Commitment and Clear Thinking Lead to Highest Honour

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In July 2007, Professor Helen Atkinson, Head of the Mechanics of Materials Group at the University of Leicester, was awarded the highest accolade an engineer can receive in the UK.

Professor Atkinson, described as among the ‘cream of the UK’s engineering talent’, was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, one of only two women elected last year. The Royal Academy has 1,407 Fellows. Only 27 are women.

She is, of course, thrilled at her election to the Royal Academy of Engineering. “I feel incredibly honoured, but I also see it as a recognition of the teams of people I’ve worked with over the years. I’ve been very fortunate in that respect and I see this as a tribute to them as well as to what I’ve achieved.”

Professor Atkinson joined the University of Leicester in 2002. Her research interests are on semi-solid processing (thixoforming) of metallic alloys and on the application of statistics to materials research problems.

“My work is all about how you shape metal alloys when they are part liquid and part solid – like ice cream,” she explained. “You can then make car components, for example, which are lighter and stronger than conventional ones. I am also involved with the steel industry, improving the quality of steel, and the power generation industry, helping to predict whether it’s safe for components to continue in operation over long periods of time.”

Helen Atkinson graduated from Cambridge with a first class degree in Metallurgy and Materials Science. “It’s all about how the micro-structure of materials influences their properties and their strengths,” she said. “One of the things that is so fascinating is that the microstructures are incredibly beautiful. It’s a marriage of the aesthetic and the utilitarian.”

She had come from an all-girls’ grammar school, which had only begun to take in boys in the year below hers. “I think hardly any of the girls at the school had gone on to study engineering or physical sciences, so I was unusual in that respect. I was just terribly determined to do it.”

She was, as it happens, breaking another stereotype. She was the granddaughter of a miner and her family had no history of university entrance.

“Cambridge was an absolutely fantastic experience, both academic and otherwise,” she said. “The important thing for students is to develop self confidence in their abilities within a disciplined academic environment. Cambridge enabled me to do that. As women students, we gradually developed confidence in how to learn and take responsibility for learning.

“I think it is important to be confident enough to say you don’t understand something and to be in an environment where you are not ‘put down’ for admitting it. The environment at Cambridge enabled us to flourish and I believe it is the atmosphere we encourage in our Engineering teaching at Leicester.”

She sees her student years as pivotal in the acceptance of women in degrees such as hers. “It was 1981, and I think we were one of the first years in which there had been significant numbers of women. As the 80s progressed female intake in Metallurgy and Material Sciences grew to become between a quarter and a third. In other areas of engineering numbers of women have remained smaller and even today they are only between 15-18 per cent overall at undergraduate level.”

After Cambridge, Helen gained a PhD on the transmission electron microscopy of grain growth in oxide scales from Imperial College of Science and Technology. She had graduated as a metallurgist, but one of the things she appreciates about engineering is its flexibility, and as her career progressed she moved into mechanical engineering.

She worked first for the UK Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, including a period as assistant to the Director for Nuclear Power working on strategic business planning. Then, in 1989, she moved to Sheffield City Polytechnic and a year later joined the University of Sheffield as Lecturer in Engineering Materials.

The breadth of her career and her achievements are all the more remarkable since, for 14 years, she worked part-time in order to bring up her three children, now in their mid teens. When they were very young she worked half-time and has built up her hours as they have grown older, now working full-time once more.

“I am hugely grateful for all the teamworking and the people who worked with me, who really contributed to my being able to combine family and work. I wanted to spend time with the children when they were small,” she said. “Part-time working enabled me to do that.”

The arrangement succeeded for her, she believes, because she understood from the start that while hours could be part-time, commitment should not be. “I’ve always been very careful to understand what is important to the department. To be a good teacher, get good feedback, get research money, run my research well, nurture PhD students – really to make a full contribution to what the departments at Sheffield and Leicester needed.

“I’m also very grateful that in both universities I have had very clear-eyed Heads of Department who were flexible and thought carefully about how we could set up the job so that it was capable of being done in a parttime capacity. It shows that if employers can take a long-term view in the early days of someone’s career, they may end up with someone with a FREng or the equivalent.”

Professor Atkinson runs the highly successful Undergraduate Ambassador Scheme in Engineering at Leicester, for which students go into local schools for half a day each week for one term.

“Role models are important,” she said. “The more contact pupils have with real engineers the better. They learn it’s about team-working and it’s people-orientated, not at all the ‘spanner in the workshop’ sort of job they might imagine.”

She is optimistic that more women will be attracted into the profession in time. “Many young women are pragmatic and we need to get across the fact that there is a huge demand for capable engineers. Starting salaries are generally higher than the average for a graduate and career prospects are good.”

She is, she admits, proud to belong to the Engineering Department at Leicester. “It’s an excellent department, with a lot of internationally acclaimed research, and teaching of a high standard from staff who really do care about their undergraduates and postgraduates.

“Engineering makes an enormous impact on everyday life. Transport, energy, healthcare and communications all depend on the skills and expertise of engineers. We shape the future, and I am privileged at the University of Leicester to be teaching some of the best engineers.”

As part of Professor Atkinson’s ‘parttime’ career, she has served on a number of official bodies, including government panels; Institute of Materials and Institute of Metals Councils; HEFCE Teaching Quality Assessment in Materials; British Transport Police Committee; and the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Committee for the Appointment of magistrates in Rotherham.

Professor Atkinson is a member of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Structural Materials College and has served on and chaired panels prioritising proposals for funding. She was a member of the EPSRC Panel evaluating the Materials Portfolio (~800 projects) (1998-2000). She is a member of the Engineering Professors Council Committee and is leading, on their behalf, a national study of the costs of teaching engineering in universities.

Source: By University Of Leicester

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