Dr Katherine Fish, an environmental microbiologist, shares how she got into engineering and how diversity is vital for solving problems
During my A-levels, one of the topics that I was fascinated by was cellular biology, learning about these ‘invisible’ components that are the driving force behind all life was captivating. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to university and I wanted a degree in a subject I was interested in.
Opting for Biology, I took full advantage of selecting modules from different departments and studied diverse topics from ecology, biomedical science, molecular biology and biotechnology. Increasingly, I realised that what motivated me was a desire to use science to make things better and I struggled to see how I could do that with the skill set I had. Then I took a module on environmental microbiology and I was hooked!
I especially remember this ‘light bulb’ moment when we learned about using microorganisms to clean up oil spills in oceans. Amazing!
Knowing that I wanted to focus on applied science, I decided to pursue a masters project combining biology and engineering. Since graduating I have remained in engineering and continued my research as a post-doc within the multidisciplinary team at the University of Sheffield. My research motivation is still the same as at that ‘light bulb’ moment – understanding and managing microbiology to solve problems.
With ageing infrastructure, increasing urbanisation, growing populations and changes in water availability due to the climate crisis, not to mention an increasing awareness of the role water systems play in hospital-acquired infections, there is every need to better understand and manage these systems to protect water quality and public health.
Engineering is all about problem solving, using creativity and innovation to improve our environments (urban and natural) and, quite often, drawing on interdisciplinary skills to do so – none of which precludes any gender or background. Successful engineering depends on teams and hence benefits from different personality types, learning/teaching styles and ways of thinking. Diversity is critical firstly, to better identify the challenges that society, industry and the environment are facing, and, secondly, to developing creative and innovative solutions to overcome these.
For me, I think that the best thing about working in engineering is having the ability to be part of making a real, tangible difference (hopefully!) for the better. Engineering is so integral to our everyday life. Think about what it would be like without our clean and wastewater systems, travel networks (roads, bridges, rail, and air), modern technology (computers, mobiles), or, particularly relevant at the moment, medical equipment and vaccines. Quite literally, engineers are vital in shaping our world. Being a small part of that is very satisfying.