Who inspires me: the wondrous women who engineer

Posted in: Faculty of Engineering and Design

Author: Dr Elise Pegg

A great role model opens our minds and makes us see that we can achieve things that we thought were unachievable. They pave the way, guide us on how to get there and keep us motivated to achieve our goals. A great role model is present and visible, someone who you feel a connection to, and who speaks to you. Everyone is different with different needs, and so they will be inspired by role models with different characteristics. As a society, it is our duty to ensure that the role models we make visible represent as much diversity as possible, so that we maximise the number of people we inspire.

In the world of mechanical engineering, there is a striking lack of diversity. Female engineers comprise just 12% of the workforce, and this is the lowest in Europe. There are some indications that this is improving and it is up from 9% in 2015; improvements in the visibility of female role models may play a part in this. However, it is not enough to focus just on gender. Engineering has diversity issues in many other areas, including; race (only 8% of engineers are black, Asian, and minority ethnic), LGBT+ (6%), disability, socio-economic status, to name only some. There is still inequality in how engineers from these groups are treated, and engineers who fall into more than one of these groups (intersectionality) have to overcome even more barriers to success.

Organisations such as the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK) and InterEngineering (IE) are doing fantastic work to support and provide role models for BAME and LGBT+ engineers, but this work should not be left to charities. So much more can be done by universities to promote diversity in engineering, and role models play a critical part in that. For National Women in Engineering Day, we asked people in the Department of Mechanical Engineering here at Bath to tell us more about who inspired them to become engineers.

University of Bath Engineer: Dr Elise Pegg

What you do: Lecture in structural mechanics and materials, and undertake biomechanics and biomaterials research

Your role model: Sophie Germain

Why they inspire you: Sophie Germain was born in 1776 and grew up during the French revolution in Paris. At the age of 13 for her safety during the revolution she was kept at home for long periods of time (sound familiar?!). To occupy herself she spent a lot of time reading her father's mathematics books, and she ended up dedicating her life to the subject. The work she did on number theory and elastic plates provide the foundation for many calculations engineers do today. I find Sophie's story incredibly inspiring because she overcame so many obstacles to achieve her goals. As a teenager she studied at night by candlelight because her parents forbid her from studying mathematics as they thought it was an 'inappropriate occupation for a lady'. As a woman she was not allowed to attend university, but she got hold of lecture notes so taught herself the content. She used a fake name and corresponded by letter with several famous mathematicians and engineers, including Lagrange and Gauss, and worked with them on different theorems. Later research into her life has also concluded that Sophie was probably on the autistic spectrum. Yet despite all of these challenges, Sophie Germain became a celebrated mathematician who won prizes for her work and was the first woman to attend the Academy of Sciences. I admire her perseverance, her dedication, and her belief in herself.

University of Bath Engineer: Dr Hamideh Khanbareh

What you do: Lecture in functional materials and sensors

Your role model: Maryam Mirzakhani

Why they inspire you: Maryam Mirzakhani was the first woman to win the world's most prestigious mathematics prize, Fields Medal, in 2014, at the age of 37, for her contributions to hyperbolic geometry. She was an Iranian mathematician and a professor of mathematics at Stanford University. She focused on understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces, such as spheres, the surfaces of doughnuts and of hyperbolic objects. Her work has the potential to impact many areas of study, including material science, engineering, quantum field theory, and even theoretical physics as it applies to the origin of the Universe. Maryam was an Iranian, a woman and an immigrant to the United States. Unfortunately, these three words together often raise red flags for some in Western countries. Maryam’s talent that nurtured in Iran and later flourished in the states lead her to defy expectations and rise above all the labels that make it easy to judge others who are not like “us”. Of her award she said,

"This is a great honour. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians. I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”

University of Bath Engineer: Haizhu Wang

What you do: I am now a Second year PhD student in mechanical engineering, mainly focus on turbine mapping and its design optimization.

Your role model: Lyndsey Scott

Why they inspire you: I always consider Lyndsey Scott as my role model, she is an excellent software developer, an American model as well as an actress. Females are too often to be asked ‘how do you balance your work and family’, and I think Lyndsey has set a good example to fight with the stereotyped impression about female and chase after their dreams. She is a great software developer, and she has published a lot of apps on her own for IOS mobiles, and she is also an outstanding model and she has worked for Gucci, Prada, Victoria’s Secret and so many international brands. I am so inspired by her outstanding achievement and her ambition of making a difference.

University of Bath Engineer: Jasmine Rance

What you do: PhD student researching manufacturing

Your role model: Katherine Johnson

Why they inspire you: I first learned of Katherine Johnson through the film Hidden Figures in 2018 which detailed her work, along with other women, at NASA. Where she faced not only sexist but also racial prejudice. She fought to override this through her intelligence. For example, being the first woman allowed to have her name on a report at NASA. Kathrine was also incredibly clever and well thought of. Some of her major contributions include; calculating the trajectory for the first space flight of the first American in space, calculating the launch window for Alan Shepard’s Mercury mission, verifying all of the calculations for the first electronic computer aided flight (after being specifically requested by John Glenn), established an accurate trajectory that ensured that the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule could be found quickly after landing, helped calculate the trajectory for the Apollo 11 flight and provided the back up procedures that saved the crew when Apollo 13  was forced to be aborted.

