Professor Rebecca Lunn MBE FREng is Head of the Centre for Ground Engineering at the University of Strathclyde.
“My first job was as a researcher, developing a model to predict how nitrogen was transported from agricultural fertilisers, through soils and rocks, and into our river systems.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I currently spend 90% of my time leading a project sponsored by both the Royal Academy of Engineering and BAM Nuttall, a civil engineering contractor, to take research technologies I’ve been developing at the University of Strathclyde into the ground engineering industry. Microbially induced calcite precipitation (MICP) is a technique that uses a harmless bacterium found in soils to produce the mineral calcium carbonate. This mineral binds the soil particles together turning loose soil into rock, and thereby improving its strength. The use of MICP in industry could significantly reduce global cement use, which currently accounts for around 8% of the global carbon dioxide emissions created by humans.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
My first degree was in maths. While I enjoyed maths, I found I was far more interested in problem-solving and wanted to have a positive impact on society. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I chose to do a master’s in water engineering, followed by a PhD in civil engineering. I have never looked back.
Please describe your first job.
My first job was as a researcher, developing a model to predict how nitrogen was transported from agricultural fertilisers, through soils and rocks, and into our river systems.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
I love that as a research engineer I have the freedom to think – developing occasionally 'off-the-wall' solutions to engineering challenges. I have built a team of multidisciplinary staff and students who make the solutions happen. They have skills that far exceed my own in a wide range of disciplines, including microbiology, chemistry and physics, so there is always something new for me to learn.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
In 2015, I was named by the Saltire Society as one of 10 inaugural ‘Outstanding Women of Scotland’ because of my contribution to research and my support of women in science and engineering. The awardees were selected from a shortlist of 365 publicly tweeted nominations of 'women that have inspired you' – one per day in 2014. I was the only engineer (or scientist) to receive the award. Other awardees included the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the former Lord Advocate, Dame Elish Angiolini DBE FRSE.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the profession?
I am now not the only woman in the room! While women are still in the minority at senior levels in universities and the engineering profession, things are really improving. My own department is one of the best: the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Strathclyde has 40% female academic staff including two female professors and a female head of department.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
Go for it! If you want a profession that continues to challenge you, and where you can be proud of what you have achieved, then engineering is a great choice.
This year’s IWD theme is ‘Balance for Better’. How can engineers contribute to a gender-balanced world?
There is still a considerable effort required to make engineering a gender-balanced and equitable working environment. As with most professions, it is not just about training more women and encouraging them to achieve at higher levels. Senior managers in engineering must accept responsibility and act to change current working practices that result in systematic, often unconscious, gender bias.
This profile was created for International Women’s Day in March 2019. All information was correct at time of publication