Ayrshire College’s female STEM network – Ayrshire Connects – held its second annual meetup, ‘Girls with Grit’, on 19 June 2017. To continue the theme of the event we will be interviewing a series of ‘girls with grit’ across Ayrshire and beyond.
Hello! My name is Megan, I’m an optical design engineer at Thales in Glasgow where I invent lenses like the ones in professional cameras, except the lenses I design are used in really extreme environments. I had never done anything like this before starting at Thales, but I’ve been lucky to work with really experienced and generous people over the past few years and I’ve learned so much on the job. Never be afraid to apply for a job you don’t yet know how to do – the secret is that everybody starts out as a beginner!
Where did your career start?
I could never decide between art and science when I was in school, so I decided to study Chemical Physics at university in Glasgow but kept working on my artistic side too, so I worked as a photographer for weddings and events and designed posters in my free time. As it turns out, engineering is perfect for people like me! This career really allows me to express my creative side, while still feeling challenged with complex technical questions. I love it!
I took a bit of a detour between finishing university and starting my job as an engineer. First, I moved to Germany to begin a PhD but realised very quickly that my heart wasn’t in it. So I left after only 3 days! It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make, but I’m still certain that it was the right choice. I returned to Glasgow where I started working as an assistant buyer, sourcing consumables for lots of different biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. One day I could be hunting down very specific and complicated glassware, another day I could be comparing different types of rabbits’ eyes for a customer. It was a fascinating job! After a year in procurement I was unexpectedly yearning to be back in the world of physics and so I applied for the optical design job at Thales.
I was also really fortunate to try out a lot of different scientific jobs before graduating. I spent a fantastic summer at the Environmental Research Institute in Thurso – the northernmost town on the British mainland where I grew up – where I was researching how pharmaceuticals make their way into the environment. Then I spent a summer at the Institute for Gravitational Research in Glasgow, building a miniature version of the mind-bogglingly precise instruments that we use to detect gravitational waves (which has to be one of the most important scientific discoveries of our lifetime). After that, I spent a summer in the Inorganic Materials research group at Glasgow University synthesising nanoparticles using normal, kitchen microwaves – it was all a bit too liable to explode for my liking!
Finally, I spent a year during my degree working at a physics institute called AMOLF in Amsterdam where I researched how water moves about inside fuel cells (the ‘green’ batteries used in electric cars). It was at AMOLF that I really fell in love with physics and optics in particular – I built a new laser system while I was there, and it was a great feeling when we got it working for the first time.
I’ve been lucky to travel a lot with my work. While at AMOLF, I visited Switzerland for a conference, and Finland for a summer school. I still love to travel and in my current role I’ve been all over the UK, France and I’m going to New York this month. If you like to see the world, a career in science or engineering could really suit you! I met my friend Noah from Wisconsin when we worked together as scientists in Glasgow. Two years later, we met again when I visited the USA for a workshop and we spent a week roadtripping and visiting family and friends. We met again two years after that, when he was visiting Japan for a conference and I was visiting my brother there at the same time – this time we spent a week exploring Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo! Science and engineering are truly international and can bring you so many opportunities you might not expect.
Did you attend College/University?
I completed a five year Master in Science at the University of Glasgow in Chemical Physics and really enjoyed it. My lecturers were some of the most dedicated and patient people I’ve ever met.
Is there equality in this industry?
In terms of numbers, absolutely not – less than 10% of engineers in the UK are female. In terms of my experience, yes – I’ve never felt at a disadvantage by being a woman, but it has to be said I’m in the very early stages of my career.
For many years, I wasn’t sure whether I could be myself and be a scientist or an engineer. I thought I might need to be less feminine to ‘blend in’, or more feminine to avoid making people feel threatened! I’m happy to say I was wrong – I can be myself, my whole self, and still be a capable and credible engineer. It’s because of the pioneering women and men who came before that I’m able to say this.
Do you have any career secrets or tips?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, they’re definitely not a stupid as you think they are and in fact, asking questions has the effect of making the person you’re asking feel flattered and think you’re even smarter!
For really practical and effective advice on CVs, cover letters and interviews, check out The Muse – everything you need is right there.
Find out more about Ayrshire Connects and how you can be involved here.