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International Women in Engineering Day (INWED): Q&A with the team at Williams Advanced Engineering

960 640 Stuart O'Brien

With women currently making up less than 10% of the engineering sector in the UK, International Women in Engineering Day (INWED), taking place on June 23rd, provides an opportunity to raise the profile of female engineers, demonstrating a commitment to diversity and inspiring future generations.

We celebrate INWED by speaking to the team of female engineers from the Advanced Battery Team at Williams Advanced Engineering – Dr. Nasrin Shahed Khah (Senior Battery Systems Engineer), Melissa He (Battery Systems Engineer) and Rachel Lear (Battery Systems Engineer) – to learn more about what they do and what inspired them to pursue a career in engineering…

  • Give us an insight into what you do at WAE? 

NS: I’m a Senior Engineer in the Advanced Programmes team. Our team develops WAE’s battery capability, which includes everything from cell selection to testing and optimisation; ensuring we’re meeting the client’s requirements with our battery systems. 

MH: I currently work for WAE as a Battery Systems Engineer in the Advanced Battery Concepts group where our role is to expand the limits of battery technology through the development of smarter battery architectures and control systems. 

RL: I’ve been at WAE for approximately a month now, working as a Battery Systems Engineer. I spend a lot of my time focusing on different aspects of battery development activities; but primarily with cell testing requirements. 

  • What made you choose WAE as the next step in your career? 

NS: My background is Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College. I had always held aspirations to become a Mechanical Engineer whilst growing up as I was good at physics and maths. My third-year project at Imperial College was based on fuel cells and that introduced me to battery technologies. At the time, in 2012, people were only just beginning to talk about electric vehicles with the introduction of the Nissan Leaf and Tesla vehicles. However, I found the challenges presented by electrification fascinating and enjoyed using new technologies to drive change.  When it came to seeking employment, WAE was top of my list due to the advanced projects that the company were involved with. I wanted to be a part of a team at the forefront of battery technology within an exciting and knowledgeable group.

RL: I have previous experience in electrochemistry and cell development from my Chemistry degree at the University of Southampton as well as in my previous role. Moving to WAE as the next step in my career allowed me to stay in battery development; a sector I find very exciting and relevant, and at the same time broaden my knowledge and skills of this industry by working more closely with commercial projects. 

MH: There were a few things that got me into the company but mostly, it was my desire to work on progressive and cutting-edge projects, especially in motorsport. Before coming to the UK, I remember going on the WAE website and seeing the Gen1 Formula E battery and thinking, maybe I could get a job working for WAE. I feel fortunate to be in a position now where I’m now working in a company where I can combine my background in chemistry with  mechanical  and motorsport engineering.

  • Prior to your career in engineering, as a female, what was your perception of the industry compared to what it is now? 

RL: I come from a scientific background and during my degree there was a relatively good ratio of male-to-female students. I had female friends who were engineers, but most were in a minority on their courses which is why engineering is probably still perceived as a very male dominated career choice. Despite the headline statistics, I would say, don’t let that put you off pursuing engineering as a career.  I work in a team where we have a 50/50 split of male-to-female, which is great and regardless of gender, the important thing is the way in which you work together to deliver successful projects. If you have the required skills, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be applying for any job. Personally, I’ve always been welcomed into teams and whilst women might be a minority now, as more of us study engineering, so more women will become engineers!

  • Do you feel you’re a role model for the next generation? 

NS: I hope so! All the members within our team are very driven and passionate about what we do and more importantly, love our jobs. When I joined in February 2019, I was the first female within the team, and my manager supported me, grew my confidence and helped me achieve my goals and progress within the team. I hope I can do the same for the next generation of engineers, whatever their gender!

  • What advice would you give to any prospective female students looking to enter the industry or a similar role to you at WAE? 

