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The University of Southampton

Professor Philippa Reed is Professor of Structural Materials within Engineering and Physical Sciences

Published: 17 February 2016
Professor Philippa Reed
Philippa Reed, Professor of Structural Materials in Engineering and the Environment

Having joined Engineering and the Environment as a lecturer in 1992, Philippa Reed was promoted to senior lecturer and reader roles before becoming Professor of Structural Materials in 2006. As Head of Mechanical Engineering she also leads one of the faculty’s departments. Philippa’s research explores the microstructure of materials to find out why and how they fail. She is a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining.

What is the focus of your research?

I investigate why things break, looking at systems including aeroplane engines, automotive engines and power generation turbines. I focus in particular on how materials are affected by their environment, for example high temperatures or stresses and strains caused by complex loads. By examining the way small-scale damage occurs and grows through the microstructure of materials, my research can provide information about how and why damage occurs and how the manufacturing of materials might be improved, or help to estimate how long a component will last. I do a lot of work with industry, including collaborations with Rolls-Royce, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), and global engineering companies Alstom and TWI

How did you get into engineering?

I went to an all-girls school so I didn’t particularly worry about the idea that ‘science isn’t meant for girls’; in my science classes we were all girls, so it felt very normal.

When I came to choosing a degree I wasn’t sure what subject to take, so I chose to do natural sciences at the University of Cambridge. I had intended to specialise in chemical engineering as this would use my maths and chemistry knowledge, but after the first year, which covers a range of science subject areas, I found I really enjoyed materials science and took that route when I came to specialise in my third year. I continued to follow my interest with a PhD in materials, also at Cambridge, before doing postdoctoral research at the University of Oxford and becoming a lecturer at Southampton in 1992.

As head of academic unit – what does this involve?

As Head of Mechanical Engineering, which is one of four academic units in the Faculty, I’m responsible for overseeing the delivery of the unit’s education, research and enterprise mission. I manage the heads of each research group within Mechanical Engineering and have overall responsibility for the department’s academic staff, research staff and postgraduate researchers. I’m also on the Engineering and Environment management team, so I’m involved in making decisions about how the faculty is run and how we achieve our overall mission.

What do you find most enjoyable about your work?

I find my education and head of unit roles satisfying because they are all about facilitating people’s success, either directly or by creating an environment in which they are supported to achieve their best. As an educator, I really enjoy seeing my PhD students work towards and achieve their research degrees – that’s a good feeling. I also enjoy working with industry. Companies give me really interesting research problems with excellent boundary conditions, and my results are useful to them as well as interesting to me.

How did the support you received at Southampton help you move up from lecturer to professor?

When I first arrived here there was an active Women in Engineering Society. It was good to have a group of women engineers that I could slot into and work with. I also had extremely supportive bosses who were very comfortable talking about the barriers I might face and how they could help me to overcome them.

While I was a reader, at level 6, I had the chance to take part in a senior women’s action learning group. This provided an opportunity for female colleagues from different parts of the University to work through specific career issues, with guidance from an external facilitator. It gave us a space to reflect on and discuss problems and opportunities, as well as giving us the motivation to take action. It helped me, and other participants, to achieve promotion to level 7.

Within the faculty, how is Engineering and the Environment supporting women to achieve promotion?

We got a special mention in our Athena SWAN bronze application for our local promotion training sessions for level 6 and 7 applicants. The sessions focus mainly on interview preparation. We go through questions that have been used by panels in the past, and talk about anonymised panel comments, both positive and negative, so that staff can see what panels are looking for. We also ask the participants to try to pitch themselves, which is something academics aren’t asked to do very often, and feed back to one another.

Are there any contributions to career initiatives for female academics?

Having benefited from an action learning group, I was keen to do something similar in Mechanical Engineering. I proposed some mentoring and action learning groups for early career researchers in the department, and got some funding from the faculty to make it happen.

When Athena SWAN came up, as the first female professor in the faculty I felt it was important to engage in and support those activities. I’m on the faculty management team for Athena SWAN and we’re working on our silver application at the moment.

I’m also a member and former chair of WiSET (Women in Science, Engineering and Technology), a networking group that grew out of the former Women in Engineering Society.

What practical or cultural changes relating to gender equality have you seen during your time at Southampton?

I think the University’s terms and conditions for parental leave and childcare have always been generous and that’s very positive. I have two children myself so I’ve benefited from that. The WiSET network actively campaigned for the voucher scheme for the workplace nursery, which is a really good employee enhanced benefit.

There is greater recognition that an academic role can be quite flexible. The policy on part-time working has become more transparent and this is recognised properly in promotion paperwork so people aren’t penalised for it. From a diversity point of view it’s great that we can support people, male and female, to work in the way that suits them – the one member of staff in my unit who has chosen to work part time because of childcare commitments is a man.

We have more female professors in Engineering and the Environment now – all of whom happen to be in Mechanical Engineering – as well as more female academics at other levels across the faculty.

What would you say to someone who is thinking about studying engineering?

Find out as much as you can about it; there’s probably more to it than you think. You can’t beat having a go at something yourself, so get some hands-on experience by signing up for a university residential course such as Headstart.

The skills you’ll learn on an engineering degree are very useful life skills. You’ll be able to demonstrate that you can skill up in a range of specialist technical fields, so you could go into an exciting area such as Formula 1 or working on the large hadron collider at CERN. But engineers make really good members of staff in all sorts of organisations and roles because they know about analysing and solving problems, have excellent numeracy, are skilled at project management and communication – it’s a very broad qualification.

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