Between juggling a full-time job teaching engineering, reaching the final round of selection to become Canada’s next astronaut and winning the IET’s Young Woman Engineer of the Year award, the last year has proved a busy one for Dr Jenni Sidey.

To celebrate the first International Women in Engineering Day, we met Jenni to find out a bit more about the world of combustion science and see what it takes to win the IET’s top accolade for young women in engineering.

Jenni, tell us a little bit about what you do…

I’m a mechanical engineer and combustion scientist working as a lecturer in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge.  These days, I spend a lot of my time teaching undergraduates about thermodynamics and fluid mechanics.

We like the sound of combustion science! What does that entail?

When I’m not teaching, I study fire.  In particular, I’m interested in how we use combustion in our energy and transport sectors.  I work to develop alternative fuels and combustion devices which emit fewer pollutants than technologies we’re using today.

What does a typical day in the ‘office’ look like?

It really depends on the day!  My job is incredibly varied.  Most days I spend at least a few hours interacting with students, which includes lecturing classes and teaching in small groups. The rest of my day is spent in my laboratory, where I try and figure out if and how we can use combustion to meet our energy demands in a sustainable way.

Going back to the beginning, what was your dream job growing up?

I’ve always wanted to be a scientist and have always been excited by the idea of exploring the unknown. I remember when I was very young, I wanted to be an astronaut. This dream always seemed unreal until recently!  This year I’ve had an amazing opportunity to participate in the Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Recruitment Campaign as a candidate.

Oh wow! How did that come about?

In June 2016, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced that it was looking to recruit two new astronauts in 2017. This exciting opportunity is pretty rare; although there have been many exceptional Canadian astronauts, including Chris Hadfield, the last recruitment campaign was in 2009.

I applied in August but was hardly prepared for an experience as challenging, rewarding, and unique as the recruitment campaign. The CSA received 3772 applications and invited 100 qualified candidates for preliminary medicals. After that, the top 72 were put through intense physical, cognitive, memory, problem solving, teamwork, and survival tests. We’ve been tested on everything from our ability to fight fires and escape from helicopters underwater, to solving complex problems as teams.

The group of candidates has now been whittled down to just 17 finalists. In the top 17 are engineers, medics, fighter pilots, and professors. I’m honoured to be among them!

You mentioned you have always been interested in science, but what encouraged you to study engineering?

My ambition shifted toward engineering when I started spending more time with my uncle, a civil engineer on Vancouver Island. He involved me in various engineering projects he was working on, including everything from designing a baseball diamond to developing a water treatment plant. This gave me the chance to see what engineering was early on. It was incredibly encouraging.

Do you have an engineering hero who continues to inspire you now?

I really admire the duo Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. Babbage is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer, while Lovelace is often regarded to be the first ever computer programmer. It was Ada Lovelace who really recognised the potential of Charles Babbage’s machine as something beyond a mathematical calculator. As a team, they were very inventive and creative and had the foresight to see an application far ahead of their time.

We know engineering is not always seen as the most glamorous subject, but what do you think is the biggest misconception about engineering?

I think most people don’t realise that engineering is an incredibly creative profession. It’s about solving problems in unique ways, so creativity is an absolute necessity in many fields.  I think people often think of maths or a strict science when they think of engineering, but that’s really not the whole story.

What has been the most rewarding moment in your engineering career so far?

Being appointed to my current position at the University of Cambridge was unexpected, exciting, and the result of a lot of hard work.  It also affords me the opportunity to pass on what I’ve learned to my students.

Another memorable moment was winning the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year award, which was an encouragement to continue promoting opportunities for women in engineering in the UK.

How did it feel to receive the IET’s Woman Engineer of the Year award last year?

It was a powerful moment of reflection for me. I feel proud to have been honoured by the IET and excited to be given the platform to speak to young people. It felt like such an encouraging success – one which I hope to use to inform and inspire people considering engineering around the UK.

Beyond this, it also encouraged me to think about what else I should be doing to create and support diversity in my own field. It really became the catalyst for projects which I hope to devote a lot of time to expanding in the future.

Why do you think diversity in engineering is so important?

In order to solve the problems we’re facing in the world, we need a huge number of engineers.  In the UK, there is a substantial shortage, and we must make the profession open and appealing to everyone to meet our full potential.  Additionally, if we are to come up with creative solutions which suit our entire population, we must have a diverse engineering workforce.  Finally, there is clear evidence that diverse teams increase idea generation, productivity, and even profitability. We can’t afford to stop pushing for diversity in the engineering field.

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