It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment, but I think it was a day in 2016 when the idea of writing a book popped into my head during a chat with a career coach. I was working as an engineer in oil and gas at the time, and doing a lot of engineering engagement on the side. I was speaking at schools and events, volunteering for science festivals, and writing short articles about engineering for mainstream media outlets. These two sides of my world felt very separate, but I loved them both, especially the writing. I was desperate to unite them, and writing a pop-science book about my experiences as an engineer and the energy sector seemed like a good way to achieve this.
I had no idea where to start with writing a book, so I got in touch with other engineer-authors. They were people I had met through my engineering engagement work, and some were kind enough to take the time to speak to me and share the process of pop-science writing. I was even invited to join a science writing group, where I met even more incredible science writers. Through these contacts, I learned that pop-science books are commissioned based on a book proposal. This is a lengthy document that explains what the book is, contains a full draft chapter and summarises the others, explains who the author is and why they are the right person to write the book, and assesses the market and argues why the book is different to others out there. I also learned that in general, publishers do not deal directly with authors; the selling tends to happen through agents.
My next steps were to simultaneously write a book proposal and find an agent. While it is possible to approach agents directly, I thought I’d have better chances of success if I was introduced to agents by mutual connections. It was 2018 by this point, and the first agent I was introduced to shared some example book proposals which I used as the template to write my own. This was no small task – in the end, I had a fifty-something page document detailing what my book was going to be about, why I should write it, plus the sample chapter and descriptions of the others. It took me a year to put this together, and in the end the agent did not connect with the idea, so we parted ways. Disappointing, but rejection is a very normal part of this process.
Throughout this time, I experienced lulls in my own motivation and drive. I think this was because the book was a self-imposed project I had going on the side while working full time, with no real deadlines or anyone relying on me to do it. I got around this by creating some artificial social pressure - I told everyone I met that I was trying to get a book off the ground; my logic was that next time I saw them, they would ask how the book was going, and I would want to tell them that some progress had been made. I’m not sure how conventional this method was, but it worked for me!
The rejections continued throughout 2019 and 2020. I had a couple of other names of agents, so started to contact them. The months slipped by as I got in touch, waited for a response, sent the proposal, chased for feedback, and was told no thank you. But success came a few days before the end of 2020, mid-pandemic. An agent I had been introduced to liked the proposal, and things moved extremely quickly from there.
My new agent asked me to make a few tweaks to the proposal, before sharing it with publishers. One liked it, I had a video call with them, we got along, and by March 2021 a book deal was done. At last, five years on, I could get on with the thing I wanted to do and actually write the book!
Covid-19 and Climate Change
I have seen a lot of speculation about the impact of Covid-19 on climate change. From a personal perspective, I suspect my carbon emissions have reduced. I am not going out, only buying necessary products, not flying as my booked holidays get cancelled, and working from home. After a short period of adaptation, this all now seems normal, but I wonder if I will return to old habits once the pandemic is over?
On a global level, Reuters reported that carbon output could fall by "more than 5%" this year. This would be the first dip since the 2008 financial crisis, where we saw a 1.4% reduction in emissions. This is seemingly good news amid this global health emergency, but will it last?
Eventually, closed down businesses will reopen, flights will resume, and people will venture out of their homes and return to normal. The 2008 dip was followed by a rapid emissions growth of 5.1% during the recovery (according to Reuters).
As transportation and industrial production ramp back up in China, associated emissions are rising, and I expect it will be similar across the world as countries come out of the other side of this. The reduction of emissions due to Coronavirus is a short-term side effect. It is not a permanent solution to climate change.
Going forward, nations must continue to focus efforts on tackling climate change and make structural changes for a sustainable future. The pandemic has shown that it is possible for governments and the private sector to come together to tackle a major disaster; some of the lessons could be applied for tackling climate change.
The pandemic will also generate some interesting data for climate researchers. Previously impractical and almost impossible experiments are now taking place around us. Scientists and engineers will be able to study the effects of grounding flights, halting industry, and reducing transport on emissions.
Back to the personal level, we can continue some of these lockdown habits into our new normal. We have seen that working from home and using video conferencing can be very effective, and frequent international travel is not a necessity. These shifts could help to maintain personal emissions to lower levels.