RL: I would say don’t worry if you don’t have a fixed career in mind. Be guided by the things you enjoy and by doing so, you’ll find it will lead you to the right career path. Electrification is a hot topic at the moment so there are lots of opportunities for careers in battery development.

NS: I think what got me here was determination and knowing what I wanted to achieve. Determination is key to being successful and achieving your goals. But I agree with Rachel, the most important thing is finding what you love, the thing you enjoy doing. Follow your passion, chase your dreams and it will happen. Never be afraid to ask questions. If you want to be an engineer, I’d say do it – all of our team love what we do.

  • What’s the most exciting part of your job? 

RL: Being at the cutting edge and forefront of so many new and emerging technologies. You get exposure to new ideas and solutions before anyone else and in doing so, get a vision for what the future might hold. 

MH: I absolutely love problem solving and putting ideas into action. For example, if I have an idea, the business encourages me to discuss it and there’s never any judgement. Within the Battery Concepts Group, the philosophy is, let’s try it and see what happens!

  • What’s a typical day in your job? 

NS: Every day is different which I love. I could be doing anything from cell selection at early stages of battery programmes to overseeing module and battery pack activities from concept design to production refinement. I also support the safety elements of our current and upcoming battery projects at WAE. I really enjoy the variety of the work, whether I’m at my desk managing project delivery, or in the battery build facility overseeing practical work.

MH: My typical day is not really typical! Within such a small team, we cover a wide range of work and that’s one of the things that drew me to WAE; working on a number of  different projects – from e-bikes and racing scooters to race cars and mining trucks!

  • What was your inspiration for going into the industry in the first place? 

RL: The battery industry has had a lot of media attention recently, so I think this made batteries an interesting area for me to explore. While I largely “fell” into the battery industry, the excitement of new electric vehicles and technologies makes me want to stay.

MH: For me, it was the technology.  During my undergraduate studies , I participated in a competition to hybridise a Camaro and was hooked. Following experience in the automotive industry with electric vehicles and leading the work on an electric Formula Student car, I knew there were so many interesting problems left to solve. 

NS: I have always grown up with a passion for cars and problem solving and so I wanted a career where I could  combine  both. I believe we’re now at the cusp of a technology revolution with engineering at the forefront, which has allowed me follow my dream and do what I love.

Finding the formula to combat back-to-work anxiety in STEM

960 640 Stuart O'Brien

Mental health is a popular topic at the moment, while the majority of us were trying to maintain a healthy routine and lifestyle while stuck indoors, it begged the question, what about after lockdown? Back to work anxiety was bad enough for some of us after months of leisure time and lie ins. But entering the next stage of eased lockdown regulation is a cause of mental health disruption for some of us, bringing a sense of unease, worry, and anxiety.

At first, the thought of losing our freedom and summer plans caused anxiety in itself, but once we got used to our new life it subsided. While some are eagerly anticipating a return to work and normality, others are genuinely distressed by it — whether this is facilitated by concerns of the virus or facing our colleagues, there’s a real issue that needs addressing.

In this article, we’ll take a look at back-to-work anxiety in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) industries, helpful tips to deal with feeling anxious, as well as a question and answer session from the engineering sector and how they’re dealing with returning to work.

What is back-to-work anxiety?

Being away from your job for a period of time can affect your feelings regarding work, whether it’s the workload or challenging colleagues. Some of us have time to mull over our skills and put ourselves down over our abilities, knocking down our confidence. According to research by YouGov, two in five are anxious about returning to work and the threat the virus has to our health and wellbeing.

Back-to-work anxiety can have physical effects such as headaches, stomach issues, trouble sleeping, and behavioural changes like feeling irritable and isolated. If your job was stressful to begin with, it’s likely that returning can be even more difficult. Although anxiety is a normal emotion, there are many self-help methods you can use to manage these feelings. You should always consider seeking medical and therapeutic care if this severely interrupts your days.

