Cranfield supports events and initiatives regionally and nationally that promote and celebrate women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and careers.
We have received an Athena Swan Bronze award for our commitment to advancing women's academic and research careers in STEM, and are proud to have had two of our colleagues named in the Daily Telegraph's 2017 'Top 50 Women in Engineering under 35' list.
We are also committed to encouraging the future generation to study STEM subjects, hosting an event on campus to inspire girls aged 12-14 to consider non-traditional careers, particularly in STEM, and 12 of our scientists recently took to specially-made soapboxes in the Centre:MK to give shoppers an insight into the research being undertaken in and around Milton Keynes.
Interview with Professor Jane Rickson
Chair of Soil Erosion and Conservation and President Elect for the Institution of Agricultural Engineering
What’s the best thing about working in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)?
I see STEM as trans- and multi-disciplinary, so it can help address many of the world’s toughest challenges. In my job, scientific understanding is used to develop technologies to solve these issues, including how to produce enough food and energy to meet increasing global demands; how to reverse the loss of natural ecosystems; and how to cope with climate change and extreme weather events. It follows that many solutions need engineering approaches.
What was it that most appealed to you and how did you get in to the job you’re in now?
I am fascinated by how scientific principles can be applied in practice to develop technologies to solve important problems. For example, we have to understand the fundamental chemistry, biology and physics of soil degradation processes (e.g. soil erosion) at the particle scale to predict when and where the problem might be significant. We can also use mathematical models to test whether our predictions are sound. The scientific understanding of processes helps us design technological interventions such as erosion control blankets and soil conditioners to control the processes of erosion.
Did you have any particular influencers that encouraged you? Or anyone who was a barrier to your progress?
My first influencers were my school teachers, who encouraged my enthusiasm towards protecting and improving our natural resources. Since then I have always been fortunate to work with inspiring scientists and engineers.
"It is vital that employers take a flexible approach, especially with working parents (men and women). An explicit commitment to flexible working would make an employer more attractive to prospective employees. It would also help retain employees in the longer term and improve their motivation and job satisfaction. I was very fortunate that Cranfield is supportive to me with my family commitments."
What do you do on a typical day (if there is such a thing)?
I have been at Cranfield for 30 years now, and no two days are the same! My job is a mixture of research, training/teaching and consultancy. My research looks at fundamental and applied soil science at a range of spatial and temporal scales. It has focused on the assessment, monitoring and management of soil resources to aid better understanding of soil functions and their role in agricultural production systems.
I am interested in the concept of soil quality and soil health, and how these are linked to the delivery of vital and ecosystem goods and services, such as food production, water regulation and climate change mitigation through carbon storage. My research also addresses the effects of soil degradation on soil quality, and how technology can be used to solve these problems. I work closely with the agricultural industry, including farmers, growers, land owners, food processors, land-based charities, retailers and consumers.
It has been suggested that until STEM industries improve their approach to flexible working, women won’t look favourably upon those kind of jobs. What’s your experience of that?
It is vital that employers take a flexible approach, especially with working parents (men and women). An explicit commitment to flexible working would make an employer more attractive to prospective employees. It would also help retain employees in the longer term and improve their motivation and job satisfaction. I was very fortunate that Cranfield is supportive to me with my family commitments.
One suggestion is that policymakers, educators and the industry should make better connections between STEM and broader social impact. Do you think that would make a difference to the career aspirations of girls and women?
I think this is important, regardless of gender! Yes, knowing your work has impact can be a great motivator. This is recognised by Research Councils for example, who require all proposals to have a ‘Pathways to Impact’ section in the research application. It’s always good to think how your research will affect society as a whole.
There is a lot of encouragement of girls to study STEM subjects at the moment; however, I believe that the challenge is not getting girls started, but making sure they finish the race. I consider flexible working as an essential element to keep women in STEM industries, especially for those with parental or caring responsibilities.Dr Tosin Somorin, Research Fellow in Energy Systems