Nilay Shah is head of the chemical engineering department at Imperial College London and professor of process systems engineering at the Centre for Process Systems Engineering (CPSE), Department of Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London. Nilay works in the field of process systems engineering, in particular the development and application of mathematical models to analyse, design and optimise complex process and energy systems.
Nilay was a member of the report working group for the Greenhouse Gas Removal Report, a joint report by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society.
“When we think about the global challenges facing society like provision of energy, tackling climate change, feeding nine billion, restoring habitats and making cities more liveable, providing clean water and sanitation, and improving health and wellbeing, there is so much for engineers to do”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
My current role is Head of Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London. Collectively, there are about 100 permanent academic and professional staff and another 100 researchers that work in our department. We are collectively responsible for delivering a top quality education to around 500 undergraduate and 100 postgraduate students, undertaking research together with a group of about 200 PhD students and translating some of the most promising outcomes into useful products and processes. My role involves setting the broad directions for our department, making sure that we are delivering against our objectives, developing our staff and making sure we are in good financial shape.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I always enjoyed the sciences at school, and knew from a young age that I would like to do something ‘technical’. Over time it became clear to me that the difference between natural science and engineering was that the former is critical to discovering new things and the latter is about solving problems, and I was particularly interested in solving problems.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
There is always so much to do! When we think about the global challenges facing society like provision of energy, tackling climate change, feeding nine billion, restoring habitats and making cities more liveable, providing clean water and sanitation, improving health and wellbeing, there is so much for engineers to do. In the academic world, we are always looking for interesting problems where we can make a real difference, and there is no shortage of those. You don’t have to change your underlying engineering skills or capabilities when dealing with a new challenge; there are always fundamental principles to fall back on that allow you to adapt.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
My colleagues and I set up an engineering software and services company over 20 years ago. At the time there was not much of a trend for university spinouts and we had to learn a lot on the job and inevitably made some mistakes. But we persevered, and in 2007 won the MacRobert Award from the Academy.
How do you think racial parity in engineering can be achieved?
There needs to be a holistic approach that tackles issues at key points in the system. This should start with outreach targeting key school age groups, which aims to demonstrate that engineering is a rewarding and fulfilling career and one where career success and progression is based on ability. This should raise demand for engineering education where institutions such as mine need to work hard on maximising the participation from under-represented groups (which we are indeed working on and which is starting to bear fruit). As more BAME engineers graduate, they must have the confidence that all career options are accessible to them, and this is another area where work needs to be done, as indicated by a recent Academy report. In parallel, high-profile success stories and role models should be publicised.
Has being a BAME engineer had an impact on your career that is either positive or negative?
I feel fortunate that until now I don’t feel that my career has suffered in any way because of this. In academia, and especially in STEM subjects, career performance can be relatively easily measured through objective criteria such as teaching assessments, grant income, publications and patents for example, and so there is not much room for bias. More recently, I feel that many of the stakeholders that I engage with are positive about diversity and its benefits and are actively seeking to be more diverse so I am optimistic about the future.
How has the ethnic diversity of the profession changed since you started working in engineering?
It’s hard to reflect on this in a quantitative way, because one’s memory can always play tricks! But when I reflect on academia and industry, it seems as though the profession has become much more diverse and that seems to be particularly visible in the under-50 age category. This means that junior cohorts are more diverse than senior cohorts, which is then reflected in senior positions. But I imagine that will change with time.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
I would thoroughly recommend it. It’s a very rewarding profession and is a very 'social' discipline; it’s almost impossible to solve any meaningful engineering problems working alone. Engineering and technology seems to me like a world where people are valued for their contributions rather than their background and there should not be any limit to what they can achieve.