Dr Elaine Brown
Senior Lecturer in Mechanical & Process Engineering
What is your area of study/research?
I am a Mechanical Engineer and lecture predominantly in mechanics. My main area of research focuses on applying ultrasonic technology in varied ways to both understand the behaviour and influence the properties of different materials, and in particular to polymers, and I also research thermal measurements and characterisation of polymer processing.
What influenced you to study/research in your field?
At school I liked most subjects, but my favourites were Maths, Physics and English. I wanted to study something with a scientific bias, but that involved working with other people, solving problems, understanding how and why things happen the way they do, and what might be done to improve them. This led me to study engineering, as it involves both science and people.
I chose mechanical engineering because I felt it would give me a broad cross section of skills and knowledge – in all honesty I did not fully understand then the roles of different engineering disciplines, having no family or friends who were engineers, and I wanted to keep my options open. I have since come to understand that the boundaries between disciplines are indistinct, and I now work across the disciplines of mechanical, chemical and medical engineering. My research interests have developed over time – I was always interested in materials, and became interested in how and why we need to measure properties of materials and the difficulties associated with doing that accurately. I then realised the potential for using ultrasonic technology to make measurements in difficult to reach spaces, that there were many gaps in the knowledge and this would be an interesting topic for more research.
What inspires you to continue in your field?
Engineering research is interesting and varied – for me it involves scientific discovery, constructing experimental assemblies and developing techniques, working in teams with other engineers and scientists, and ultimately new discovery and learning. Engineers contribute to knowledge, the economy and many different aspects of human life. The tiny individual steps we can all make, no matter what field we work in, add together and help to positively change the world and improve the environment for all.
What would you say to young females to encourage them to progress into your field?
Engineering is a great combination of science and social science. Characteristics are often described in popular media as ‘female’ such as multitasking and compromise are really great attributes in an engineer, but in fact I don’t think like that. Ultimately it’s a combination of personal characteristics and skills that make a good engineer, and gender is not a major influence.
Men and women can make equally great engineers. It takes good analytical and communication skills to practise successfully, and varied backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints are vital to the success of a project. The preferred engineering solution is not always the most technically desirable; other things including cost, aesthetics, politics, sustainability, available resources and personal preferences can play a part. As the balance of genders changes over time, the working environments are adapting to suit - an interesting and rewarding career in engineering does not have to be at the expense of other life ambitions, interests or family commitments. If you like maths and science and you like people, engineering could be just the job for you.
I have never regretted choosing to become an engineer, and have always felt that being an engineer means I am constantly learning and gaining new experience – technology does not stand still. When I was a student I was the only girl on my course in my year, and although women are still in the minority in the engineering world, this should not be a barrier to anybody considering it. When solving any problem, tackling it from diverse viewpoints is a real advantage, and so naturally a mix of people with different opinions and perspectives is healthy, and I would encourage all who are interested to consider engineering as a career, regardless of gender.
Many years ago when I was first on industrial placement as a student I recall that the safety shoes that the company chose to supply to me had high wedge heels, because they were women’s shoes. Clearly I wasn’t going to find it easy to work and climb amongst equipment wearing them, so managed to source a more suitable pair of men’s shoes. I don’t think Personal Protective Equipment is supplied in such a gender specific manner any more, times of course have changed. The number of women who choose to enter the engineering professions is growing, but we can always benefit from more.