What is your current Job Title or Role?
Graduate Safety Engineer
What advice would you have for young women who are interested in a STEM career or job?
Know that there is always a way to make something work, and it’s ok to not know exactly what you want to do. A career is something that you work on and develop over a lifetime, and there’s never a stationary end-goal. Make the most of every opportunity: you have to be really enterprising and proactive. I’ve been lucky enough to have won several awards, but that was also because of my own ambition and resourcefulness. For example, I was shortlisted in the Chemistry World Science Communication competition 2014 for writing an article about the chemistry of chocolate and pastry (something I’m very passionate about), and how it relates to the world of art. This gave me all sorts of coverage over the University’s press, Plymouth Herald, and I even had a BBC Radio Cornwall interview! This is all perfect for my CV and experience, as I really enjoy public engagement and have gained valuable transferable skills as well as great networking opportunities, which opens doors to future ventures. Also, work on your mindset, as it’s the best tool you’ll have to develop yourself and your career. I explain in a little more in depth in the spiel below.
How did you get to where you are today?
One of my main values in life, especially when it comes to a career, is to keep on learning in the never-ending pursuit of knowledge. My background, however, started with getting A Levels in Psychology, English Language and Literature, and Chemistry. They were very average/poor. I then went on to study a BSc (Hons) in Psychology at Plymouth University for a year before swapping to a BSc (Hons) in Applied Chemistry. This was a defining moment in my career. I had real ambition to be a clinical psychologist, and as much as I love the subject of psychology and still read about it today, I knew that my sensitive nature would likely make me feel overwhelmed when dealing with real human issues on a daily basis. I swapped to chemistry, as I felt this would also be a brilliant avenue to offer me all that I was looking for: objective and factual in nature, creative in theory, practical skills (i.e. lab work), and job prospects. I really enjoyed a majority of the aspects of studying chemistry as it perfectly aligned with one of my main values in life. Despite a poor A Level grade, I graduated with first class honours. Towards the end of my degree I applied for a few PhDs, and then I was offered one in the research department at Plymouth University where I did my undergraduate dissertation, and took it in an instant! From there I quite enjoyed the engineering science aspect of my work. I had a look around for chemical engineering graduate schemes that would enable me to transfer to a chemical engineer; however, I also wanted to stay in Plymouth. I am now enrolled on a graduate scheme in order to hopefully make the transition into engineering to see what that’s like. I’m very happy with where I am currently, and I followed my natural instinct, which flew in the face of reason: I didn’t do well with my A Level chemistry and really struggled… so I chose to study a degree in it! I wanted the challenge and I wanted to make a commitment to myself that I’d give it my best shot. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties I struggled with a lot of anxiety issues and it really clouded my attention and focus. The past several years I’ve spent on a journey to overcome and manage my sensitive nature better and managing my career has played a huge element in that; by having the chance to study a subject that I struggled with, and to obtain a PhD in it, really was something that was a huge professional, but mostly personal, win for me. Although qualifications and subject knowledge are the more obvious aspects of a career, I’ve spent many, many years trying to hone the more arcane and softer aspects of my career. I’m very introspective and am aware of my strengths and weaknesses regarding how I work individually and in a team. I've honed better skills I’ve been naturally competent with, such as writing, by entering essay-writing competitions and writing reports for ‘fun.’ For example, I made it to the finals of the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition 2014. However, I spent a lot of time being uncomfortable in order to work on my weaknesses. For example, I used to be extremely shy, and so what better way to throw yourself in the deep-end by wrangling a placement with the British Council’s IAESTE in Argentina for 2 months to pursue a small project during the summer after my second undergraduate year (2010) and to improve my Spanish speaking skills? I’ve also always known I wasn’t at all comfortable with public speaking… so I put myself out there in presentation competitions, which ended up getting me to the IET’s Present Around The World (PATW) 2016 competition Global Final! I also would like to be able to better perform under pressure in a leadership role, and so I joined the Royal Naval Reserves (RNR) in 2017 to work on this. I think that this is all framed in a very positive light and sounds like success; however, those achievements came with a lot of setback, too. But there's only one way to get to where you want to be and that is perseverance, objective and realistic goal setting, and self-compassion. During my journey so far I’ve always been proactive. I would recommend throwing yourself out there as much as you can and really making an effort. Speak to as many people as you can, too, as there’s always something to be learnt from everyone. Listen to what they have to say, but take what everyone has to say with a large grain of salt; I've had so much opportunity going to my home university, yet many people criticised me for not moving away from home. For them, moving away from home may have worked, but I know myself and my situation better than anyone else, and I wouldn’t change any of my choices. And that is my definition of success.
What do you do on a daily basis in your work?
