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Dr Nicola Symonds first female Operations Director of the new enterprise unit, nC2

Published: 3 February 2016
Dr Nicola Symonds
Dr Nicola Symonds, Operations Director for the newly formed enterprise unit

Dr Nicola Symonds specialises in tribology (the study of interactions between surfaces, including friction, lubrication and wear) and forensic materials engineering. One of a small number of female Chartered Engineers in the UK, her career to date has encompassed air accident investigations for the Ministry of Defence, research into real-world industry problems and work with the British skeleton bob team.

What would you say to women considering doing a degree in engineering?

Go for it! Don’t be put off by peer pressure and other people’s perceptions of what women ‘should’ do.

What is your current role within Engineering and the Environment?

I’m Operations Director for a newly formed enterprise unit, nC2, which gives industry direct access to our expertise and specialist equipment in the field of tribology, surface science and materials engineering. For example, a company might come to us with an idea for a new coating designed to resist a particular environment; we can simulate that environment and run tests to find out how effective the coating is. Or we might be asked to examine a damaged component to find out what caused it to fail.

As Operations Director and Principal Consultant I coordinate the projects as well as doing the research itself in some cases. I’m a very practical engineer, so this type of work really appeals to me. It also involves lots of liaison with industry, which is great.

What inspired you to go into engineering?

As a child I loved Star Trek and everything to do with space. Later, when I was doing A levels and trying to decide on a career, a visit to an air show made me think about studying aerospace engineering. I decided to do aeronautics at Southampton and graduated with a BEng (Hons) Aeronautics and Astronautics with Enhanced Materials Option in 1996.

How did you come to specialise in tribology?

During my degree I found my interest lay in the materials side of aeronautics, rather than the more theoretical aspects such as mathematical modelling, probably because materials science was more hands-on. It involves looking at which materials are best for certain components, for example, and understanding the effects of stress and fatigue on helicopter and aeroplane parts. So after I graduated I stayed on at Southampton to do a PhD in materials science, in a newly formed unit specialising in tribology. I gained sponsorship for my doctorate from British Petroleum; my research investigated the effect of wear and impact on polymeric coatings used in the oil industry.

How did your work in air accident investigation come about?

After my PhD I got a job with BAe Systems as a systems engineer, but I found I wanted to do something more hands-on, so after about a year I moved on to work for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) as a forensic materials engineer. This involved investigating military incidents and accidents, usually involving helicopters or aeroplanes but also ships and boats. We also supported civilian investigations with the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, providing expertise on the behaviour of materials and why they fail. I was with the MOD for just over 10 years, going up through the ranks to become a senior engineer.

During this time I was elected a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) and in 2007 became one of the UK’s few female Chartered Engineers.

What brought you back to work for the University?

When I had my first child I wanted to reduce my working hours, but unfortunately I was unable to work part time so I had to take a different route. I got back in touch with the tribology department at the University, which had grown significantly since I did my PhD and was now the National Centre for Advanced Tribology at Southampton (nCATS). I was offered a part-time research fellow role, which was part-funded by a returners grant designed to help women back into research after having a family.

How have you benefited from the University’s support for female academics?

Since coming back in 2011 I’ve been promoted from Research Fellow to Senior Research Fellow within nCATS, and again to my new role as Principal Enterprise Fellow and Operations Director for nC2. The flexible approach of faculty colleagues means I have been able to continue to work part time in these roles. It’s been great to have the support to do that. I also have a level of autonomy in terms of when I do my hours, and to some extent where – sometimes it’s helpful to work from home for short periods. In my team I have male and female colleagues who do the school run, so we try to work around that when scheduling meetings.

I had my second child after returning to the University, so I’ve also benefited from the maternity leave package.

I have a mentor – Professor Philippa Reed – and that’s something I’ve found very valuable, particularly when I first stared here. I had been away from academia for so long that it was really helpful to have a senior colleague to advise on how everything worked and who to approach about different things. I was proactive in seeking out a mentor myself when I arrived here, but there are also formal mentoring systems in place to help staff find a mentor. I now find myself in a position to mentor others, and currently have two mentees.

What drives your involvement in initiatives that encourage women into engineering?

When I did my undergraduate degree I was one of five women in an intake of about 100. All the women did well, as they were all academically at the top of their class and were really ‘in it to win it’, whereas the some of the men were only there because they thought they ought to do engineering. If we could interest more girls in engineering we could balance out the numbers and attract the most talented students across the board, raising the quality of engineers and engineering in this country.

I initially got involved in supporting women in engineering through the RAeS in 2009, when I helped to set up its Women in Aviation Aerospace Committee. We pulled together some ‘state of the nation’ information on women in engineering and I remember being blown away by the fact that at the time only six per cent of professional engineers (Chartered Engineers etc) were women. Today that number is eight per cent but there is still a long way to go.

For things to change we need to promote a better understanding of what engineering roles actually involve, and get away from the perception that it’s all about oily rags, or that an engineer is someone who fixes your central heating.

What form does your outreach activity take?

I’ve been involved in campus-based activities, such as the TEAtime lectures for year 12 and 13 students from Hampshire schools, and I designed and ran Dragonfly workshops for year 9 schoolgirls, who came and did some hands-on materials engineering activities. I’ve also taken part in work in schools, including a ‘meet the engineer’ event at which groups of year 8, 9 and 10 children interviewed a number of engineers to find out what they do. I took along some model trains and talked to them about some real train research that I’d been doing.

Are attitudes to gender equality changing in engineering?

In Engineering and the Environment, the Athena SWAN programme is putting gender equality on the agenda and encouraging people to discuss it. There have always been networks for women in science and engineering at the University, but Athena SWAN has promoted these and more initiatives are springing up to support women.

There are more role models now too, with growing numbers of women in senior positions in engineering, here and in the wider world. For example, in 2013 the RAeS appointed its first female president.

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