I believe engineering is the other caring profession; it uses science and technology for the benefit of society. If I had known that when I was a child, I would have definitely said I wanted to be an engineer. As it was I took a rather more meandering route to engineering.
I wasn’t the sort of child who wanted to take apart the washing machine but now I realise that I was showing an inclination to engineering. I would spend hours on the beach creating roads with sand and pebbles up the rocks for my trucks to drive up. Sadly no-one commented on my miracles of sand engineering!
I couldn’t quite imagine myself as an engineer and so I took Applied Physics at university. This turned out to be a really good choice as it gave be an excellent training in problem solving and an understanding of a range of subjects from first principles. This means I can be very flexible in what I work on.
I did a PhD in control engineering, modelling wind farms and the power system. It was the renewable power and the desire to do something useful that attracted me to the topic. After 3 years I knew I definitely did not want to be a control engineer! However, I got more and more interested in the power engineering. Since then I have worked for a consultancy EA Technology, working on R&DD in the power industry, finding ways to make the distribution network more efficient and integrate more renewable generation.
It takes a long time to really be confident as an engineer but now I understand that my niche is taking other people’s blue skies research and using it practically and actually getting things done on the ground. I love new things and when something becomes business as usual, I get bored. That said, the process can be very slow. Concepts I worked on as PhD student start being used around 6-7 years later.
Increasingly, I have got involved in community energy projects. I have found working with non-experts, explaining engineering to them and getting them involved very rewarding. From this I realised that energy efficiency and how we use energy was the other side of the coin to energy distribution and renewable generation. I realised it had to be addressed as well. As a result I got together with 2 other colleagues to create EnergeticUK. We are pioneering low carbon buildings using natural materials. They are cost effective, so they can actually get built! It is really rewarding to use my physics and engineering skills to achieve something that is essential if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
I am not just technical, I love literature, opera and ballet. I am an avid fell runner and swim regularly. I love travelling and I campaign for human rights. Without my other interests and different ways to be creative I think my engineering would suffer.
Engineering is going through massive changes as it becomes much more multi-discipline. It should be much more highly regarded than it is in Britain. For all its faults, it has an honest culture and its achievements are immense. For example, the Victorian sewers in London are probably one of the most significant items that reduced child mortality in the UK.
I am an engineer and I’m proud to be an engineer.
Dr Mary Gillie
MPhys CEng MIET MWES