Professor Dame Julia S. Higgins DBE FREng FRS is a Senior Research Investigator at Imperial College London
“I did not choose engineering – in a way, engineering chose me.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
This is not really to do with engineering, but academia in general. After a 30-year career as an academic running research teams, teaching, and leading colleagues in my department and faculty, I am now retired but still involved. I do not teach but still work with colleagues in the college and outside to understand research issues. In my case, these focus on the behaviour of polymeric materials (rubbers and glasses) and the way the molecular organisation and motion affects, and often limits, the ways these materials can be used. I also still serve on committees and advisory boards in and out of Imperial College London.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I did not choose engineering – in a way, engineering chose me. Fifty years ago when I was studying in an all-girls school I was lucky to have brilliant maths and physics teachers. I had no idea what engineering was, and it was very unusual for a girl even to choose physics. My PhD using neutron scattering led to postdoctoral positions applying this new technique to the study of polymer molecules. In the USA, these studies were regularly to be found in chemical engineering departments, and Imperial College London was one of the few in the UK where studies of polymer science and engineering were being expanded.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
When I first started teaching in Imperial, I was startled to be asked the question “but why do I need to know that?” In time I came to really appreciate this attitude which seemed to me to give more relevance to my research as well as my teaching.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
I will have to mention several. Together with colleagues I helped start the Athena Project, now the Athena SWAN Charter, which encourages and recognises commitment to advancing the careers of women in STEM in higher education and research. I find it amazing that we are responsible such a successful and growing scheme. At about the same time, I also initiated a diversity programme with colleagues at Imperial College London. I am also proud to have shown how the neutron-scattering technique can really help understand the way polymeric materials behave, and therefore to better exploit them. Finally, and perhaps most of all, I am proud to have started numbers of young scientists and engineers on their careers while they undertook doctoral studies in my laboratory.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in engineering sector?
As far as my personal experience is concerned, it is numbers that speak loudest. There are still not enough girls choosing engineering, but in my department now up to 30% of the students are female. We have a good fraction of female academic staff, there are growing numbers of female FRS and FREng, and the Academy has a woman as President!
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
The solution starts in schools and homes. It is difficult to move into engineering without a good background in maths and physics. The numbers of girls studying maths has increased but there are some shocking statistics about physics. The numbers of girls studying A-level physics is low, and worse, in a sizeable number of schools NO girls study A-level. The problem arises from a serious lack of good physics teachers, but also from entrenched attitudes that physics (and by extension engineering) is not for girls. The problem has been intractable for years, but the Academy, together with employers and engineering institutions as well as the Institute of Physics, is trying new approaches, which we all need to support.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
What I have said to my own nieces and nephews: have a look, visit university departments, investigate the web and give it a go! Studying engineering opens up a huge range of career opportunities from the academic, such as mine, to industry, politics, communication and the media, and many, many more.