She also spent a lot of time encouraging students to enter STEM and was been awarded many honours, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I was deeply saddened to hear of passing earlier this year but I am sure she has left a lasting impact that will inspire, encourage and engage engineers for many years to come.

University of Bath Engineer: Dr Nicola Bailey

What you do: Lecture in mechanical vibration and noise, and undertake research in robotics and turbomachinery

Your role model: Grace Hopper

Why they inspire you: Grace Hopper was mathematician, computer scientist and a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. I find her inspiring because she managed to overcome so many obstacles and never stopped believing in herself and her ideas. She was born in America in 1906 and was very curious as a child, which was a trait she would keep throughout her life. After completing school, she went on to study for degrees in Maths and Physics, before receiving a PhD in Maths from Yale, which was a rare accomplishment for anyone at the time. She taught Maths at Vassar College for a while before finally being able to join the U.S. Navy (after multiple attempts) as part of an all-female division to support the Second World War, working on the Harvard Mark I computer. This is what got her hooked-on computing. She led a team that developed the first working code compiler (a program that translates programming code to machine language) which lead to the development of COBOL – one of the most important programming languages of the 20th century and is still used today. Her view was that programming languages should be as easy to understand as the English language so anybody can use it, not just highly trained mathematicians, which wasn’t very popular among her peers and was told her idea would not work. Despite this, she persisted with this approach widely accepted in later years. She continued to work in the private sector and for the Navy on a variety of projects and had exceptional success. I admire her ability to looked forward with confidence to new technologies and their problem-solving capabilities, a true visionary trailblazer.

Some fun facts:

  • She won ‘Man of the Year’ award in 1969 from the Data Processing Management Association.
  • She coined the word ‘bug’ and ‘de-bugging’ as related to computer errors. This was when her team was working on a computer glitch, only to realise that problem was a bug – a moth – that was stuck in the machine; hence they debugged the first computer.

University of Bath Engineer: Dr Kate Fraser

What you do: I am a lecturer in Mechanical Engineering. My research is in the area of cardiovascular biomechanics and medical device engineering with specific focuses on simulating and measuring blood flow and methods for assisting and replacing the failing heart. I teach computational fluid dynamics and medical engineering, and enjoy supervising project students.

Your role model: Dr Mae Jemison

Why they inspire you: As a child it was space that motivated me. I was always building models of different parts of the universe to hang from my bedroom ceiling: starting with the solar system, then a glow-in-the-dark Local Supercluster and many different space craft. So it was natural that astronauts would be my heroes and I can vividly remember meeting Dr Helen Sharman, the first British person in space, before she gave a talk at a family science festival. At school we often used to ask our physics teacher to tell the story of how she too applied for that job, and the story of Project Juno and the Mir mission filled my dreams for many of my teenage years. By the time I completed my physics degree I'd decided I wanted to focus on helping people in more immediate ways and so my PhD was in medical physics. But the bravery and determination of astronauts still inspire me. With degrees in both engineering and medicine, and, having spent over 190 hours in space conducting experiments, Dr Mae Jemison is one of the most inspirational of all. In 1987, Jemison was selected from 2000 applicants to train to be an astronaut, and then in 1992 she was chosen to be the Science Mission Specialist for the STS-47 mission on the Space Shuttle Endeavor, and became the first African American woman in space. Jemison’s experiments included osteocyte research and investigating tadpole development in zero gravity: combining my passions for space and bioengineering! Continuing my hobby of building space models, Jemison is shown in the photo with Dr Sally Ride, who spent a total of 343 hours in space across two missions on board Space Shuttle Challenger. Ride was the first known LGBT astronaut.

University of Bath Engineer: Anna Young

What you do: Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering. I teach first-year fluid mechanics, I’ve just taken over as Senior Tutor in Mech Eng, and I do research into unsteady aerodynamics and tidal power generation.

Your role model: Dr Amicia Young

Why they inspire you: Amicia Young was my grandmother. She was born in 1914 and so grew up in a very different society to today’s, in which women generally did a very narrow range of jobs and stopped work when they got married. She broke the mould, first by studying science at Imperial College, and then by going on to get a PhD in cell biology from the University of London during World War Two (she was one of the first, if not the first woman to get a science PhD from the University of London). All this was well in her past when I knew her, and I don’t think I realised at the time what a role model she was to me. My grandmother had several stories of being the only woman in her lectures, or of academics wondering (out loud) what she was doing there, but she seemed to have enjoyed her studies despite some discouragement from those around her. I think that having a woman in my immediate family with a PhD in science made a big difference to me in my thoughts about career paths. When it came to choosing subjects at school, it didn’t occur to me that I would base my decisions on my gender or on what subjects women ‘should’ do. In fact, it wasn’t until I was an undergraduate that I first questioned whether women were as good as men at engineering (they are, but that’s another story).

Posted in: Faculty of Engineering and Design