Abbie's story is 'out-of-this-world':
When I was studying for my GCSEs I had really no idea what I wanted to do as a career. I have always been strongest in the technical subjects like science and maths, but enjoyed the creative subjects like design technology and art the most. One of my teachers suggested I look into engineering, but I didn’t really understand what it was. Like many people I believed that engineers were the people that fix broken appliances, or fix cars, which didn’t appeal to me much, so I didn’t pay much attention. I was lucky that later that year, one of the big stories in the news was the Beagle II mission – a UK built lander going to Mars – and that british engineers and scientists were working on it. The realisation that engineering could mean designing such exciting, ground-breaking technology as space exploration missions really inspired me to look deeper into what the profession really entailed, and what I would have to do to work in that industry.
I chose my A-levels knowing that Physics and Maths would be required for an engineering degree, but really I would have picked them anyway based on what I was best at and enjoyed the most! I ended up studying Physics, Maths, Design Technology and French. I also went on a week-long Headstart EDT course through WISE at the University of Birmingham, to learn more about the different types of engineering and what they each involved, which was really useful. I also took part in the Engineering Education Scheme, also by the EDT, through my school, which is where a team of sixth form students gets partnered with an engineering company and has to work to solve a real engineering challenge they are facing. Going through the process of starting with a problem, and then having to research the technology and develop and build a new design to solve it, helped me confirm my decision that engineering was the right choice for me.
I did a Mechanical Engineering Degree at the University of Surrey, which I chose because it had strong research departments in space and robotics, both of which I found really exciting. One of the best parts about the course was the option to do a placement year – and I managed to get a job at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, a company that makes small satellites. One of the things I designed that year is still orbiting around the planet! Also through my university I volunteered for a local museum, reassembling a Concorde that they had been donated but that had been delivered in several sections. I really enjoyed the opportunity to get hands on with such an icon of engineering and being able to “fly” Concorde on the flight simulator that they used to train the pilots on.
Once I graduated I was accepted on Airbus Defence and Space’s graduate scheme. To start with I worked in various different mechanical engineering groups, analysing and testing the structures of various spacecraft. Some of these will launch soon, so I am very excited to be able to watch more of my designs go into space. After the graduate Scheme I was promoted to Spacecraft Structures Engineer on the ExoMars Rover - Europe’s first Rover mission to Mars! To get to work on a Mars mission, the very thing that first inspired me to consider a career in engineering, is unbelievable. The mission is due to launch in 2020, and my role is to take the concept design and develop it into something that can be manufactured, but also that fulfils all the requirements that the structure has to provide, not just the strength, but also things like thermal insulation for the equipment on board, electrical grounding, dust protection, and bio-containment. Working on space missions means you have to constantly keep learning: there are so many things that we take for granted for terrestrial engineering applications that are so different in space, like gravity, radiation, heat dissipation, the vacuum, and so on, that you have to learn about and understand. I love the challenge, but I also love going down to the cleanrooms and seeing my designs being made into reality and knowing that they will all one day be in space, going to places that no human has ever been, and sending back images that no one has seen before.
Although I love my job, I realise that the path I took to get here was mostly guided by luck rather than a particular understanding of my final destination and how to get there. Because of that I try to take every opportunity I can to go out and educate young people and the broader public about what engineering is, and what we do. I’m quite lucky that the Mars Rover project is quite exciting so it has gained a lot of media interest. I’ve been able to go on TV shows like Stargazing Live, with Brian Cox, and The Sky at Night, to talk about the mission. I also love running workshops and giving talks to schools and universities to help encourage more students not only to consider engineering, but to make more informed decisions about how to get there. Because of this outreach and promotion I was very honoured to be chosen as the IET’s Young Woman Engineer of the Year and the IMechE’s Young Member of the Year in 2013. Both of these awards have given me opportunities to speak to even more audiences about what exciting jobs engineers do, and help break down some of the misconceptions that are widely held.
To anyone who is thinking about a career in engineering I’d say find something that inspires you, and go for it. There are so many exciting fields that you can get into- and all of them are keen to recruit passionate, able new staff. Coursemates from my university are now working in really diverse jobs, but most of them got to work in the precise industry that they wanted, be that Formula One, renewable energy, aerospace, robotics, or in my case, Mars missions!