Helena Pozniak
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Great minds don’t all think alike

The Telegraph
Current heroes of stem prove that ideas can come in any shape or form

“The Americans have need of the telephone but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” So said Sir William Preece, chief engineer of the British Post Office, back in 1876.

Fortunately history has proven that innovators and trailblazers do need to challenge conventional wisdom — only as recently as the Fifties, industry figures were predicting that the world would have little use for computers. UK policymakers have long been concerned with the question of how to nurture new ideas and realise advances in research.

In order to flourish, say leading industry figures, ideas need space and funding. Shifts such as the transition to a low-carbon economy and advances in materials and technology are currently presenting a fresh set of challenges for future engineers and scientists.

“The UK is a world leader in fields such as engineering design, aerospace and high-performance cars,” says Dr Rhys Morgan, director of engineering and education at the Royal Academy of Engineering. “The real challenge comes in commercialising new technologies to maximise their benefits to society and the economy. The onus is on individuals to push boundaries, but government, universities and industry all have a role to play.”

On a professional level, the innovators here have often swum against the tide, sometimes raising difficult or unfashionable issues, or sticking to their guns when they have a hunch they are right.

Prof Neville Jackson - as a boy, Prof Neville Jackson (b.1959) enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together to make them work better and, he says, he’s still doing that today. He has spent 30 years researching cleaner and more efficient technologies in the automotive industry at research-led engineering company Ricardo, best known for designing parts for Bugatti Veyron and McLaren. Back in the Eighties, car companies showed little interest when he raised the issue of clean energy and fuel efficiency. Now, it’s all anyone wants to talk about, points out Prof Jackson, who never lost his curiosity for research and holds a string of positions of responsibility at university and automotive organisations. The car industry, he believes, will dominate technological advances in the engineering sector. “It’s one of the most innovative and fastest moving sectors, with a huge amount spent on research and development,” he says. Prof Jackson predicts that the coming years will be dominated by the improvement of thermodynamic efficiency in combustion engines. “By 2020, I believe all vehicles will have some sort of electrification on board, so there’s much to be done. The car industry is where it’s at,” he adds.

Elspeth Finch - How will cities cope when 75 per cent of the planet will be living in them by 2050, up from around half the population now? How will transport, energy and water infrastructures keep pace? These are the questions that keep Elspeth Finch (b.1975), UK director of innovation at design and engineering consultancy Atkins, awake at night. Innovations such as 3D printing and self-healing and composite materials will allow engineers to respond more swiftly to urban challenges, she says — although “there’s much more room for improvement”. A chemist by training, Finch cofounded the consultancy Intelligent Space Partnership, later acquired by Atkins, which uses state-of-the-art software to analyse how pedestrians move. She played a key role in the 2009 redesign of London’s Oxford Circus, and recently led a report on Future Proofing Cities that looks at the risks of climate change, resource limitations and ecosystem damage. Elected as one of 11 UK Young Global Leaders for 2010 by the World Economic Forum, she was also awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal last year. Her advice to young scientists and engineers? “Take opportunities that stretch you — the kind you might not immediately go for.” And, she adds, it’s vital to learn how to communicate science and technology to a non-specialist audience.

Alexander Bennett - When he delivers a ship to the Royal Navy as part of a £350million project for BAE Systems in the next three years, Alexander Bennett (b.1985) will allow himself a pat on the back. At 29, he’s in charge of engineering and design teams across Scotland and England. “Seeing a project through from contact to completion as chief engineer will be a proud moment.” Bennett started working for the Naval Ships department three years ago, having previously worked on jet fighters, unmanned air and ground vehicles. He was awarded a career achievement award for young professionals by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), as well as an award for outstanding academic achievement. “You need to be proactive and seek out opportunities, and don’t be afraid to go where it’s difficult,” he advises. “Had you asked me seven years ago if I’d end up designing ships I’d have said ‘No, I know nothing about it.’ But I gave it a go and really enjoyed it.” Getting the right blend of skills in his teams also requires softer skills not typically associated with engineers. “But the people are what makes the job so enjoyable,” he says. His greatest challenge? “Trying to solve complex technical problems that have a potentially significant impact on business within a compressed time scale. It’s difficult but we always get there in the end.”

