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Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day

Sophie McPhillips (MEng 2013)

Sophie McPhillips (MEng 2013), Assistant Civil Engineer, Atkins

Rosie Campbell (BSc 2009)

Rosie Campbell (BSc 2009, MSc 2011), Research Technologist, BBC

Olivia Joyner (BSc 2005)

Olivia Joyner (BSc 2005, MSc 2006), Research Manager, YouGov

12 October 2015

Tomorrow is Ada Lovelace Day (Tuesday 13 October), an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Here, three alumnae who studied STEM subjects at Bristol share their career experiences and inspirations.

Sophie McPhillips (MEng Civil Engineering 2013)
Assistant Civil Engineer, Atkins

I was considering studying engineering for a number of reasons, including inspirational teachers and careers talks, but I think the clicking moment was going with my school to volunteer at a school in Kolkata. It was a great experience – I helped to teach children English and Maths – and of course, education is a prerequisite of development. But there were so much bigger problems, like poor roads and unsafe drinking water. I wondered how I could make a bigger impact on people's lives, and that’s how I discovered civil engineering.

A degree can never prepare you with all the technical information you need for the projects you’ll work on, but it can help you develop the lateral thinking, problem solving, team and communication skills that will make you a success in the workplace. My course at Bristol did just that. I got to work on a real research project with Bristol City Council, investigating the water quality in Bristol’s Floating Harbour. We had to engage with and present our results to the council, Environment Agency and the harbourmaster and staff, so this gave me a great insight into the stakeholder engagement side of engineering and the importance of communication.

I’m currently an Assistant Engineer in the water networks team at Atkins. Our responsibility is to make sure the water that comes out of everyone’s tap is clean and safe, and the supply is reliable. I’ve worked on all sorts of projects like designing treatment plants and pumping stations, replacing old water mains, and Sustainable Drainage Systems (SUDS).

I did a year in industry with Atkins before University and was then sponsored during my studies by Atkins and the Institute of Civil Engineers through a QUEST scholarship, so I've worked for them for around seven years already. They’ve given me great opportunities, like going to the Bangalore office for a two-month summer placement, and they continue to challenge me with increasing responsibility co-ordinating projects and teams.

Alongside my day job, I've been working on a project to research innovation as an Institute of Civil Engineers President's Apprentice. This has been another brilliant opportunity. I've learnt lots about the industry and have met and interviewed some of its most prolific and dynamic leaders about innovation in our industry. We're publishing our report on our findings, Innovation: Stepping up the Industry, soon. We hope to encourage more individuals and companies to innovate as part of their day jobs. Innovation is critical to pushing the industry forward, reducing costs and timescales, and finding alternative solutions to some of our outdated approaches. There is so much new technology available and we need to harness it.

To any women looking to study a STEM subject or pursue a STEM career, I'd say don't let the statistics put you off. There is absolutely no reason why women can't be brilliant engineers. We are also facing a huge skills gap in the industry and we can’t afford to be putting off 50 per cent of potential engineers. I’d really love to see more women to come into the industry, from a variety of backgrounds, because diverse teams come up with diverse ideas!

My advice would also be to try to get in contact with someone working in the field already, to tell you what they really do day-to-day. They may even be able to offer work experience. I think we’d be the first to admit that often our promotional material really doesn't show off the enormous variety of possibilities in STEM careers.

For university entry, there's usually quite a focus on maths and physics, but though technical skills are important, engineering is much more than that. Engineering is about people. If you can consider the social and environmental aspects of what you do, and understand global challenges we will need to tackle in the next 50 years, that will stand you in stead to be a great engineer.

Rosie Campbell (BSc Physics 2009, MSc Computer Science 2011)
Research Technologist, BBC

There are loads of great opportunities in STEM-related fields, and not enough qualified people, so studying a STEM subject is a savvy career choice. Despite the stereotypes, STEM careers tend to be creative, varied and collaborative, and the fast pace of the industry makes it a very exciting place to work. That can be intimidating too: there’s always something new to learn. Most of us (especially women) suffer from imposter syndrome! Remember, you won’t be alone: try to build up confidence so that you can make the most of the amazing opportunities out there in this area.

Initially, I chose to study physics and philosophy, because I was curious about the world and loved solving logical problems. Bristol has a great reputation for physics, and when I visited, I was impressed by how friendly and inclusive the department felt. It was during my undergraduate degree that I discovered programming – I loved the satisfaction of solving little coding puzzles – so went on to do a Masters in Computer Science. The Physics building was grand and stately; the Computer Science building was sleek and modern. I felt like I’d experienced the best of both worlds! 

Something that surprised me was how useful my philosophy modules were when I started computer science: everything I’d learnt about logic statements and truth tables directly transferred to electronic circuits and algorithms. When I started my MSc, I was a complete beginner, but by the time I left I had all the skills to make it in the software industry. The courses were brilliant, building up your skills quickly but manageably. And now that I work in a research role, the scientific rigour I learned during my undergraduate degree is invaluable, as is having an understanding of mechanics, electronics and other fundamentals.

