'I was on a mission - that's the only way to describe it'

Last edited: 4 July 2018

When BP’s chief scientist and head of Downstream technology once applied for a summer internship, she was turned down as the role was thought ‘better suited to a young man’. This month, Dr Angela Strank makes history as the first woman to receive the prestigious Cadman Award from the Energy Institute. BP Magazine hears how a childhood fascination with Marie Curie led to a remarkable career in science and business

A sick day at home as a child prompted my interest in science…

The pivotal moment came one weekend when I wasn’t feeling well. Unusually, I was allowed to stay home from Sunday School and watch the Sunday matinee film on the BBC. It was about the life of Marie Curie and massively inspiring for me: about a woman who fought so hard to pursue a career in science, was responsible for a major breakthrough in the discovery of radium and polonium and won two Nobel Prizes.

My parents always said to me ‘you can do anything you want if you work hard’ – I knew I’d love to do something like that. I was probably about seven. A couple of weeks later, my father bought me a book about the life of Marie Curie. I still have it today.

I wasn’t interested in following the expected path for women…

My father was an engineer and an architect – a great combination of science, maths, design and creativity. When my sister and I were young, he tried to explain things simply and bring them to life for us.

 As for my mother, she wasn’t allowed to go to university but was expected to marry and forego a career. She realised that was a waste, so wouldn’t allow the same to happen to us. As a result, she was very strict about education.

At school, I found languages easy and pursuing the arts would have been the obvious choice. That was what most women did. But, I wanted to do something different and challenging.

When I found my first fossil, I knew I needed to understand how the Earth works…

I went to Manchester University to study chemistry and chose two new supplementary subjects – metallurgy & materials science and geology. A month into my first term, we went on a field trip to the UK’s Peak District. I was immediately drawn to the stunning scenery and when I found my first fossil, a coral that was about 300 million years-old, it inspired me to discover more about the Earth and the mineral wealth held in its crust. I changed courses to geology and never looked back.

Titles and achievements

Dr Strank has been BP’s group chief scientist and head of Downstream technology since 2014. She is also:

  • Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) in June 2017 Queen’s Birthday Honours List
  • Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineers, 2017
  • Fellow of the Royal Society, 2018
  • Chartered Engineer, Fellow of the Institute of Chemical Engineers, 2015
  • Honorary Doctor of Science degree, University of London, Royal Holloway, 2017
  • Honorary degree, University of Bradford, 2018

My first rejection letter made me determined that nothing would stop me…

As a student, I applied for a summer work experience placement in a plastics factory to make radio parts. In response, I received a letter saying ‘it is felt the position would be better suited for a young man’. How ludicrous to make a decision based on gender? I couldn’t see the logic and wondered how I would ever break into the oil and gas industry, where I wanted to pursue a career. It was supposed to be the age of liberation in the 70s, but it was the dark ages.

Job prospects for female geologists were few, but I persisted…

I also applied to work in the coal industry in deep mining. On that occasion, I got a letter back saying they would love to offer me a job in exploration but unfortunately, since I was a woman, I was not allowed to work underground. I could have a job as a geologist on their opencast surface coal seam though; I politely declined.

Then, after my PhD. I went for an interview at the British Geological Survey; together with BP or Shell, it was the place I really wanted to work. On the application form, I’d deliberately put the title of ‘doctor’ because it was gender neutral, followed by my initials and surname, so that my gender wasn’t obvious. When I walked into the interview room, there were three men sitting at a long, oak bench.

One looked up and said to me, “We are expecting Dr Strank”, and I replied: “Yes, I am Angela Strank, do I sit here?”

I got the job – and worked there for two years before joining BP.

When I first went offshore, I slept on the examination couch in the medical centre…

Women were not allowed to go to sea in the UK when I got my first job with BP in 1982 – and oil rigs were classified as maritime vessels. Fortunately, the law in other parts of Europe differed and I joined a project in the Southern North Sea under Dutch jurisdiction.

As the only woman offshore, I stood out like a sore thumb. I remember my survival suit was the antithesis of its original function: it was so big that it would have filled with water had I needed it in an emergency.

But, there was nothing in my size. Then, there was the accommodation problem – all four-man berths. Clearly, I couldn’t share so I had to sleep in the medical centre. The examination couch was narrow and rock hard; it was also disconcerting to have a light right above my head. But, I lay there thinking ‘at least I am here’.

