Cranfield University has achieved national award success with two engineers being named as winners in the 2021 Top 50 Women in Engineering (WE50) and two others reaching the final 100 of the annual awards.

Professor Jane Rickson, Professor of Soil Erosion and Conservation, and Dr Natalia Falagán, Lecturer in Food Science and Technology, were selected as Top 50 winners and Dr Irene Moulitsas, Senior Lecturer in Scientific Computing, and Eva Peláez Álvarez, PhD researcher in the Enhanced Composites and Structures Centre, are among the 100 highly commended finalists.

The WE50 awards, which are backed by the Women's Engineering Society, are a UK event linked to International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) – the celebration of women in engineering that takes place on 23 June each year.

This year the awards are celebrating Engineering Heroes: the best, brightest and bravest women in engineering who have recognised a problem, then dared to be part of the solution, undertaking everyday ‘heroics’ as much as emergency ones.

Top 50 double

Professor Rickson has more than 30 years’ experience of research, consultancy and teaching in soil and water engineering and specialises in soil degradation processes and sustainable land management, working closely with industry to address both the climate and biodiversity emergencies. She was also the first female president of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers in its 80-year history.

Dr Falagán is an early career academic (under 35 years old) who has achieved a level of national and international recognition unusual for her career stage. She works towards reducing food loss and waste by developing innovative technologies to ensure food security and has been instrumental in establishing the first Africa Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold Chain.

Professor Sir Peter Gregson, Chief Executive and Vice-Chancellor of Cranfield University, said: “We’re very proud of Jane and Natalia, and Irene and Eva, and congratulate them on this significant achievement. They are outstanding role models and their recognition across a range of specialisms is testament to the variety of engineering research at Cranfield and impact that it has across society and around the world.”

Professor Rickson said: “I am absolutely delighted to have been awarded this accolade. I hope I can show by example that engineering is an exciting and rewarding career choice for young women (and men). We need to continue to break the often stereotypical image of ‘the engineer’, so that the profession is seen to be much more inclusive, diverse and welcoming to anyone with an interest in designing, building, testing and improving the world around us.”

Dr Falagán said: “I'm thrilled to have been selected as one of the Top 50 Women in Engineering 2021. I think it's really important to show people that women have prominent roles in engineering. This award helps increase the visibility of women and reminds us all about the importance of diversity, inclusion and equality. I hope I can be a role model for young people who want to make a positive impact.”

Highly commended finalists

Dr Irene Moulitsas was selected as a WE50 highly commended finalist for her work at the crossroads of mathematics, computer science and engineering. She uses high performance computing to solve problems that are typically too large for a desktop computer or would take too long.

Dr Moulitsas said: “Being nominated for a WE50 award really meant a lot to me because I could see the recognition from my colleagues. I think it's important to recognise people and I believe by celebrating women in engineering we can help to make diversity a real asset in STEM.”

Eva Peláez Álvarez also reached the final 100 of this year’s awards, gaining recognition for her work during the Covid-19 pandemic with leading high-quality medical glove manufacturer Meditech Gloves, and her research to develop sustainable medical glove manufacturing.

Eva said: “I’m truly honoured to be recognised as a finalist in the 2021 WE50. I’m still a PhD student so having this recognition at such a young age is really encouraging – all of the hard work seems to have paid off and I’m proud to be contributing to an issue relevant to today’s society and the pandemic with my medical gloves research.”

Showcasing the engineering heroes of the future

To coincide with INWED this year, Cranfield University also launched an engineering heroes activity, inviting children aged 4-14 to take part and join hero squads focused on climate change, future transport, sustainability and international alliances highlighting the work of Cranfield’s industry partners.

Entries received from the activity have been organised into an online engineering heroes exhibition.



Notes for editors

About Jane Rickson

Professor Jane Rickson, Professor of Soil Erosion and Conservation at Cranfield Soil and Agrifood Institute, Cranfield University, has over 30 years’ experience of research, consultancy and teaching in soil and water engineering. She specialises in soil degradation processes and sustainable land management, working closely with industry to address both climate and biodiversity emergencies.

Jane’s work has focused on better understanding of soil functions and their role in the delivery of ecosystems goods and services, including water regulation, agricultural production and carbon storage. She uses transdisciplinary skills to apply engineering principles to practices of environmental protection, alongside economics and social sciences.

Throughout her career, Jane has been an inspiration to soil scientists and land-based engineers across the world. Her work played a key role in Cranfield being awarded the prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2017 for research and education in large-scale soil and environmental data for the sustainable use of natural resources in the UK and worldwide.

Jane was President of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers (2018-2020), the first female in the Institution’s 80-year history to hold the role.

About Natalia Falagán

Dr Natalia Falagán, Lecturer in Food Science and Technology at Cranfield University, is an agricultural engineer by training with an MSc in Agriculture and Food Research. She works towards reducing food loss and waste by developing innovative postharvest technologies and packaging solutions to extend the shelf-life of fresh produce.

Natalia has been instrumental in establishing the first African Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold-Chain in collaboration with Defra, UNEP, and UK universities. This Centre will bring training to local farmers to reduce food loss, empower women in agriculture and boost the African economy by improving health and livelihoods.

Natalia co-designed the ‘Lockdown Lettuce Beds’ citizen science project, part of Rurban Revolution (UKRI), with the University of Liverpool and Lancaster University. The project demonstrated that urban agriculture can improve wellbeing and food security, building resilience during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

About Irene Moulitsas

Dr Irene Moulitsas, Senior Lecturer in Scientific Computing at the Centre of Computational Engineering Sciences, Cranfield University, works at the crossroads of mathematics, computer science and engineering. She uses high performance computing (HPC) to solve problems that are typically too large for a desktop computer or would take too long.

Irene works in a niche area where speaking the language of an engineer and understanding engineering challenges is necessary to propose appropriate mathematical models that can be implemented in efficient computational paradigms. Irene has identified and undertaken research collaboration opportunities to develop novel algorithms and software for enabling the efficient execution of large scientific computations, using facilities ranging from smaller HPC clusters to national level UK and US supercomputers.

Irene worked with oceanography colleagues to couple statistical machine learning with physical modelling and predict the movement of oil spills. The methodology was later applied in the BLADESENSE project, leading to cheaper and almost real-time modelling of rotor blade deformation on helicopters. Irene has also worked on implementing novel parallelisation methods for atmospheric research applications, helping weather modellers to harness super computing power.

About Eva Peláez Álvarez

Eva Peláez Álvarez is a PhD researcher in the Enhanced Composites and Structures Centre at Cranfield University. During Covid-19 Eva has been instrumental in research to develop sustainable medical glove manufacturing, working closely with Meditech Gloves, a leading manufacturer of high-quality medical gloves. Eva’s research has shown how energy savings can be made with the development of more sustainable and biodegradable natural rubber gloves.

Eva is currently involved in supervising 10 MSc students related to medical gloves – including students from industry – and is exploring the opportunity to deploy the first sustainable glove manufacturing plant in the UK, building resilience against potential supply issues in future pandemics.

The novel manufacturing process which Eva is developing will tackle climate change by using natural rubber from trees that absorb CO2 and reducing energy use in glove manufacturing plants. Initial research shows that time and energy savings of 50% or more can be achieved and the natural rubber gloves biodegrade in under a year, 100 times faster than the synthetic alternative.