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WIE Have the Tools to Succeed

This week, we spoke to Beau Bussell.

Hi Beau, thank you so much for joining me on this blog about Women in Engineering (WiE). I think it is important to emphasise the benefits of engineering and a STEM career and also understand how to achieve this career path so it would be great to discuss the routes you took and what made you go into engineering.

So, please introduce yourself and tell us something about yourself?

My name is Beau, Beaujolais in full, I started in Physics and now I am doing an Engineering Doctorate in Nanomaterials and Statistical Modelling. 

Something about me is that in my spare time I am a trainee bird ringer. I volunteer for the British Trust for ornithology where we catch birds and measure data about them. This teaches people about breeding habits so we can research into improving them. 

Tell me, what was it that made you think about engineering and when?

Early, definitely early. My dad has been an Engineer my whole life. My parents were big on me doing well at school and I was good at maths as a child and that continued by me undertaking maths and logic based subjects including all the sciences. I did not know what job I wanted to go into, for example, I didn’t think about wanting to be a Doctor or anything, all I knew was that I wanted a degree that could set me up to do whatever I choose. This led me to Physics; I thought it was so varied I could easily go into any of the other fields that came from that. I studied Physics at Surrey University and it is ingrained in you. If you love engineering and science, it is a natural thing from the start.

So, an early influence from your dad as an engineer helped to lead you down the route of maths and science as subjects. Did school help with that decision or just from family influence?

I went to a state school and my friends did not go to university neither did my parents. My parents pushed me to university as they said you can do what you want to do if you work hard enough. They never made out to me that being a woman was ever going to be an issue just you need to do well at school, and you would do well in your career. 

No real influence from school as it was not a science school. However, I did have good science teachers which matters. If you do not have a good teacher, people will struggle. I was lucky that I had a good Physics and Chemistry teacher at school and a good Physics teacher at college. I then went on to a further education college and they were also supportive. 

Though my journey is all down to my parents.  Them pushing me to do more is what made me do science and engineering as opposed to the school. 

So, you went to college as opposed to the 6th form setting – what did you study?

I completed 3 ‘A’ Levels in Chemistry, Physics, and Maths.

And then you went to Surrey University?

Yes, I went to Surrey to study Physics which was hard as I did not get in the easiest way. I had been offered a place at Cardiff, but I’d always wanted to go to Surrey University. That meant that on results day I had to apply for my place through clearing, which was successful. I initially started to study Physics with satellite technology but as the years went by, I focused on physics generally. The University of Surrey course is good as they have a placement year where every student on a physics or science course goes to an industrial placement in the middle of their degree. I got my placement at Lockheed Martin where I became a test engineer for a year and a few months. This was beneficial, probably the best part of my degree and the reason where I am today. 

What was it about the placement that led to you being where you are now?

Undertaking a real role. Lockheed Martin is good at incorporating interns and trainees into the actual team each year. You are a valid member of the team and they rely on these positions to be filled every year and for you to then do a good job. You are not treated like a student which leads to exposure to several things. You get professional skills, the ability to talk to people, liaising, negotiating experience. You work on challenges that come with working in a professional environment compared with the ideals of an academic environment. 

I had the opportunity to transfer to a Masters course due to my grades. This meant I would miss the placement year and must do a research placement instead. I have an Honours bachelor’s degree, a bachelors none the less, because I wanted to undertake the industrial placement. In the end, I thought it would be more beneficial to my career than doing a research post and it did, it worked out well. 

What made you take the doctorate path?

Doing the doctorate, I thought it would push me to the positions as opposed to positions available from the graduate scheme. So, I did the doctorate. It is an EngD so it is industrial in comparison to a Ph.D. as you spend all your time at a company. So again, me going back to a placement for four years whilst doing research at the same time and ending with a Doctorate. I felt this would help me gain extra research skills to lead me to a more commercial research position. At Lockheed Martin, I was exposed to the internal R&D department and worked with them for over half my placement. It is hard to get into these positions as they are small teams and although they are innovative, they are costly. But that is where I want to be so doing the doctorate, I felt it would help advance me to those engineering roles in the future.

So, using skills gained from studies and placement experience to help your future working in research into innovative technology?

Yes, but at a commercial level. As opposed to being in academia. I love research but maybe academia is not so much for me. You know, I loved my placement, so I wanted to replicate my placement but in research. 

Do you think learning on the job is helpful for your future as you have gained the fundamentals of a company?

Yes, absolutely! I hope it helps me in the future and that it gives me something attractive to offer to an employer. With the climate being challenging for a several reasons, I hope my advanced research skills and knowledge in particular areas of various fields, combined with my professional experience of working in a company for 4 years as opposed to studying, will see the value I can bring to pushing innovation forward.

What are your plans over the next 5 years?

I want to become chartered (CEng). My doctorate allows me to be eligible for a chartership a key achievement I would like. I would like a senior role as I have high aspirations to grow within my career. It does matter to me where I go, what business I work for. I value companies that treat employees well, plus good benefits. The focus is innovative research and I want work that I am interested in. A reason I did the EngD was that I want a job that I am excited to get up for in the morning because it is my passion as well as my career. Research is never the same thing, one minute you are at a conference, next you are analysing experiments. It is not a clock-watching job and I want that to continue forever. 

When was your first exposure to gender bias in Engineering?

