By the time I arrived at New Hall (now Murray Edwards) in the late 1970s to take up a place to read Engineering, I had already spent a year working with British Rail at workshops in Crewe and Derby. I was their first female Engineering Sponsored Student, and working in large railway workshops gave me really important insights that have stayed with me throughout my career.
The first insight was the breadth and scale of practical engineering, from brake blocks almost too heavy to hold, to large diesel engines and locomotives being picked up by cranes. The second was building relationships, often with supervisors and skilled craftsmen who had no formal qualifications other than an apprenticeship, and many of whom remembered working on steam locomotives. I soon realised how important their skills and knowledge were, and how very different this was from what I had studied at school. But most importantly I learned the importance of good teamwork, and the importance of respect and a sense of humour. When I joined Crewe Works there were roughly 3,000 workers on the shop floor, and I was the only woman: good people skills were essential.
At Cambridge we were only 15 women (4 at New Hall), out of 315 first year undergraduates. What we learned was very different from the engineering I had seen with British Rail, but I was grateful to have had such good practical experience. I think that having such a good practical grounding, as well as my broad Cambridge degree, has meant that I have had a lifelong passion for engineering and particularly education. Because of this, when I took over the role of Head of Department of Mechanical Engineering at Oxford Brookes University and was approached by senior engineers in the Motorsport industry to tackle problems they were having with shortages of suitable graduates, I decided to try to combine together my own practical experience with a very analytical engineering programme. Twenty years on, our courses have gone from strength to strength in providing what this highly competitive industry requires. We were awarded very prestigious MSc scholarships by Fernando Alonso, who recognised these as the best Motorsport Engineering courses in the world. We currently have over 30 graduates at Lotus F1, over 25 at Infiniti Red Bull Racing, and more than 10 graduates at Sahara Force India F1, and at Williams F1.
Since October this year, I have been delighted to have been invited back by Murray Edwards as a Visiting Professor. This has made me reflect on the possible careers for the women engineers currently studying on the Engineering Tripos. More than ever there is a need for young women to ensure that they have as much good practical experience as possible, as well as taking every opportunity to network and find out about the different career choices. Trying to carry out external projects and internships can be a great help. The most important thing is to work out what we might enjoy in a role, but also the way in which we enjoy working. I love research and teaching in a University, so my current role as an Engineering Professor is an ideal combination.
Professor Denise Morrey