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Dr. Sam Rigby WHY Students.Women in Engineering

Dr. Sam Rigby PhD
The University of Sheffield, Sheffield
Combat Engineering, Civil Engineering, Structural Engineering

Paul Cody asked Dr. Sam Rigby bearded academic if he would do an Interview to Inspire Students and Women who dream of designing and building their world to choose a Career in Engineering.

QUESTIONS INCLUDED BELOW FROM  Engineering Community UK., The Captain-Retired Naval Submarine Commander USA., Ontario Society of Professional Engineers Can.

Dr Sam Rigby is a Lecturer in Blast and Impact Engineering and is Outreach and Widening Participation Tutor at the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering in the University of Sheffield. In his day-to-day academic life, Sam teaches a final year blast engineering module as well as first and second year computer programming, and researches into explosion effects on structures/materials. In addition to this, Sam is a keen advocate of Women in Engineering, and runs several outreach activities to inspire young people into a career in engineering, from performing single "live" demonstrations at STEM fairs, to hosting several 3 day summer schools at the university. Sam also sits on the admissions team in the department and is a regular feature on UCAS open days.


How did you get into engineering?

I’ve always been a problem solver and have always been interested in how things work. I remember as a child I used to design toys, often with different mechanisms and buttons and all sorts of features; I was probably the only 7-year-old to ever draw anything in section, complete with annotations! As I got older I noticed that I had a particular aptitude for maths, so I put both of these together and engineering was a natural career for me.

What is your research about?

I research into blast effects, specifically the accurate quantification of the pressures that comes from an explosion, and how blast waves interact and cause damage to objects; buildings, vehicles, etc. With a better understanding of exactly what goes on in the moments after an explosion, we can be better placed, as engineers, to provide adequate, effective and efficient protection systems. I must add that my research is for defence purposes; learning how to protect against blasts rather than learning how to cause more damage from them.

What makes a good engineer?

A good engineer is somebody who can break a complex problem down into a series of solvable steps, and ultimately finds a solution that is safe, efficient, cheap, durable, reliable, etc. An engineer is a cross between a scientist and an artist, so they need an understanding of the underlying physics as well as good judgement. A term we use often is “engineering intuition”, and is something we like to promote in our students. An engineer should know what the best solution is, and simply use calculations to prove it!

What is the next big challenge for the field of engineering?

Engineering, particularly in the UK, is desperately under-subscribed. A figure that you often see is that we currently only have around 50% of the engineers that we need. For me, the next big challenge in engineering is to dramatically increase the number of good quality engineers working on all the diverse problems that the field of engineering is equipped to take on. We also need to make sure that engineering is seen as a fair and inclusive; currently only around 9% of engineers in the UK are female. This needs to change. We need to inspire more young people into engineering and change the perception that engineering is just about fixing things and getting dirty.

What advice would you give to aspiring engineers?

Go for it! Read as many engineering articles/websites as you can, try and watch some relevant TV shows and really explore engineering. Your favourite form of engineering might be something you haven’t heard of yet! A lot of professional institutions (e.g. ICE, IStructE) in the UK offer free or reduced joining fees for students, so I would consider joining one of them to gain access to their literature and really develop your understanding.

What advice would you give to someone who hasn't yet considered a career in engineering?

It’s never too late. Engineering is primarily a skillset. It is based on a deep knowledge, but that is something that can easily be picked up. If you have the natural skillset to be a good engineer (problem solving, critical thinking, the ability to justify decisions) then go for it. A career in engineering is a fantastic prospect with plenty of scope for development. Engineers have the power to change the future and make the world a better place. You could be responsible for the next big change!


Follow Sam  and @SheffieldBlast for updates on #blast projects such as the now famous #FlyBag


QUESTIONS FROM   Engineering Community bringing people and engineering together

What excites you most about engineering?

The thing I find most exciting about engineering is the fact that it is so dynamic; it is always changing, pushing boundaries, and at the cutting edge of what we know as a society. The ability to learn, to discover, and to generate new ideas and concepts really excites me. In my job, I always leave work knowing more than when I started that morning. The fact that engineers worldwide go through a similar experience and use their knowledge to improve life for present and future human beings is brilliant.

What do you think of Sir James Dyson's plan to set up his own fee-free University to tackle the UK skills shortage?

As a university lecturer I’d probably have to declare a conflict of interest! Obviously it is great that more engineers are to be given the opportunity to learn and develop, but we have to be careful to make sure that it doesn’t damage UK higher education in general.



QUESTIONS FROM  The Captain,  Mike McKinnon, USN (Ret)  Naval Submarine Commander.

Tell us about the biggest mistake you have made during your engineering career?

