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Dr alice moncaster

Senior Lecturer in Engineering, Open University 

 

And - Visiting Academic Fellow, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge

Realise that the potential of STEM is amazing but that as a woman you will come up against constraints.

What do you do?

I started off as a 'real engineer'. I designed lots of buildings, including a new archive for Lady Thatcher's papers. But then I did a PhD in sustainability in construction, and ended up moving into academia. 

 

I now conduct research into how we can develop a more sustainable built environment. This includes measuring and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from constructing and using buildings, but also issues such as how new technologies might affect the behaviour of designers, and occupiers, of buildings, and how we can understand the values of local communities when designing flood alleviation schemes. I collaborate with a small group of researchers in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, who all just happen to be female. In fact we are all mothers too, so we have a lot in common. The interaction with other like-minded researchers is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work, and it's really exciting to start talking about something and sparking off all sorts of new ideas. 

 

The dissemination of research is then almost an activity on its own. We do this through giving presentations, to industry, policy makers and other academics, and through writing articles. I also tweet about my research, and occasionally write blogs, or short articles on LinkedIn. I am guest editing an issue on 'Gender and intersectionality in engineering'. We hope it will be published in June in time for the International Women in Engineering Day, and linked to the centenary of the Women's Engineering Society.

The second key part of academia is, of course, teaching students. At the Open University our students are all distance learners, rather than being on campus. I am involved in writing new course materials - which include some teaching on my research into sustainable buildings. The link between cutting edge research by people who are often world experts in their field, and teaching students, is very exciting and important. 

I also have a personal interest in improving equality and diversity in engineering and construction. I recently won c.£30,000 funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering to appoint a Visiting Professor, who is working with us at the Open University to ensure that our staff and course materials are inclusive. I'm also part of the Equilibrium Network, a group of architects and engineers working towards better representation of women in leadership positions across the UK built environment.

Why did you choose this field?

"I enjoy the fact that thinking deeply is such an important part of the job and I love the creativity of using my writing skills."

My physics teacher encouraged me to think about engineering. I also chose it because I wanted to do something that would do good in the world - my first dream was to go to the developing world and build infrastructure to help water crops and solve famine.  

 

I studied Engineering at Cambridge, but found my degree difficult, and didn't particularly enjoy it.  I was one of about 10% women in classes of up to 300 students, taught by men and in a department with photos of men covering the walls - it was really alienating and made me feel intrinsically underconfident. I think this is still true for a lot of women today when they find themselves in a very male-dominated space, and one of the reasons I am working hard to change things.

Once I found my way to structural engineering design I started to really enjoy being part of an interdisciplinary team, working with architects, clients and people with different ideas and values, to create something which was both beautiful and practical.​ I fell into academia almost by chance, and have really found my niche. I enjoy that we aren't just repeating what others have done, but are working out new ways of looking at and solving the world's problems. I also love the autonomy - what I do is mainly up to me. And I love using my writing skills, to develop arguments, to persuade and to inform.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

My biggest personal achievement has been standing up and presenting my work and ideas in front of big audiences, including to students, international researchers and professors, and even the UK Chief Scientific Advisor. I was very shy when I was younger, and really horrified by the thought of all eyes being on me, and could never have imagined that I would be able to present in public. I still get very nervous, but it turns out that I can do it, and even that I'm quite good at it.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I am still continually excited by the thought that collectively we can change the world for the better - it's within our grasp, if only we keep working at it!  And research in particular gives me the opportunity to work with other inspiring people from around the world to work out the answer!


Best advice for the next generation

Realise that the potential of STEM is amazing, but that as a woman you will come up against constraints that men just won't. Don't let it put you off, but do develop close support networks - men as well as women - who will support you through the minefields.  You will need them, but it's worth it!

Role model 

My role model is Baroness Beryl Platt, an aeronautical engineer. Baroness Platt was one of the first women to study engineering at Cambridge during WWII. Her engineering career was cut short by marriage as was the norm in those days, but she became increasingly interested in supporting gender equality and remained engaged in the engineering world.  I had a letter published in an engineering journal once about gender equality, and was really thrilled that Baroness Platt wrote to me out of the blue saying 'keep up the good work'!  I am so impressed with women of her generation who both accepted their role in the world and fought hard to make it a different and better place.