What's it like to study... Engineering

Cat Clarkson studies Environmental Engineering at The University of Nottingham and has been studying engineering for the last seven years

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The Independent Online

“What do you want to go and fix washing machines for?”

I’ll never forget the moment I told my mum I wanted to be an engineer. So sure, engineering might not sound too glamorous, and it’s often almighty misunderstood (I doubt I’ll ever attempt to fix a washing machine in my life!), but seven years of various Engineering degrees later (MEng and now PhD) and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

As an environmental engineer at the University of Nottingham I’ve had the opportunity to study a huge range of key topics ranging from water treatment (one day clean water could well become as scarce a commodity as oil is today), to waste management (no one wants a Wall-E world), to resource sustainability. In addition to the theoretical side of things I’ve been given such a vast range of opportunities both practically, and in terms of social activities, with a relatively thriving chemical and environmental engineering society.

It’s hard work, I won’t deny that.  At university there’ll be days you get bogged down in equations, but the rewards are fantastic. I’ll always remember the first time I sat in traffic on the M25 and found myself analysing it as a fluid system, and every time I mix cornflour I can’t help but think about non-Newtonian fluids (ok, perhaps a touch geeky!).

In terms of practical work, there are many opportunities to practise the practical elements of the degree – from analysing local polluted river samples to building a pump from empty soda bottles. In addition to practical experience within labs at the university, I undertook a week long field course in my second year which allowed me to put many of the theoretical modules I’d studied in the first two years of my degree into practice. Over the course of the busy week, soil samples were analysed from an old mining site to assess lead contamination, and a final project involving a site investigation and environmental impact assessment for a golf course and leisure facility in the peak district (the area where the field course was undertaken) was produced as part of a team.

By the time I hit my masters project I’d developed an interest in waste management (glamorous-sounding, I know!) and so had the opportunity to perform a compositional analysis of printed circuit boards, which then allowed me to design a recycling facility to recover metals from the boards and separate out the plastic. 

This experience was what encouraged me to do a PhD – there’s something very magical about the moment you look at your results and realise you know something no one else in the world knows. As the project was a year-long solo project, it really helped me develop some key skills in time management, and self-motivation. In addition, in that final year I had a semester-long group work project which involved designing a car battery recycling facility to be positioned in South Wales. This involved site investigation, impact assessments, then the use of more key engineering skills to assess the most sustainable process. Being group work it also allowed me develop some management skills. So all in all, across the degree process as well as learning plenty of theory, I personally think the skills you learn as an engineer make for a well rounded (and employable!) graduate.

So now for my PhD I recycle activated carbon (the stuff inside brita water filters among other uses) using microwave heating – shows how varied engineering can be, really! And what will I do next? Well, the world feels a little like my oyster, I’m quite interested to give environmental consultancy a try, preferably with an emphasis on waste management. Having gained my degree (and soon my PhD too) it is a great feeling to know I can go out into a job and make a genuine difference, to help create a world which will be better place for my children to grow up in.

One last thing - lots of people ask me what it’s like to be a woman in engineering, and I thought about it long and hard, and I can’t say for certain, but I’m fairly sure it’s an awful lot like being a man in engineering. I’ve never experienced any discrimination for being female, and on the flip side, never really felt at any kind of advantage – but then perhaps I was lucky to be in the first entire engineering faculty in the country to receive the Athena Swan Silver Award.