I'm very new to my current role, which is as a safety engineer within industry. So here I’ll give a brief background on my education. My PhD is in an area of physical chemistry and chemical engineering science, and was conducted within the Environmental and Fluid Modelling Group (EFMG) at Plymouth University and sponsored by Omya International AG (a Swiss-based company). The research group has developed a computer software called PoreXpert that models porous structures and various fluidic processes that occur within those structures. I was definitely very honoured to have been asked to stay with the research group because the quality of research that Plymouth produces is extremely high. The project was an extension of my third year undergraduate dissertation project with my supervisor, Professor G. P. Matthews, and titled 'nanoporous calcium carbonate-based substrates for the controlled delivery of functional materials'. This project involves investigating the controlled release of drugs and flavours from nanoporous substrates, and was in collaboration with Omya International AG. Omya International AG are a company originally founded in Switzerland in 1884, and they are now a worldwide distributor of speciality chemicals. My research involved looking at how we can use their calcium carbonate-based paper coating pigment in the new application of the controlled release of drugs and flavours. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited their headquarters in Switzerland a few times, as well as working in their labs over there for a three week period. And I was extremely fortunate to have also presented at other international conferences in France, Spain, and Italy. My PhD involved conducting laboratory work on a daily basis, analysing, presenting, and discussing the results and managing the opinions of all of the various stakeholders, writing reports and publications, and defending my thesis. My work involved some traditional analytical chemistry work, mathematical modelling, and the use of industrial chemistry techniques. I also got heavily involved in ‘demonstrating’ to the undergraduate chemistry students, which essentially is teaching in a laboratory-based setting, and marking the students’ work, as well as overseeing final year undergraduate students working on their dissertation. My experience has led me to become a Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry (MRSC), and I’ve been lucky enough to have completed the GTA (General Teaching Associates) course and the PGCAP 600 course (in order to obtain my Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice), which has led me to become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA). Throughout my PhD I also took on extra undergraduate language modules with the Open University, which provided me with a cohort of other amazing opportunities (such as winning a Santander Language Exchange Scholarship in 2012, which funded me to spend 1 month in Salamanca, Spain, to enhance my language skills). When I finished my PhD I undertook various non-contractual roles within the university, which included research, demonstrating, outreach, laboratory management, and conducting consultancy work. The consultancy work is completed through the UoPEL (University of Plymouth Enterprise Ltd) Commercial Consultancy and Contract Research department for a small company called Kernow Analytical Technology (KAT) within the Petroleum and Environmental Geochemistry Group (PEGG), in which the separation, using a novel method known as T-SEP®, and subsequent analysis of various oils for its wax content were performed. T-SEP is a proprietary, small scale, thermal separation technique that has been developed by KAT in partnership with Plymouth University, and concentrates the >nC20 fraction of the oil in order for better and more accurate analysis of the heavier n-alkanes using high temperature gas chromatograph (HTGC) coupled with mass spectrometry. After a period of time I then joined the Royal Naval Reserves (RNR) in summer 2017 and took a sabbatical of a couple of months to complete a lot of basic training. This entailed spending 4 weeks at Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC) in Dartmouth, 1 week at the Commando Training Centre (CTC), Lympstone, 1 week at HMS Excellent in Portsmouth, and 2 weeks onboard RFA Argus. RFA Argus is a primary casualty receiving facility and secondarily a helicopter training ground (as the ship has a flight deck); I was very lucky that on my birthday I sat in the captain’s chair on the bridge at 0400, and by the time I went to bed that day I had a trip in a Chinook! This was a very interesting time in my life: I failed the leadership assessment conducted during the BRNC phase. I learnt a lot about myself and about projecting confidence. I retook the assessment earlier in 2018, which involved ‘camping’ out under a bivvy sheet for a few days and conducting leadership tasks… unfortunately, our assessment week occurred during the ‘Beast from the East’ in the coldest part of the country! That was interesting, but fortunately I passed. When I returned from my adventure, I worked at Knight Scientific Limited (KSL) for several months whilst still continuing with the demonstrating and consultancy work at Plymouth University on an ad hoc basis. KSL are a small, Plymouth-based company with a focus on chemiluminescence and in developing novel kits for oxidative stress research. They also have a number of patented applications involving their unique protein, Pholasin® of which they are the world exclusive manufacturer. In essence the products and applications they have developed report on free radical and other reactive oxygen species, in particular those produced by activated white blood cells. The science surrounding their products involves the use of a special light-emitting protein Pholasin®, purified from the bioluminescent mollusc Pholas dacylus, which the company produces by aquaculture. The developed commercial tools that use Pholasin® are called ABEL® (Analysis By Emitted Light) kits. I would have liked to have done some post-doctoral research work, however, that would require moving around often and constantly applying for new periods of research and grants; I wanted to stay in Plymouth and have some permanency and long-term stability associated with my job. I am now incredibly lucky and am on a fantastic industrial graduate scheme with brilliant career prospects.
Who or what inspired you to get into STEM?
I was very lucky to have nothing but encouraging parents and teachers. No one pushed me in any direction other than what I wanted to do, and for that, I’m forever thankful.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
Not only have I been fortunate enough to be involved in extremely interesting technical roles throughout my education and career thus far, I also get to do a lot of extracurricular activities relating to it. I do a lot of STEM engagement work and outreach and enjoy it a lot. At first it started off as simply researching a few things that I was interested in, such as the science and chemistry of chocolate, and then it transformed into a presentation that I’ve delivered multiple times, including making it through to the IET’s PATW competition Global Final in 2016! I’m also getting more involved in mentoring other students and I really enjoy that – it’s great to get out and about and to speak with people. If I can help anyone in any way, then I’m happy. If you are reading and have any questions or want any help, perhaps my experience can help you, too. Please feel free to get in touch!