Scholar and DPhil Engineering Science (Thermofluids & Turbomachinery Group). She pursued Mechanical Engineering at Jomo Kenyatta University in Kenya, before winning a Rhodes Scholarship.

When did you decide to pursue engineering?

My love for maths and sciences developed while I was a young girl in primary school and became stronger all through high school. It was at high school when I became certain that I wanted to study engineering. I passed my high school exams highly and was accepted to pursue mechanical engineering at Jomo Kenyatta University in Kenya.

What difficulties have you come up against?

It was a challenge being one of the few female engineering students in my undergraduate. People around us always questioned our choice of the course. It, however, got better as time passed by and graduating with distinction increased my confidence and further fueled my passion for engineering.

What advice would you give budding women in engineering?

For any budding woman engineer, I would encourage them to follow their passion and desire, and block the noise from around them that questions and makes them doubt themselves.

What is your proudest achievement?

Winning the Rhodes scholarship was the proudest achievement in my life.

What is your favourite part of working with the University?

I greatly enjoy sports and my favourite part has been training and taking part in the university competitions.

How does your own research have an impact on the world beyond the lab? What impact do you hope it will have?

My research involves the development of an advanced turbine blade cooling technique. This cooling technique will cut down on the amount of cooling air requirements and hence improve the overall jet engine efficiency. An improved engine efficiency means efficient use of fuel and reduced emission of harmful combustion gases into the atmosphere.

What is the creative aspect of your approach or solution?

The creative aspect of the project is to optimise internal convection by forcing the cooling air to seep through a maze of interconnected internal passages of a turbine blade.

Fozia Parveen

Fozia started her Dphil with Professor Nick Hankins in the Engineering Science Sustainable Water Treatment group. She worked on wastewater treatment using forward osmosis and membrane distillation technologies. She is originally from Hunza, northern Pakistan.

When did you decide to pursue engineering?

Its funny because the reason why I started loving science was because of biology, and I did continue to major in biology for as long as I could. Then I switched to environmental sciences and that’s when I stated taking an interest in global environmental problems, and thought I had bigger role to play for these issues. Ever since I have continued to invest my time in working locally to act globally, with a major research focus on water and wastewater treatment.

What difficulties have you come up against?

I don’t think I have faced a lot of problems in academia. I would however, like to question the teaching and learning systems that are developed around the world as I don’t think they are still able to tackle global issues. The research should be problem solution driven and not money driven, but its also true that they are not mutually exclusive. In terms of all the people I worked with, I think they have all been supremely supportive except for some, and that number is almost negligible.

What advice would you give budding women in engineering?

My advice for women opting for STEM is to know that they may be reminded of their gender and its ‘shortcomings’. They should learn to deal with this to their favour and keep growing. Basically vibrate higher and shine.

What is your proudest achievement?

I am the first person from my region to come to Oxford for a PhD and the fact that my hard work had led me here was such an overwhelming experience. But I think the moment is still to come, the day I graduate from Oxford will be one of the best days of my life. Of course, good things will follow on from there.

What is your favourite part of working with the University?

The best part of being at Oxford is the diversity it offers, and how open this place is for all kinds of discussion and debates. I always thought that I had higher EQ, but coming to Oxford and meeting exceptional people from all around the world has opened my mind and heart towards so many things that wouldn’t have changed otherwise. I have made friends for life so my long-lasting friendships will be the best memory of my time here.

What is the problem you are trying to solve?

Nearly 85% of the world population is living in the driest parts of the planet and by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity, while two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in water stressed conditions. This situation will only get worse with climate change, and that is why I chose to work on water reclamation by treating wastewater. My major research focus in my DPhil is water and wastewater treatment using advanced membrane technologies such as forward osmosis (FO) and membrane distillation (MD).

What is the newest, or most creative, aspect of your approach?

