Professor Rachel Thomson FREng is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Teaching) and Professor of Materials Engineering at Loughborough University.
“I was the academic lead in charge of building STEMLab, a new, shared teaching laboratory block for our science and engineering disciplines at Loughborough. I still feel very proud every time I go into the building, and enjoy seeing students working and being inspired inside.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
My current role is really varied – no two days are the same! My primary responsibility is teaching and learning across Loughborough University, where over 60% of our students are studying STEM degree programmes. I can effect real change through strategic leadership, ensuring that our students are best prepared for their future careers. I also carry out research which explores the behaviour of metallic materials operating at high temperatures for more efficient power generation.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I was always interested in understanding how and why things work. I kept my options open but as I moved up through education, I found I enjoyed the sciences more and more. I studied natural sciences at university, finally specialising in physics, but I wanted to apply my knowledge and chose to move into materials engineering. I love being able to look at materials using microscopes knowing that the understanding developed can be directly applied to the performance of a large component in industry.
Please describe your first job.
I spent 10 years as an undergraduate, PhD student and research fellow at the University of Cambridge before moving to Loughborough University to take up my first ‘proper’ job as a new lecturer. I decided to go into academia to combine my passion for education with the ability to undertake research that 'makes a difference'. I have been really fortunate to work with excellent teams of people from both academia and industry.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
The fact that I can contribute in many different ways. The word engineer stems from the Latin word for ingenuity – meaning to be original and creative in solving problems, which is exactly what I like to do. I have had the opportunity in my career to apply my skills to lots of different challenges, which can be incredibly rewarding.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
I was the academic lead in charge of building STEMLab, a new, shared teaching laboratory block for our science and engineering disciplines at Loughborough. I worked on the project from 2012 and was thrilled when it opened in October 2017. Feedback from staff and students is really positive and I still feel very proud every time I go into the building, and enjoy seeing students working and being inspired inside.
I have also supervised over 40 PhD students who have successfully been awarded their doctorates. I am really proud of all of their achievements and follow their careers closely.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the profession?
I think that the engineering profession has become more diverse over my career, and employers seem to place more value on having diverse teams in their workforce. I think it will take more time to effect change as there are still too few role models in top positions, but we are moving in the right direction.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
Don't be put off! Do careful research about the different disciplines within engineering, and take advantage of any opportunities you can to find out more – from talking to family and friends to work placements – then go for it! My advice is work hard, play hard. Believe in yourself so that you can achieve what you want to achieve.
This year’s IWD theme is ‘Balance for Better’. How can engineers contribute to a gender-balanced world?
Engineering is about teamwork and working in diverse groups to deliver solutions to societal challenges, and the best teams have a range of views and ideas within them. We need to encourage all school students to have confidence in their own abilities and to consider the exciting opportunities and job satisfaction that a career in engineering can bring.
This profile was created for International Women’s Day in March 2019. All information was correct at time of publication