Offshore Wind Power
As an adult, I don't experience that 'kid going to Disneyland' level of excitement very often... but that changed yesterday in anticipation of a boat tour around the Rampion offshore wind farm. It's 13 km off the coast of Brighton, visible on the horizon from the city. There are 116 wind turbines, which got bigger and bigger as our boat got closer and closer. I don't know what it is about large infrastructure projects, but they fill me with a sense of awe and respect for the engineers involved.
Each turbine outputs a maximum of 3.45 MW of electricity, so in the right wind conditions and if all the turbines are working, the field can generate a maximum of 400 MW. To put that into perspective, right now, the UK's electricity demand is 27,500 MW, so if Rampion generates at its maximum capacity, it would supply about 1.5% of the current demand. Bear in mind that today is Sunday, it's the summer, and it's hot, so the demand is relatively low.
I find it hard to imagine the size of wind turbines. These were 140 m high to the tip of the blade. Luckily, two people working on one of the blades really helped with understanding the scale! You should be able to spot them on the blade in the photo below.
The electricity generated by the rotation of the blades has to be transported back to land to join the National Grid transmission system, so it can be delivered to users like you and me. Each wind turbine has a cable, buried under the seabed, connecting it to the offshore substation.
The substation collects all the electricity, converts it to an appropriate voltage, and then exports all the generation through one cable to shore. These substations look very similar to offshore oil and gas platforms, essentially they are steel structures sitting on the seabed, with equipment bolted to the top. Again, the boat to the right of the photo below gives some perspective on the size.
Alongside generating renewable electricity, this wind farm has turned into a tourist attraction, with commercial tours running from the Brighton Marina. The wind farm has also been positive for biodiversity, because trawling is no longer allowed in the area.
I would highly recommend taking this trip, it's a really fun way to engage with renewable energy and UK's journey to decarbonise electricity generation.
The Rampion wind farm is only a couple of years old, my next aim is to visit a 150 year old infrastructure project - the London sewers. Please get in touch if you know someone who would be willing to take me on a tour!
My career choices have been heavily influenced by the extracurricular activities and the work experience that I did. The best way to learn about being an engineer is definitely by doing it.
The RAF and Briggs Automotive Company, a supercar company, have just launched a competition, for 16 - 25 year olds in the UK, to design a transport vehicle for Mars. The winning design will be made into a 3D model, and the winner gets a week's work experience at the Briggs Automotive Company Mono factory in Liverpool. There are 10 other prizes too for the undoubtedly awesome designs that will be submitted.
This is a chance to have a go at some of the many sectors of engineering. It combines transport, space travel, materials engineering... and others too! It's also a potential opportunity to get some great work experience.
The deadline for entries is noon on Sunday 21st October, so get designing. There's lots more information about the competition and how to enter here: http://www.starrship.space/competition/
The Bloodhound project not only aims to smash the current land speed record of 763mph, but will go way beyond that to 1000mph. I visited the car last week with the Women's Engineering Society Young Members' Board.
The car showcases years of engineering work and collaborations between many organisations. Later this year, the team and the car will travel to the Hakskeen Pan in South Africa for testing up to 500mph. The information gathered about the car's high speed aerodynamic performance and handling will enable the team to continue developing the car to reach their 1000mph target. Click here to learn more!
Engineering isn't just about the end result, it's about the journey, and Bloodhound are doing an amazing job of promoting the project and engaging with young people along the way. We met Rob Bennett, Bloodhound's 'Chief Inspirer', along with ten girls from a local primary school. Rob told us all about the history of the land speed record, and what Bloodhound is setting out to achieve.
After learning all about the project, we worked with the primary school girls on our STEM Challenge video to build and race balloon cars! Watch out for this video - it will be coming out around International Women in Engineering Day on 23rd June. The girls were so much fun, and very engaged with the project and the challenge. I hope this experience will have a long lasting impact and encourage them to stick with STEM.
Rubbish is one topic that keeps me up at night. Everything we throw away has energy locked up in it. That could be anything from the energy used to extract and manufacture the materials, to the energy used to transport the products. Throwing stuff away creates another energy intensive exercise; transporting the rubbish for disposal and the need to manufacture replacements to meet our single use culture.