Wastewater treatment is important for public health, and with the growth of cities and non-availability of land, the emphasis has been long put on wastewater collection and treatment. By working on these membrane technologies we are giving wastewater treatment options for cities and industries with a smaller footprint. The water product is of high quality and can be reused. This area still needs a lot of research, but as a researcher I am very happy to have contributed to it by combining FO and MD for wastewater treatment.

Ana T. Castro-Castellon

Ana is a DPhil. Engineering Science who decided to pursue a degree in engineering after working for a number of years in the water industry as a biologist and limnologist.

When did you decide to pursue engineering?

I decided to pursue a degree in engineering after working for a number of years in the water industry as a biologist/limnologist. I was strongly driven by my fascination with the mechanical transfer of water from one place to another through pipes, pumps and valves; and with the number of filtration processes that separate from the water particles of different sizes and soluble chemicals.

What difficulties have you come up against?

My major difficulty was probably arriving at a laboratory where the majority of students already have a first degree in engineering. My knowledge came from experience and practise in the water industry but my previous degrees were fundamentally in microbiology, biology, ecology and some hydrology. The impostor syndrome almost suffocated me. Slowly I realised that we all were out of our comfort zone learning something new. This branch of engineering required a broader knowledge; we used biology coupled with engineering to try solving global water-related issues.

What advice would you give budding women in engineering?

I would advise other women to open up to engineering, let the fear run away; it is a career of countless possibilities and transformations.

What is your favourite part of working with the University?

My favourite memories at the University were those wonderfully weird and interesting conversations with people from different nationalities with incredibly strong, and sometimes opposed, perspectives.

What is the problem you are trying to solve?

By applying ecological engineering designs I try to solve and/or reduce the impact of algal blooms in potable water treatment works mediated by a large scale biofilter that consists of living plant roots in a floating reed bed.

What is the most creative aspect of your approach?

Water is essential to life. I work to ensure the water we drink meets the required standards for public health by monitoring, trialling and evaluating processes for the treatment of water, also ensuring the quality of the water source is good enough for treatment. The latter is the most creative for me.

Alison Noble

Professor Alison Noble OBE FREng FRS is a Professor of Biomedical Engineering and a co-founder of the medtech spin-out company; Intelligent Ultrasound Ltd. Above, she gives a motivating speech at the National Women in Engineering Day Afternoon Tea. Image credit: Janet Hovard.

When did you decide to pursue engineering?

As a child, from a young age I was interested in how things work. I went to a girls Grammar school where physics was the most popular A-level subject due to fantastic teachers, which certainly must have been a contributing factor.

What difficulties have you come up against?

There are more opportunities presented to women than men in engineering as the field tries to address gender in-balance. But this also means that women can be over-burdened with requests on their time. The challenge for the individual is to find a balance that works for them.

Encouraging more women to set-up and work in spin-outs and small companies (Small and Medium sized Enterprises — SMEs) is also a difficulty that springs to mind. The number of female directors or members of senior management teams in SMEs is depressingly low.

What advice would you give budding women in engineering?

Special interest meetings are really important. For some attendees they provide an opportunity to network and share experiences, for others attending a meeting of this kind can potentially change their life.

What is your proudest achievement?

At every career step there can be something special. For me, now, it has to be my recent election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. It is an incredible honour to receive such prestigious recognition.

What is your favourite part of working with the University?

Working on research with my students, postdocs and clinical collaborators.

What is the problem you are trying to solve?

My advanced European Research Council award is aiming to develop a next generation of ultrasound imaging device which is easier to use by a non-expert or occasional user than current technology. The underpinning idea is to use machine learning to understand how an expert scans and to build this knowledge into the ultrasound device. Realisation of this could have a big impact on use of ultrasound in healthcare.

What is the most creative aspect of your approach?

We are currently seeking to set up collaborations in Kenya and India to develop and evaluate imaging solutions aimed at improving pregnancy risk assessment in these challenging environments where unlike the western world, women do not go for antenatal check ups but only turn up to see a medical profession when they feel unwell.


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