Professor Dame Ann Dowling OM DBE FREng FRS is the President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Cambridge
“I enjoy the huge amount of variety in the things that I do: every day is different. ”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I split my time approximately half and half between being a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Cambridge and President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. In Cambridge, I am involved in carrying out research and in teaching. As President, I represent the Academy as we seek to advance and promote engineering.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I drifted into engineering. I was good at and enjoyed maths and physics but I did not see those subjects as an end in themselves; I wanted to use them to make a difference. I saw how to do that during a summer job when I worked on reducing aircraft noise and that led me into an engineering PhD after I finished my first degree in mathematics.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
I enjoy the huge amount of variety in the things that I do: every day is different. I also like the fact that there is a tangible outcome from both the research and the teaching that I do and I see it improving peoples’ lives.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
I think my most exciting achievement was when we managed to eliminate a combustion instability by adding fuel unsteadily. Combustion instabilities lead to large pressure oscillations that cause damage to power stations and aero-engines. We knew in theory that our idea should work, although many people said that it would not. When we switched the controller on, we did not even have to look at the instruments to know that it had worked – the change was so dramatic you could hear it! An amazing compliment was that after our laboratory demonstration on a 0.3 MW rig, Rolls-Royce and the Ministry of Defence went straight on to try it out on a full-size aero-engine and it worked there as well.
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
In some countries there is already approximately gender parity in engineering, so we should not think that this is a global problem. In the UK, the answer has to be more girls continuing science into the sixth form. I also think that those of us who are engineers can do more to communicate the excitement and creativity of engineering. It has been a great career for me – you can do interesting work, make a difference by doing so and get well paid at the same time!
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the engineering sector?
When I started there were very few women studying engineering at undergraduate level in the UK. That has now changed dramatically. In Cambridge, about 27% of the undergraduates are now women.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
Do not hesitate – it is a great choice to make.