Professor Abigail Sellen

Professor Polina Bayvel CBE FREng FRS is a Professor of Optical Communications and Networks at University College London




“It’s exciting to have the privilege to learn about how things work.”

How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?

We try and find ways of transmitting as much data as possible – as far as possible and as fast as possible – using strands of glass, as thin as human hair. This data includes emails, tweets, videos, Facebook messages and anything sent or received from a smartphone, TV, computer or tablet. Optical fibres form the ‘web’ in the World Wide Web and carry over 95% of all data we generate and receive. It is important to make sure that the optical fibre network continues to have the capacity to deal with any growth in data demand and also to make sure these networks are secure.


Why did you choose to go into engineering?

It seemed like a wonderful combination of physics and maths to understand the principles which govern our physical world, related technologies and synthesis, and their application to solve real world problems, which often involve different parts of physics. Physics was made fascinating by my extraordinary and witty father and exceptional school teacher, Nachum Ordman. I was convinced to study electrical engineering by a warm, welcoming and witty admissions tutor, the late Dr Roger Giblin. I was convinced to stay by a series of extraordinary mentors, inc Profs Sir Eric Ash, Sir David ‘DEN’ Davies, John Midwinter and Gareth Parry.


What do you like most about being an engineer?

Everything around us has been designed and built by someone real. It is so gratifying to think that I am one of these people. What’s also exciting is the research needed to be done to go from generation to generation of new technologies…it often happens that we, ourselves, make a technology that becomes obsolete by the next new development or result. The sense of satisfaction of solving a hard problem. The sense that one is part of decisive moment in human history. That’s the beauty of being an engineer. Lastly – as engineering is a team endeavour, one gets to work with many interesting and wonderful people!


Tell us about an achievement which you are most proud of?

I am proud of having built a world-leading research group, in a new academic discipline – optical fibre communications systems and networks. I am most proud of my former and current students and researchers – clever, inspired, and a pleasure to work with.  My Optical Networks Group is now a big international family – I am so proud of our many ‘firsts’, and of the many generations of ONGers, our alumni research scientists and engineers, many of whom who are academic and industrial leaders in their own right! 


How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?

By explaining to girls that physics and maths are not scary, that there is no one who is ‘not good at maths’, that solving real world problems is exciting – and mentoring and supporting them all the way though their professional life until they are ready to mentor and support the others (often men!).  Let’s also please, get rid of photos of women wearing hardhats and overalls in materials describing or promoting engineering!


How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the engineering sector?

Hugely.  When I started I was one of two girls in a class of 43, now there are many, many more. When I had my children only 10 years ago, having a professor go on maternity leave was a rarity. Now, more women are combining successful careers with family at every stage of the professional life; as postgraduate students, research fellows, academics at every level, and at all levels in industry. Not to say it’s not hard, but it is just that much more widespread and acceptable!


What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?

Go for it! It’s exciting to have the privilege to learn about how things work – such as what fundamental principles underpin and describe our world and the technology around us – and to try and develop something better, something that will improve or even transform our lives. At some moments you may even help to define history!