Serena Best is a both a Professor of Materials Science and Fellow of St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge. She co-directs the Cambridge Centre for Medical Materials, holds 9 different patents, and has produced almost 300 academic publications. Serena is a Fellow of both the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (and holds the position of Senior Vice President for the latter). She was awarded a CBE for services to Biomaterials Engineering in 2017.
We sat down with Serena to learn more about her work, what sparked her career, and her thoughts on starting a career in engineering.
My passion for technology started when I was around 9 years old. I was fascinated with the mechanics of things that change state – machines, cars, TV, radio and so on. My main curiosity always centred around what it was controlling these things, and when I started pulling them apart I discovered that they all had a central brain – meticulously programmed to make them behave in certain ways.
There is currently a need to increase the number of engineers throughout the world, and engineering organisations are making new efforts in order to do so. Iulia Motoc interrogates these efforts and asks whether a better result could be achieved by shifting the focus.
As the world evolves, we are becoming increasingly aware of the important role that diversity plays in enabling society’s successes. Not only does being part of a diverse environment help us to become world citizens, it also provides us with richer life experiences.
There are many debates surrounding the ways to improve diversity in engineering. One subject in particular that finds itself at the centre of engineering discussion is the lack of women in the field. Yet, we face a worldwide shortage of engineers, and copious other inequalities exist in the engineering workforce as well.
Jamie D’ath is a mechanical engineering apprentice at MBDA. She was a finalist for the 2017 WISE One to Watch Award and won the 2017 Mary George Memorial Prize for Apprentices. We asked to hear Jamie’s thoughts on the benefits of engineering apprenticeships, as well as her opinions on potential entry barriers to a career in engineering.
Who am I?
I’m a fourth-year apprentice engineer at MBDA, Europe’s leading developer of missiles and missile systems. I’m currently in the final stages of completing my HND in Mechanical Engineering and am working with the trials department for my final placement where I will stay once my apprenticeship is complete.
I got into the world of engineering through the World Skills Mobile Robotics competition. I was asked to compete as programming was a hobby of mine and the robotics team needed an expert. We came third in the competition and I met some of the experts from MBDA who told me about opportunities there, which encouraged me to want to work with them.
Engineering, at a fundamental level, comprises the act of bringing something about. It’s the branch of STEM that transforms the ideas and theories into tangible solutions that solve problems. If you look at the effect of this endeavour over time, then engineering has, across its various forms, helped to propel us from the first use of tools to self-aware computers and space exploration.
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to think of anything that doesn’t have its roots in engineering. You can be sitting in an Uber, replying to emails or checking Facebook, sipping a hot cup of coffee. On top of that, it’s spring and you have hay fever, so you take an antihistamine. Before you know it, you’ve just benefited from innovations in automotive, electronics, computer, agricultural, materials, and biochemical engineering fields.
The energy industry is changing rapidly. Consumers and our customers are looking for increasingly flexible and affordable renewable or low carbon energy systems. At the same time, technological advances offer new opportunities for us and the industry to meet this demand for flexibility. In parallel, the energy sector and engineering institutions are finding it increasingly difficult to replace the engineers that are retiring or leaving the industry.
National Grid sits at the centre of this rapid change. We own and operate the gas transmission business in Great Britain, operate the electricity transmission system in Scotland and own and operate the electricity transmission business in England. We see the changing flexible, low carbon and affordable energy system requirements at first hand. We also have an aging expert workforce.
Recently, I attended a meeting hosted by WISE entitled “Executive Action on Gender Balance”. As the Chairman of an SME (a small to medium-sized enterprise), I was very aware that there were some very big employers in the room, employers whose HR resources were probably larger than the whole of my own company, CGL.
Of course, there was much corporate-speak that involved ‘journeys’, ‘moving the dial’, ‘in‑work networks’ and ‘360 degree mentoring’. Language to chill the heart of the most enthusiastic SME director. It was clear, however, that there was a strong sense of a need to change things from where they currently are and to set aspirational goals that deliberately stretch all of us. To those looking to come in to professional engineering, hearing of such conversations should excite them and fill them with belief that a worthwhile career of great opportunity awaits them.
Before we get to engineering, let’s consider first why diversity and inclusion are important full stop. What is the quickest way to exterminate a species? War? Famine? Another general election? Plausible options, but to cut to the chase: if you narrow the gene pool and make everyone the same, you will create an extinction level event very quickly.
We see in nature the value of diversity; both in terms of its beauty but also in terms of how it supports the survival of multiple species. At its core, you might argue that biodiversity is a risk-mitigation tool for human survival.