Professor Claire Adjiman FREng is a Professor of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London
“We need to encourage young women into engineering by sharing the excitement and diversity of engineering careers.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I educate the next generation of chemical engineers and I lead a research group to create new tools that help engineers and scientists design ‘better’ molecules and chemical processes, such as those that have less impact on the environment or are more effective. I work on blue-sky and applied projects with different industries. I am also setting up a new institute that brings together engineers and scientists with expertise in all things molecular to collaborate on some of the grand challenges facing our society and our environment.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I thought it would open the door to some really exciting career options, with the chance to combine things I enjoyed (science, maths, problem-solving, travel) with things I wanted to learn more about (teamwork, business, innovation). I did not anticipate I would pursue an academic career, but continued onto a PhD after my first degree and found I really enjoyed research.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
I love to think about how systems work – how all the pieces fit together to achieve the desired effect – and to think about how engineers create new systems and how this might be done better in the future. I am very fortunate to work with great people on a wide range of problems that can make a difference to the world we live in, whether that’s through better medicines or reduced greenhouse gas emissions. I also love to communicate and share knowledge with students and peers.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
My collaborators and I have developed a computer tool to make some chemical reactions faster by changing the solvent (liquid) in which they take place. We’ve shown how you can get a 40% increase in productivity, even compared to a good guess. It would take hundreds or even thousands of experiments to discover this without our approach. For now, it’s still a research tool, but we hope that it will be available to all scientists and engineers in the near future.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the engineering sector?
When I started studying engineering, there was an awareness that there were relatively few women and a desire to change this, but I think this has now turned into a much more concrete understanding of the barriers that stop women from entering and staying in the engineering sector. In my sector, this translates into a more welcoming and supportive working environment, which takes the needs of individuals, both men and women, into account and is focused on achievements rather than on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to work.
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
We need to do more to encourage young women into engineering by sharing the excitement and diversity of engineering careers and breaking down some of the stereotypes around what engineering is, particularly around female engineers. Schools can play an important part in this. We also need to work on retaining women in the engineering sector and promoting their career development. Mentoring and role models are very important for this, but it also requires organisations to think hard about what they can do to retain female talent.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
A career in engineering is a brilliant choice that offers a huge range of options for the future and a stimulating career. Spend some time exploring what kinds of jobs engineers do through contacts, work placements and other opportunities – there are so many aspects to a career in engineering. Whatever happens, believe in yourself and persevere through hard times.