Ooh. Good question! I don’t really have any regrets as such, I love my job and love the area of engineering that I research and teach. I would have loved to have spent a semester abroad whilst I was studying at university. I recently visited New Zealand on my honeymoon and fell in love with the place. If I could have taken a year away from Sheffield and studied in New Zealand that would have been wonderful!

Why is it important to be a strong advocate for Women in Engineering?

I think it is important that we have strong voices, both female and male, speaking out against the current imbalance in engineering. If we only have women who champion Women in Engineering then we run the risk of giving the impression that it is a problem for women only. It isn’t. It is a problem for the entire field of engineering to solve collectively. Engineering problems need a diverse set of skills to solve them, so much more than the “traditional” view of engineering (here, “traditional” could be replaced with “outdated”, or “incorrect”!). If somebody is turned away from engineering because they feel it isn’t welcoming or inclusive, then we could be missing out on some serious talent!

What activities do you do in your community outreach program to generate interest by our youth to become engineers?

The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Sheffield has a rich and broad range of outreach activities we are involved in. This summer I ran a three-day summer school, open to 14/15 year old girls from all across the country, who had expressed an interest in STEM-type subjects but had not yet settled on engineering. The summer school was framed around the engineering design of a footbridge, and the girls got to develop their reasoning, analytical and presentation skills. I loved it! In addition to this, we often visit local schools. We have a scaled model of a bridge (~8m span) that can fit in the back of a van, so we often bring that with us and give kids of all ages an opportunity to build the bridge, to get a feel for how it works!


What is the most important trait for an engineer to have to be excellent in his field? Is it passion, inquisitiveness, hard work, thoroughness, etc.?

His or her field! To me, an engineer has to be somebody who enjoys solving problems. I get a real buzz out of finding a solution to something that previously was a problem. I guess you could say that is a product of hard work and determination, but you also need a bit of a spark, so creativity comes in to it too. By its very nature, engineering is incredibly diverse and open ended, so there isn’t really a mould for the perfect engineer. The most important thing to do is to play to your strengths and find an aspect of engineering that suits you, and that you suit.


QUESTIONS FROM  Ontario Society of Professional Engineers

  Engineers use their problem-solving skills & expertise to improve our quality of lives. Have you worked on a particular piece of research or a project that makes you most proud?

A lot of the work we do has direct and often rapid application. Some of the findings from a piece of work we completed for the UK Ministry of Defence was implemented very shortly after we reported it, and we have been told it actually saved lives! Another piece of work we were involved with was the design and testing of a bomb proof luggage container, called FlyBag, which fits in the baggage hold of planes. The technology has not quite “taken off” yet, if you excuse the pun, but the idea that this piece of engineering could prevent a disaster similar to the Metrojet Flight 9268 bombing (224 fatalities) is quite profound and something I am proud to have been a part of.

 Do you think it is important for engineers to be actively involved in public policy and decision-making? What do you think engineers can bring to the table?

Yes, definitely. Engineers, particularly those like myself who are involved in research, are often discovering information that could have a profound impact on society. It is our duty to inform those who make decisions which is the best path to choose. Also, engineers are excellent at justifying their findings/decisions, it’s part of what we do. You don’t want to get into an argument with an engineer because, chances are, the engineer has already considered the alternatives and arrived at the best solution!

As an engineer, do you get to work closely with professionals of other disciplines? What would you say are the benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration?

Yes. In construction, structural engineers often serve as the link between the architects, the contractors, and the client. It is often difficult when communicating with others from different backgrounds/skillsets because they may not have the same understanding as you do, and you can’t assume that what you say has been communicated effectively. The benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration are the increased likelihood of finding a suitable solution across a wide range of user needs. As I mentioned before, diversity is key in engineering. Working with others promotes a more diverse and agile way of thinking, which is incredibly valuable in engineering.

In your opinion, what are the positive/negative implications of Brexit on engineers & engineering firms the UK?

There are many, many brilliant engineers and other professionals across Europe. It would be a shame if the UK talked themselves into a position where we were effectively shutting down a potentially very beneficial partnership. It hasn’t been confirmed, but there were rumours that the UK government had pledged to match pre-Brexit funding into scientific research, so hopefully as a research institution we won’t see too much of a negative impact. As an educational institution, however, we are already beginning to see European students turn away from UK higher education institutions. This is a real shame. A potential benefit from Brexit could be a rejuvenation of certain UK-based industries that were previously outsourced, but the future is currently very unclear. As engineers we must be adaptable and deal with whatever is thrown at us!

Thank you Sam for your Passion inspiring students to study Engineering as a career with unlimited opportunities!

Paul Cody

Founder Career Skunks

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