To celebrate International Women in Engineering Day we're sharing individual stories of women engineers from across UKCRIC member institutions.
Tell us about your role and what you find most exciting about it.
I am an Experimental Officer in charge of a Scanning Electron Microscope and X-ray Computed Tomography System in the School of Civil Engineering, University of Leeds, funded by UKCRIC. I am a geoscientist by background, but I work at the intersection between geoscience, material science and engineering. What I love about my job is being able to use different imaging methods coupled with modelling and in-situ experiments to solve challenges across a wide range of scientific topics. As Heraclitus said, everything flows and nothing stays, nature is in continuous change: as microscale interactions evolve under changing conditions, they affect large scale phenomena, and this is true for a wide range of applications. We focus on understanding how microstructures evolve and change in different materials under dynamic conditions, with applications spanning across geosciences, climate change, materials durability, low carbon cements and sustainability, cultural heritage and so on. As such, I love being able to collaborate with such a diverse range of researchers and industry people.
What inspired you to work in science and engineering?
I have always been more inspired to work in scientific topics and I have always loved being in contact with nature and the many scientific challenges we face every day. I was particularly interested in understanding our planet and how we can solve current societal challenges, such as natural disasters. To be able to solve such challenges, we need to have an accurate understanding of the driving forces and fundamental mechanisms responsible for them. Hence, I pursued a degree in geoscience, around fluid flow in porous media and non-destructive imaging methods. Fast forward, working here in Leeds within the School of Civil Engineering provides me the opportunity to work across many topics I am particularly interested in; across geosciences, material sciences and engineering, by applying my knowledge in non-destructive imaging methods. A lot of the work we do within my group focuses on the durability of low-carbon cements, re-usability of building materials and sustainability, with a focus on the current climate crisis. We also collaborate a lot with industry, which helps us to reach more tangible outcomes. I also collaborate a lot with geoscientists, to better understand fundamental processes within our planet, a topic close to my heart.
How do you balance your professional and personal lives?
I balance my professional and personal life by trying to be very organised within my day-to-day schedule and objectives for the week, and by reminding myself that weekends are for relaxing and family time. It does help to have an upfront chat with the line manager on the expectations of the job and equally on any personal needs required by the employee (i.e. nursery appointments, shorter work days etc). I do not have a family just yet, but my experience so far has been that communication is key and that being transparent and asking for support when needed is of great importance too. Nowadays, universities are doing a lot to implement wellness, better mental health guidance, and better work-life balance, which have been a great improvement over most recent years.
In your opinion is there more that can be done to encourage a greater diversity of people into engineering careers?
I think we have made good progress in including a greater diversity of people in science and engineering careers. The Athena Swan medal rewards universities which can show excellent progress in equality, diversity and inclusion. Criteria include for example, but are not limited to, better support to women and encourage more diverse (gender, race) student admission. Still, women numbers remain low in some engineering topics - perhaps better school engagement from a young age would inspire more girls to pursuit a career in engineering.
There could be more done in support of women and to encourage a greater diversity of people into engineering careers. As a woman, I think any workplace should have a nursery and a breastfeeding room, or at least be within easy access, yet not all workplaces offer that in 2023.
I think there is still a general male-dominated system in some engineering topics. Harassment, racism and bullying is a problem we face in some workplaces: there should be a stronger and quicker response, and better solutions from workplaces, and provide better support to the people involved, which would encourage a greater diversity of people into engineering careers.
What advice would you give for anyone interested in pursuing an engineering career?
I would tell them that it does not have to be black and white, and that we can shape our own future. My own research is not just geoscience: while geoscience lives in my heart, I work in an interdisciplinary network of researchers, who all work close together to solve current societal challenges, and that is the beauty of science and engineering. Working in engineering makes you understand how objects and materials are created, work and evolve together under dynamics conditions, how they can affect large scale properties, and how they can ultimately be used to provide smart solutions in our ever-changing society. I would also tell them to keep an open mind and not give up, to think outside the box, because sometimes the answers may lie within other topics.
We hold the power to understand how the microscopic and macroscopic world are linked together, from the tiny atoms to the largest geological features on our planet, and that’s the beauty of science and engineering.
Dr. Alice Macente is the Experimental Officer for a Zeiss SEM EVO 15 and a Zeiss Versa 410 X-ray Computed Tomography system in the School of Civil Engineering, University of Leeds.