Dr Rabinder Buttar - Founder of clinical research organisation ClinTec International, Dr Rabinder Buttar (b.1963) has amassed a host of accolades over the years, including Deloitte Female Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 at the Scottish Business Awards. She has also shaken hands with her fair share of the great and good, including former US President Bill Clinton and Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson. As one of Scotland’s most entrepreneurial scientists, with a PhD in immunology, Dr Buttar has three decades of experience in the international pharmaceuticals industry and set up her own company in 1997 while on maternity leave with her second child. With little business training in the early days, she followed her instincts and drew on her own experience. “I’ve always worked like that,” she says. She attributes her global awareness to her previous roles with international companies. ClinTec now operates in more than 50 countries, with innovative biotech companies and seven of the top 10 pharmaceuticals companies as clients. Projects include researching vaccines in Africa and diabetes in the Middle East. “Be entrepreneurial and creative,” she advises. “Sometimes you don’t get your exact dream job; instead, you need to take a more convoluted path to get there.”

Dr Maggie Aderin Pocock MBE - With a PhD in mechanical engineering and a rich career in industry and research, Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock (b.1968) is a leading figure in space science, challenging stereotypes and working relentlessly to inspire children. She has succeeded in spite of dyslexia and a fragmented education — she attended 13 different schools — and went on to study physics and become co-presenter of The Sky at Night. Fortunately she never took the advice of a school teacher to go into nursing after expressing her desire to be an astronaut, and has worked on heavy-weight projects such as the Gemini telescope in Chile and space satellites designed to collect data for climate research. Born during the time of the first moon exploration, Dr Buttar retained her fascination with space and founded her own company in order to speak to thousands of children around the world in her quest to democratise science. She holds a string of awards, including an Honorary Fellowship from the British Science Association, and received an MBE in 2009 for services to science education. “Dreams don’t show up on government surveys or school league tables, but they are the fuel that makes us want to get up and on,” she says.

David Gow CBE - When, as a young engineer, David Gow (b.1957) watched an episode of Tomorrow’s World that showed pre-school children being fitted with artificial hands, he knew what he wanted to do. Aged 23, he left his job in the defence industry and went on to invent a “bionic” hand that vastly improved the outlook for amputees around the world. It took 20 years to bring the i-Limb to market. A prosthetic that acts like a real human hand with motorised digits, it has helped to bring about a better quality of life for amputees. “The thing I am most proud of is that the product is not just an academic idea, it’s actually out there being used,” says Gow. He modestly attributes his success to a certain amount of luck — “bits of funding falling into place” — and dogged perseverance, and he has a clear vision of the direction of future research. “We need to continue to improve the technology of artificial limbs — learn more about how to feed back information to the body and make the artificial limb even more dextrous,” he explains. Gow now has a leadership role within NHS Lothian as head of Smart services. Young engineers, he advises, would benefit from entrepreneurial and basic business guidance in order to see their ideas realised. “If you believe you have got something different that nobody else has, then stick to your guns and don’t give up,” he says.

Dame Sue Ion - A prominent figure in the UK nuclear industry for decades, Dame Sue Ion (b.1955) was inspired to enter the sector by a book she won as a school prize. “And my parents indulged my enthusiasm for working with chemistry sets in the kitchen,” she recalls. Encouraging teachers at an all-girls school and supportive mentoring early on in her career set her on course for success. In 1979, with a PhD in metallurgy from Imperial College, London, she joined British Nuclear Fuels, where she became director of technology, overseeing investment programmes worth more than £300 million. Dame Sue Ion served two terms on the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology between 2004 and 2011, and represents the UK as a nuclear fuel expert on international committees. This year she became the first woman to win the Royal Academy of Engineering’s President’s medal. She is very much looking forward to glimpsing future engineering talent and offers the following advice: “Grab every chance you’ve got to watch and learn from others. Take control of your career and ask for the development moves and the experiences that you feel will get you ahead.” Her biggest challenge? “Persuading decades-worth of politicians that nuclear energy really is needed.”

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