People seem to be more aware of this, with many campaigns highlighting the huge amounts of plastic waste that end up in our oceans. Zooming in on one specific issue: coffee cups. In the UK, we throw away 2.5 billion a year. These are usually paper on the outside, plastic on the inside, making them extremely difficult to recycle.
Growing up in the Middle East, I remember getting coca cola in glass bottles, and returning those bottles to the shop. One company is trying to solve the coffee cup issue in a similar way; CupClub want to stop manufacturing for single use. Rather than focusing on recycling, their focus is on reusing.
CupClub offer businesses and retailers a returnable cup and lid service to eliminate waste from their supply chain. This model was adopted after carrying out full life cycle analysis with Giraffe Innovation.
Safia Qureshi, Founder and CEO of CupClub, told me that their system uses half the amount of carbon dioxide when compared with disposable cups. To achieve similar results, we would have to increase recycling rates to 84% in the UK. At the moment we're at 1%.
Consumers sign up for free to use the cups, giving them access to a map of the drop off points for the cups, similar to borrowing a Santander bike in London. The cups are collected from the drop off points to be washed and redistributed to retailers.
CupClub maintain responsibility for their products by tagging each cup. Using technology similar to the Oyster card, they can track where the products are at any time and make sure they are properly managed from start to finish. Also, the data collected will show patterns of use and demand across different areas. This ties in with the company's bigger aim of understanding and improving how we feed a population. Patterns of use can feed back data about how much needs to be manufactured, and how much needs to be grown, to meet demand.
Coffee cups are just the start. Returnable food packaging, like the plastic boxes seen at Pret A Manger, Itsu and Marks & Spencer could be next on the hit list. CupClub will be looking to provide frequently used packaging products to make an impact.
If you had to get a human to Mars, where would you start? What sort of things would you consider? You obviously need a rocket and enough fuel, but what will our space traveller eat? How will you keep them alive and healthy?
To celebrate the Royal Air Force's 100th birthday, they have teamed up with Rolls-Royce and the Royal Air Force Association to launch STARRSHIP; a social media campaign looking to answer these questions.
As you can imagine, the topic is huge and has opened up the opportunity for some creative and fun content. The campaign is aiming to show STEM careers in a new light, and inspire a generation of innovators.
To draw in a wide audience, STARRSHIP has drafted in some YouTube influencers.
Tom Scott, whose YouTube channel has over a million subscribers, flew with the Red Arrows to explain how Formation Flying works. He also flew with the Blades, a full time civilian aerobatic display team, to explain G-Force.
On the nutrition topic, 13 year old Junior Bake Off Winner 2016 and YouTuber Nikki Lilly and Great British Bake Off finalist and Rolls Royce engineer Andrew Smyth baked a no-fat chocolate cake and dehydrated it so it can be eaten in Space.
They skilfully navigate through the issues of baking in space in their video.
There is lots more content to come, which will hopefully inspire some budding engineers and scientists of the future.
For more information, visit the STARRSHIP website.
I am one twelfth of the Women's Engineering Society (WES) Young Members' Board. We are a group of engineers working on project to make WES more accessible to younger members, acting as role models, and promoting engineering careers to the public.
As 2018 is the official Year of Engineering, we decided to celebrate by doing a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) challenge every Friday throughout 2018 and uploading the videos to YouTube for others to try out.
The challenges are based on STEM Challenge Cards we were given by the James Dyson Foundation.
This week's challenge was a bit different. We did it as a group, from the Dyson offices, where we held our first board meeting of 2018. Watch the video to see how we get on with building spaghetti bridges!
Engineering Media Matters
It took me four years of studying chemical engineering, then a few years of work, to realise the magnitude of our reliance on engineers. They beaver away quietly, meeting our daily living expectations and demands. Despite this, we moan and groan on the odd occasion that our train is late, if the internet connection slows down, or when the water from the washing machine in the apartment above decides to pour through the ceiling into the kitchen.
