`I thought I'd be viewed as a nerd, but it wasn't like that at all!'

Liz Ballam had reservations about choosing engineering - all were unsubstantiated
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Indy Lifestyle Online
LIZ BALLAM from Suffolk says she took quite a bit of convincing before she was sure that engineering was right for her. "I had this perception, like everyone else, that engineering was all about getting your hands dirty and that

people think you're a bit of a nerd! It isn't actually like that at all."

Liz has just finished her third year of a four-year course at Brunel University called the "special engineering programme". Liz says: "It combines most aspects of engineering, both electrical and mechanical - with management.

"It is basically designed to develop the engineering managers of the future."

Liz heard about the course while she was attending an "insight" course run by the Engineering Council at the University of Newcastle.

Liz, who was taking A-levels in double maths and physics, had thought vaguely about engineering at university but had been put off by its image, and the fact that so few girls took it up.

"I went along on the course, which was really fascinating.

"We were taken to an engineering factory and attended lectures about interesting subjects such as wind tunnels. It made me see that it could potentially be quite interesting, and when I heard about the course at Brunel, which combined engineering with management techniques, I decided it sounded perfect." Initially, though, she wasn't entirely enjoying herself.

"It was incredibly hard work from the word go," she says.

"In the first two years we did marketing, manufacturing, subjects like fluid dynamics, statics, micro-electronics and computers.

"There are also a number of problem-solving modules, where you're put into pairs and given two weeks to solve a problem - such as designing a pressure valve to store toxic gas.

"It was incredibly stressful, but it taught you a lot about yourself in terms of managing time and communicating, as you had to go away and find the equations you need to solve the problem."

The course also involves two six-month work placements, which Liz spent on the undergraduate training programme of Delta Engineering. "The placement I've just finished was in the design department - I was working on the design for a new emergency stop switch. On the one before that I was really thrown in at the deep end, running four assembly cells producing 16,000 units a month of industrial switch boxes. I was running a team of about 40 people, and that was really hard work.

"I shadowed someone for about two weeks, and then they left and I was on my own, although I shared an office with my boss. It taught me an awful lot about the industry and about management, and it convinced me that I do want to go on and pursue a career in engineering."

Being one of the very few women in engineering can be difficult. "There are two other girls on my course, but it is quite a small course of just 18 students, so it's a fairly high ratio of men. One course I thought about applying to, marine technology in Newcastle, had 50 students and no girls! I couldn't stand the thought of being on my own!" She says that she does attract quite a lot of attention in industry, and that it can be rather embarrassing to be stared at as she walks round factories.

"But you get used to it," she says. "In a way it's quite nice because everyone remembers you."

Harder to cope with is the image of engineers. "There seems to be no prestige attached to it," she says. "People just don't understand what you do - they think it's all about mending cars! They don't realise it's about solving technical problems and that engineering is all around us - more or less everything has been designed or made by engineers." Whilst the salaries in industry are attractive, some members of her course are intending to go in to the city, because salaries are so much higher there.

"I haven't decided what I want to do next," she says. "I might take a Masters, or I might go into industry. Whatever happens, I know I will have a really interesting career ahead of me."