Today marks International Women in Engineering Day and, and this year’s theme is Engineering Heroes. To celebrate, we caught up with a Hydrogen Hero, Valeska Ting, who is Professor of Smart Nanomaterials, at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol. We spoke to about her career journey and her work.
1.When did you first know that you wanted to study or be an engineer?
I have always liked to see how things work and trying to fix things. I think this came from my dad, who was also quite practically minded. I always wanted to work in something useful, so I did my undergraduate degree in Materials Science. I then went on to do my PhD and my post-doc in Chemistry. I really enjoyed Chemistry, but everything was at a tiny scale. I thought to make an impact in the world, you really need to scale things up and that is why I decided to transfer into a career in engineering
2. Can you tell us a little about the work?
Sure! Smart materials are neat materials that have a function and react in response to a stimulus. For example, they may behave differently according to changes in temperature. I currently work with nanoporous materials which have interesting properties stemming from small holes (or “pores”) that are on a nanoscale. These materials have many applications and can be used for capturing CO2, storing hydrogen, and ultimately mitigating climate change. We are currently looking at achieving net zero transport (e.g., long flights) and replace fossil fuels, working collaboratively with companies like Airbus, and entities like the National Composites Centre.
3. Why do you think initiatives like International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) are so important?
I think it is about visibility and seeing different role models. It is also about showcasing the diversity in engineers, to emphasise that you do not have to look or act in a certain way to be an engineer. When I was doing my degree, I certainly did not see any role models or people who looked like me, which is perhaps why I came to engineering a bit later in my career.
4. The 2021 theme is Engineering Heroes. As a woman working in engineering, do you have any role models that you look up to – both inside and outside your field?
In my own field, I love that Kevlar was invented by a woman – Stephanie Kwolek – while she was working at Du Pont. However, I have also been inspired by people working in science communication, who are great at showing the public what is cool. Michelle Dickinson (AKA Nanogirl) and Jess Wade from Imperial College are both raising the profile of women in science.
5. Why is diversity important in engineering?
Engineering needs a diverse range of people for a diverse range of thought. We need different solutions and people to look at a problem from many different angles to find a solution that works for everyone. A lot of products do not cater for all segments of society. We need robust solutions and need to look at all the possibilities to cater for all the people who might eventually use the end product .
6. What three pieces of advice to budding engineers, especially female ones?
- I think role models are important. I have been arranging coffees or online catch ups with people who inspire me. It really opens your eyes to the different paths you can take. The people that you admire (engineers, scientists etc.) are just normal people, and it is great to talk to people about why they love what they do.
- In group meetings, when someone from my group is giving a presentation on a subject, I try to ask the “stupid” questions that everyone is wondering but are too afraid to ask for fear of looking ignorant. I think it is good to ask these questions as no one knows everything, and it helps to keep learning and keep an open mind.
- My third piece of advice is that it is OK to feel out of your depth, because if you feel this way, you know that you are pushing yourself. We all battle with imposter syndrome at different points in your career (I certainly still do) but it’s important to not let insecurities stop you from achieving what you want to achieve.