That last example is the latest annoyance in my own life. Rather than complaining, maybe I should stop to consider the mind blowing facts. I have a machine that enthusiastically does the laundry for me, then drains the water into a designated system (most of the time). There are people defying gravity by living above me, and more people above them, and they haven’t fallen through the ceiling. Speaking of the ceiling, it can and will be easily repaired with some skilfully engineered materials.
I could always picture what doctors, teachers and even politicians did, but I was oblivious to engineering, perhaps due to the lack of public engagement. It’s no coincidence that the BBC News website has ‘Health’, ‘Education’, and ‘Politics’ tabs. Engineering usually happens behind closed doors, it’s a mystery to most, so why not open up to the media and show the public what we do?
Earlier this week, the IChemE gathered some media professionals, science reporters, and engineers in the basement of a pub to talk about what makes ‘good’ science news and how we can get more engineering stories out there. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula. Science and engineering news should be interesting and informative, easy to relate to, and consider the human angle rather than just hard facts and figures.
Establishing channels of communication between engineers and reporters is vital for getting engineering content in the media, as is learning to communicate in a succinct and engaging way. It’s also important to keep in mind that reporters are inundated with ideas for stories, so persistence is essential.
Some press offices provide great channels of communication. In general, stories about academic scientific research are much easier to come by than practical engineering. I think this is directly related to the different attitudes of university press offices and those of private companies. Universities are open and encourage academics to share their research, whereas company press offices seem to focus on maintaining an image, and damage control. I really felt this when I was doing my British Science Association media fellowship with BBC science news; it was almost impossible to find industry employees to comment on stories. Removing this restriction would give many engineers freedom to be heard.
The IChemE event opened up the dialogue between reporters and engineers, but we have a long way to go. My vision is to see more engineering stories in mainstream media, public awareness of what engineers do, and maybe even an 'Engineering' tab on the BBC News website!
Excuses and working for the BBC
There is a semi-decent excuse for neglecting this blog for such a long time; as I've been busy writing in other places including articles for enginterns.com, The Huffington Post, and most significantly for me, BBC online science news.
The BBC thing started back in March when I discovered the media fellowships run by the British Science Association; a scheme to increase communication between the scientific community and the media. They take scientists (and a few engineers) and place them in media outlets for three to six weeks, then send them to the British Science Festival to report for their media host.
This fitted exactly with my desire to learn more about the media and increase public awareness of engineering so after a few weeks of debating, negotiating, convincing and constantly nagging my manager, I applied for the scheme.
To my utter delight, my carefully crafted application got me a place with the BBC’s science unit for three weeks. I split this up into a few days a week over the summer, so I could keep up with my real job at the same time.
I arrived at the BBC Broadcasting House in London on a sunny July day and was ushered to a desk and told I would be working on Science in Action; a weekly BBC World Service programme. The BBC office was not too dissimilar from a busy Middle Eastern market; it was messy, bustling, and noisy. People were either talking, discussing, arguing with each other or had headphones on to edit audio in peace.
My first task was to sift through up-coming scientific publications, find interesting stories, call up the researchers involved and decide if they were a good fit for radio. A story about medicinal marijuana caught my eye and before the day was out I had arranged for the researcher to talk about his work on the show.
I quickly got used to the BBC marketplace and became an apprentice rather than a tourist. It was refreshing and enjoyable to be taken out of my comfort zone and thrown into the deep end without much warning.
To push myself further, I decided to produce my own radio package, which is a collection of interviews on a specific topic with my narration to link the story together. This was my opportunity to cram in some engineering. I made a short piece about electricity demand response, which was broadcast on Click, the BBC World Service radio weekly technology programme.
The second part of my placement was with BBC online science news. The team was extremely welcoming and I loved being able to call up scientists and engineers and say ‘I work for BBC News, can you tell me about your work?’
The stories I covered varied widely; from dinosaur teeth to the age of the Earth’s magnetic field. This prepared me well for reporting from the British Science Festival at Bradford University; the final leg of the media placement.
I could write much more about all of this, but for now I want to encourage other engineers and scientists to get involved with the media through this scheme or others to improve understanding of the work that makes our daily lives possible, and most importantly generate appreciation for the people behind it.
Engineer, writer, presenter