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 a Senior Lecturer in Water Engineering at the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, University of Sheffield. What I find most exciting in my role is guiding younger people in their journey to become engineers and researchers. And it is great to work in large international research teams on some of the most knotty urban water management problems. We can put people on the moon but we don’t understand all that much about the processes happening in our urban drainage systems. To keep our deteriorating urban drainage systems functioning satisfactory, under climate change and increasing urbanisation, and doing this at an acceptable cost is a huge challenge. Innovation in the water industry can be very slow, but I’m very excited that a novel local real time control system (CENTAUR) that was developed in an EU project, is now being installed at a UK water utility and should soon start to reduce flood risk and combined sewer overflow spills.
What inspired you to become an engineer?
I actually really wanted to study marine biology or aquatic ecology and work in environmental conservation. However, I was also realistic and my chances of landing a dream job swimming with whales or diving near coral reefs seemed slim, and big environmentally damaging civil engineering projects would happen regardless. So I thought I might also be able make big tangible positive impacts on the aquatic environment if I studied civil engineering to become a water engineer. It was a bit of a last minute study switch, I thought I’d try engineering for a year to see what it was like.
How do you balance your professional and personal lives?
With difficulty! I have become better recently in working less crazy hours. Since becoming a mum I started working 0.8 FTE, but this means saying ‘no’ to many career opportunities, and continued feelings of guilt when saying no to friends in your professional network, and towards colleagues picking up things you had to drop. I also had some interesting moments breastfeeding a baby on the bus during a student fieldtrip and in a professor’s office while at a big EU project meeting (thankfully said professor had 3 kids herself and knew how to support us, but it could have easily all been very awkward).
Finally, why is this question almost always asked of women, and not everyone?
In your opinion is there more that can be done to encourage a greater diversity of people into engineering careers?
Absolutely! The arrangements for PhD students/postdocs becoming parents should be completely overhauled. You currently may be able to apply for additional funding to cover maternity/parental leave, but PhD students often form part of a larger project and there tends to be no allowance for delays in overall project deliverables because of delays faced by one researcher. Hence their research can get out of sync with what is going on in the wider project, and it can be challenging to overcome this.
There should be more allowance for time lost due to things like morning sickness, midwife check-ups and miscarriages. Of course any researcher can encounter physical or mental health issues at any time, however, statistically you are most likely to do your PhD/postdocs from mid-twenties to mid-thirties, this happens to be the time women have babies, a rather large majority of them do so. Hence challenges surrounding this should really not be treated as if they are some kind of unusual occurrence. Also, if researchers end up needing extra support because they are insecure about their studies or work, become parents, have mental or physical health issues …as a supervisor you don’t get allowed extra time for this.
These are just a few examples; I could mention so many more… Then thinking about how I rolled into engineering, it’s unfortunate the study funding regime in UK has become so strict. If I was 18 in the UK now, I would not have gone to ‘try out’ engineering for a year, to see if it was not too difficult and whether I felt I would fit in.
What advice would you give for anyone interested in pursuing an engineering career?
If engineering interests you but you are not sure if you would fit in, please do give it a try! Be prepared to clearly set and defend your boundaries and workload. Unfortunately, it remains necessary to fight for this, but we really need more people like you!
Dr. Alma Schellart is a Senior Lecturer in Water Engineering at the University of Sheffield.