STEMming from anxiety

STEM industries have recently been under scrutiny regarding the working environments in these sectors fostering anxiety and depression. For example, a report called “Masculinity in Engineering” noted that more than a fifth of engineers take time off due to their mental health as well as over one in three UK tech professionals claiming they’re worried about their mental health as it has deteriorated during Covid-19 which was previously one in five before the pandemic. The fast-paced and competitive nature of the work can stop workers from switching off.

These industries are traditionally male and white-dominated sectors notorious for a toxic masculine culture which can make people feel isolated. So it isn’t surprising that this, combined with the notion of returning to work after a period of absence from the office or lab, is having a significant impact on STEM workers mental health.

Although it’s difficult to judge how exactly social distancing measures can be implemented across a broad range of sectors from science to mathematics and the different ways that these job roles are carried out, many workers are also nervous about the spread of Covid-19. 

How to handle back to work anxiety

Try to make the transition back to work easier and consider these steps. It’s also helpful to identify the source of your worries to come up with solutions. myGP, a smartphone app for online NHS services including specialist areas like mental health, suggested the following:

Prepare yourself

Getting into the routine of work life can be a daunting feeling, however preparing yourself can make it easier. Whether this is preparing your lunches for your break, or dinners in advance for when you get home late and are too tired to cook, what may seem like minor preparations can actually relieve your mind of things you need to do for yourself. Remember, you and your needs should come first.

If you’ve been spending lockdown not getting out much and waking up late, try to get into a good routine to prepare yourself for when you’ll be on your feet again. Spending time outdoors whether it’s walking through nature or laid out in your garden can help to calm you down and keep you grounded in the present moment.

Speak with your manager and colleagues

Solidarity can be helpful in alleviating feelings of anxiety — try speaking to your colleagues to comfort each other and provide support. Recognising that others feel the same can help you feel like you’re not alone.

If you feel comfortable, it could be worthwhile speaking to your manager about your concerns and throwing yourself back into work life. Employers can be helpful in introducing informal support mechanisms like online resources and volunteers to provide support. They may be able to reduce some of your concerns or make plans to help your return to work.

Find out what will have changed in the workplace. For example, you may find that there will be fewer people in the workplace in order to maintain physical distancing. You could arrange a visit prior to your first day back which might reassure you about the measures that have been put in place to keep you and your colleagues safe. This brings us to our next point.

Seek resources

Lear, an automotive technology leader, created a comprehensive guide of returning to work to ease anxieties workers may have, including protocols, procedures, and rules in place to keep everyone safe, as well as mandatory onsite health screenings in ‘drive-thrus’ of temperature and overt symptoms. 

Many organisations have mental health or counselling resources that you are eligible to use if you are an employee — if not there are lots of useful resources online that provide techniques for reducing anxiety.

Plan fun things to keep your mind busy

Summer might’ve been cancelled by Covid-19 this year, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t plan fun things in the meantime. Meet up with your friends outside abiding government guidelines, go for mind clearing walks and hikes in nature, or, if you have the funds, plan a holiday next year to look forward to! Making fun plans can help tackle the looming feeling of dread when thinking of going back to work.

Avoid unhealthy habits such as reaching for alcohol, cigarettes, or caffeine when you are feeling stressed or anxious.

Words of wisdom…

Research mindfulness and breathing exercises you can practise to improve your mental state. Meditation can be helpful as often when we feel anxious about things, we try to distract ourselves or might spend hours scrolling through our phones to avoid the pressing issue. Writing down your problems to face them can also be extremely helpful, as well as noting down the positives and the parts and people of your job that you enjoy. And remember — try to get a good night’s sleep, drink plenty of water, and eat healthy meals to keep your energy up.

If the feeling of back-to-work anxiety feels serious or you find that you’re not getting any relief, consider getting medical advice from your GP or book an online doctor appointment if you’re concerned. Anxiety is a real condition that can be helped with the right treatment. Don’t ignore how you feel, or this can be even more difficult to cope.