Probably at college. Two physics teachers, one was brilliant, and he was the reason I studied physics and if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have continued. He pushed me and gave the confidence by saying “you can go to Cambridge or Oxford if you put your mind to it”.  There was another physics teacher there that, luckily, I did not have as he was the opposite. He thought physics was not a girl’s subject and that girls should not study it. It was not so prevalent at university, but it was not gendered bias more bias in general. I have never experienced it in my professional career. But at university from lecturers, people I have worked with in the past who treat you differently. I feel it is accentuated when in smaller companies or small teams too. 

For people coming through education, where do you think the gender bias comes from that females should not be an engineer?

I do not know if it is when you get older? I never saw it in school it was just when you started to make career decisions such as university choices. You saw it more at college where the girls studied psychology, maths courses had hardly any girls. It becomes more obvious at that point. In school, you are often in mixed education. College subjects are chosen individually which then comes back to social effects, it is your parents, how you have been brought up, and your mindset of where to go. My dad is an engineer and pushing me without saying you are a girl you cannot be an engineer. I saw the roles my parents had in the household but strangely that does not mean I want to be a stay-at-home mum like my mum was. I do think it is about your parents, social aspects, and the influences on growing up.

At the GCSE stage, subjects like maths and science are compulsory. Do you think it would help if they were still compulsory at A-Level/Higher education?

Possibly, the problem is, even now the government is pushing for STEM subjects to be taken. For years, I have heard and know about campaigns coming from the Institute of Physics trying to encourage girls into physics and it never seems to make a difference. It does not matter how much the government encourage girls should study physics, it does not appear to help. I guess it may, but I try to be as open-minded as possible and the other subjects the social sciences, the arts are just as important, and I do not think they should be discounted for science. Maybe everyone should just have to study a bit of everything to give you a well-rounded person which may help with it being attractive. I think now in the modern age; traditional subjects are coming together that perhaps would not have done before. Like data science, I am from engineering and potentially working with data but the data could be on marketing, the number of clicks on the internet. Traditionally that would have been just someone with a marketing degree but now it is a mix of science and marketing. I do think there is a benefit of taking a mixture of subjects and seeing how they collaborate. 

Maybe something like General Engineering where you have chemistry, physics, electronics, etc to help open people’s eyes to the wider opportunities?

Yes, I think that is a major issue when you are younger, not understanding where you can go. There are so many job opportunities in so many niche areas that you are not told about. I considered being a Patent attorney halfway through my doctorate, I went and got an internship with a patent attorney as I thought it is a good career in science mixed with writing, but I had never heard of that role before. The same as data science, how many people go to school and know what it is? There are lots of careers out there that children are not exposed to. They see an engineer and a guy with a spanner. Engineering is such a wide term, maybe not the best term. A system engineer or a data scientist is very different from a mechanical engineer working in a power plant.

I do think you are right; I think there should be an engineering course where you get exposed to all sorts of engineering disciplines. There should be more women in the field but also more women representing it within education; every one of my science teachers was male. I think teaching needs to become more attractive to people to retaining them. I had the experience of a bad physics teacher who would have never encouraged me towards engineering but then I also experienced a great one. 

It appears to be also dependant on where you live, your parents, what jobs they were in, their encouragement, and all those influences. On paper, I should not be where I am today. I did not grow up in an area of wealth, but I put my success down to my parents.

Do you have a mentor?

Not currently, have used them before. At Lockheed Martin, one area I wanted to go to was flight testing, so I wanted to be a test engineer in the flight realm, so I arranged a flight test engineer mentor, and we met a few times a year to discuss career paths and it was beneficial. I have not got one currently, but I would advocate for them to advise on how to develop a career path in your chosen field. Also, to make you more aware of what you can do across a range of disciplines. 

Beau then asked me the question about my experiences. 

From a personal experience, I went to a science secondary school and I had no idea what engineering was. I was not pushed to physics; I only fell into double science due to my grades, but it wasn’t something I was made to feel enthused about. I was pushed to English and food technology which looking back is potential because I was a girl.

I am seeing more females in engineering, but there is a clear difference between the ratios of males and females who apply for roles so there is a large gap. There is an emphasis on females in engineering but ultimately, I do not think it is pushed early enough in my personal opinion.  For example, when doing some of the engineering promotion in schools there was typically 1 girl in 20 attending the engineering activities. 

It does not get any better. When at university there were 200 on my physics course but only 10 girls. I think you are right that females need to be exposed to engineering and STEM opportunities available from a younger age. I think year 9 like you said is too late especially if they have an image of what they want to do. Many do not know but you have a rough idea of the subjects/route you want to take. 

Even work experience at the end of year 10, you have chosen your GCSEs and that may be too late? I believe that in year 7/8 you are still quite open to influence so imagine how you could open insight into STEM and the engineering field? 

I agree, you are still young in year 7 and you are so young and naïve. I think that apprenticeships are great. You almost need placements for students to see exactly what they can do. 
I did my Duke of Edinburgh in year 7/8 I would be doing courses with Sea Cadets, it helped me understand what a real-life experience was. 

I do think things have to be changed fundamentally from the way schools are run and how children learn. There should be more focus on practical learning and learning on the job. I am traditionally not very good at exams, but I am about to become a doctor. Exams are a memory game. When I undertake practical related coursework, I do well. I think the system needs to change to give a real impact on attracting more women into an engineering and/or STEM career.

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