Professor Dame Pratibha Gai DBE FREng FRS is a Professor at the University of York
“My research focuses on unlocking the mysteries of the changing atomic world of dynamic chemical processes. ”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
My current role is Professor of Electron Microscopy and founding Co-Director of the York Nanocentre for interdisciplinary research and teaching. My research focuses on unlocking the mysteries of the changing atomic world of dynamic chemical processes. It involves studies of atoms in action in chemical processes to enable the development of improved energy sources, healthcare, industrial products and a cleaner environment to benefit society.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
Atoms are the basic building blocks of matter and are about one tenth of one billionth of a metre in size. They are invisible to the human eye. Many chemical processes (or reactions) for human benefit take place over catalyst materials (which speed up the reactions ) at the atomic level. I wanted to visualise and analyse how atoms work, aimed at the rational development of new technologies and catalysts. This required engineering of a novel instrumentation. Engineering provided an opportunity to carry out applications of physics I studied as a student.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
Making good things happen to benefit society, with the development of new medicines, cleaner environment, renewable energy sources and improved industrial products.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
Engineering the development of the first atomic resolution environmental-transmission electron microscope (atomic resolution-ETEM) instrumentation to watch and analyse technologically important dynamic chemical reactions at the atomic level. They were not know before. This challenge involved combining chemical reactions with atomic resolution microscope. The ETEM has opened up a new area of research and development in dynamic atomic scale nanostructural engineering, leading to improved healthcare products, bioenergy processes, catalysts and clean nanocoating technologies for durable pigments for strong polymers and food. These engineering developments have received international recognition.
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
Efforts should be made to avoid stereotypes from an early age. Societal expectations for women do not always include careers in engineering. Parents, school teachers and society as a whole can all play a key role in encouraging girls into engineering at an early age and provide support. However, there is a long way to go before gender parity can be achieved.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the engineering sector?
There is much more encouragement now for women in engineering than when I started out. There are outreach programmes, including those run by the Royal Academy of Engineering, to engage talent in women engineers. As a consequence, more women than before are being attracted to engineering careers.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
Go for it! Aim high and be the best you can be. Above all, engineering offers great opportunity and satisfaction to develop technologies for better healthcare, sustainable energy sources, industrial products and a cleaner environment, which are beneficial to society. After all, women make up half the population and more women engineers bring more benefits to the world. That is my vision.