After my MSc, I decided to look for web development jobs. I knew the BBC would be a good place to start due to the success of iPlayer, and saw an advert for the BBC Research and Development (R&D) graduate scheme. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the job description sounded amazing. It offered you the chance to work on a broad range of technical projects, where you use creative thinking and problem solving to invent the future of broadcasting. I was excited to find a job that would allow me to use my scientific background and my newfound programming skills in a creative, innovative environment.

Since joining the BBC, I’ve worked on all kinds of projects, from futuristic interactive ‘smart wallpaper’ to new live production tools and ways to merge video games with TV. Day-to-day, my job involves coding, building and prototyping technology, working with designers and other specialists, speaking at conferences, going out on location for test shoots, and lots more. I’ve even been supported to start an EngD in Computer Graphics alongside my day job, so I have re-entered the academic world!

Olivia Joyner (BSc Sociology 2005, MSc Socio-Legal Studies 2006)
Research Manager, YouGov

I chose to study sociology because I’m fascinated by people and social structures, and the degree offered me the chance to acquire a credible qualification and learn robust research methods. Then, as I’d enjoyed my BSc so much, I applied to do a MSc in Socio-Legal Studies, combining law, sociology and research methods.

Gaining research experience while at University was very important to me, as I knew it would help me find a job after graduation. I volunteered for the National Children’s Association of Alcoholics, and for the University’s Innocence Project, working on alleged miscarriage of justice cases with a local law firm. That experience enabled me get to know academics and highlighted to them how hard working I was. It also helped me secure my first paid job, as a Research Assistant in Bristol’s Law Department working on a study for the Ministry of Justice analysing child protection cases.

I then went on to work at University College Dublin, evaluating a parenting programme via a randomised control trial, and the National Economic and Social Forum in Ireland, evaluating literacy policy in disadvantaged schools. I also became a Research Consultant at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London. 

After seven years in social research, I decided that I wanted to broaden my skills and move into market research, without losing my social research skills. In 2013, I joined YouGov, an independent global market research agency with an online research panel of over 450,000 people in the UK. As Research Manager, and the charity lead in the Qualitative Research team, I typically work on public sector, charity and stakeholder research projects. My team designs and undertakes a range of online and face-to-face qualitative research activities, including focus groups, deliberative workshops, in-depth interviews and filmed ethnographic interviews. We design robust recruitment screeners and discussion guides, and we analyse, report and present insights to clients, helping them improve their organisations and benefit the public.

​​I highly recommend choosing a sociology degree that has a diverse range of modules and includes training on research methods. Your choice of modules can help you access relevant work experience: for me, a module in childhood studies helped me gain work experience at Barnardo’s Children’s Charity, and, my research method modules opened the door to my first job as a research assistant. Networking internally (within the University) and externally is also important as it can lead to valuable work experience and future contacts. I would also recommend trying to gain wider skills, such as budgeting, people management, proposal writing and presenting as these are all vital in market and social research roles.

Here are some more alumnae who studied STEM subjects at Bristol:

  • Angela Knight CBE (BSc Chemistry 1972) 
    Former Chief Executive of Energy UK, the trade association for the energy industry. Previous roles include Chief Executive of the British Bankers' Association and Economic Secretary to the Treasury.
  • Karen Cook (BSc Chemistry 1976)
    President for Europe and Chair for Investment Banking at Goldman Sachs.
    • Dr Wendy Darke (BSc Geology and Zoology 1986)
      Director of BBC Natural History Unit - the first woman to lead the unit in its 57-year history.

    • Ina De (BSc Economics with Statistics 1987)
      Co-head of UK investment banking at JP Morgan.

    • Helen Franklin (BEng Computer Systems Engineering 1989)
      Global Talent and Learning Director at Wrigley.

    • Miranda Krestovnikoff (BSc Zoology 1994)
      Presenter on CoastInside Out and The One Show, and elected President of the RSPB, Europe's largest nature conservation charity.

    • Dr Louise Leakey (BSc Geology and Biology 1995)
      Paleontologist and former National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, who currently runs a research station at Kenya's Lake Turkana.
    • Dr Charlotte Uhlenbroek (BSc Psychology and Zoology 1988, PhD 1997)
      Zoologist and TV presenter who has spent years studying chimpanzee behaviour in Tanzania.

    • Morwenna Wilson (MEng Mechanical Engineering 2005)
      H&V News Graduate of the Year 2008, currently leading a team of architects and engineers to renovate Kings Cross station.

    • Professor Alice Roberts (PhD 2008)
      Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, BBC presenter, and regular science columnist for The Observer. 

    • Jenny Griffiths MBE (MEng Computer Science 2009)
      Founder of Snap Fashion.


Further information

Read more about how the University is celebrating Ada Lovelace Day.

Are you working in a STEM-related career? If so, we’d love to hear from you – please get in touch at to share your experiences.