The reality of working in the energy industry far exceeded the images that drew me to it…

My father used to dabble in the stock market so we’d receive all manner of annual reports with amazing imagery of metal giants – the rigs, platforms and tankers – in exotic locations. But, the first time I went to the Middle East, saw the desert, experienced the heat, the dust and different cultures, I was hooked. The photos had given me the inspiration but the places themselves were incredible. China in the 1980s was like a completely different world; people were mostly on bicycles, there were no motorways around Beijing. Look how it has changed today; I’m struck by the power of economic growth and how it can transform people’s lives.

Every job makes an impact in a different way…

I never thought I’d do anything other than geology. But, accepting a Downstream role in BP’s lubricants business was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I learned so much about a market-facing, customer-focused business. It made an enormous impact on my personal growth and the types of jobs I could do afterwards.

A move into a commercial team as a financial analyst was my most challenging - because I knew nothing about finance! I was in at the deep end and had to learn quickly. It was a time of vulnerability but I had great colleagues who helped me.

The experience that changed me most as a person involved working in West Africa as business development manager in the late 1990s. In Angola, I saw the devastation after two decades of civil war and worked with people who’d lived and suffered through that period.

It made me reflect deeply on and appreciate my own personal circumstances.

My advice to people is ‘never say no’…

Think about how you can make a job, a project or an activity work, rather than thinking it’s impossible because of all your responsibilities. There are always compromises and you’ll have to find what the right ones are for you when making career decisions. Be open to opportunities around your day job as well – you’ll never know when it may come in handy or what you may learn as a result.

I wanted to break the paradigm and return to work after my children were born…

I only had about ten weeks’ maternity leave after my daughter arrived. Women weren’t expected to go back to work in those days, especially to a role in international exploration, but I was on a mission – that’s the only way to describe it. The early days were hard; my nanny used to bring my baby daughter to work so I could feed her at lunchtime. But, things evolved – by the time my son was born, we had six months’ leave, which made a huge difference.

When my son was six-weeks-old, he was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis and I wondered how we would manage. I had no idea what his illness would entail, but I wanted to give him as normal a life as possible with the right medical care. In fact, it was my career that allowed me to provide the best resources for that care and we found a way. Now, he is a doctor himself.

There are still stereotypes in our industry, so we need to inspire people…

BP and others are doing a huge amount to shift perspectives around STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. I’m particularly keen on Project ENTHUSE where we’re working with science teachers to raise awareness of opportunities in the energy sector and to help bring these subjects to life. If you have an inspiring teacher, that is half the battle. In fact, I am still in touch with the kind and inspirational teacher who taught me Chemistry A Level at school - her name is Mrs Semple, and we meet a couple of times a year in London for dinner. She is in her 80s now, but I still listen to her and respect her wise counsel.

We need more role models to be visible as well. I’m always surprised by the number of women who approach me in our offices who say how important it is to see another woman at the top of her profession. I find it very humbling.

The best part of my job as chief scientist is managing BP’s Technology Advisory Council…

We have a group of the world’s leading scientists and engineers from academia and industry who review our major research and development programmes. Each year, council members meet with our executive team to discuss the health of science and engineering in the business. For me, the digital agenda is the most exciting area of new technology – it is transforming the way we work, the insights we gain, the speed at which we can do things. As the world rapidly changes, digital analytics and artificial intelligence will provide solutions.

As head of downstream technology too, I make connections between our different businesses…

My two job titles are full-time roles and entail a heavy work commitment. But, they fit well together. As chief scientist, I see the STEM agenda right across BP, meaning I can draw on what one area is doing and assess how it may be deployed elsewhere. 

There’s plenty to share across our segments – for example, where our upstream operations use digital innovation offshore, it may be adaptable for our downstream manufacturing businesses.

If I didn’t have my two ‘hats’, it would be harder to make some connections. It’s important to draw these threads together to optimize our business, share expertise, be as efficient as possible and add value for shareholders.

The day you lose your ambition, you probably need to do something different…

Energy and enthusiasm for your job are important. This past year has been extraordinary for me – first, I became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, then honoured to be made a Dame, followed most recently by being made Fellow of the Royal Society. There have also been university honorary degrees including a Doctor of Science and an Honorary Professorship in Earth Sciences. I’m not sure why it has all happened to me now, but it has been incredible and all completely unexpected. I feel very lucky – people have taken risks on me for whatever reason throughout my career. Progression often requires risks to be taken – with the right support, most people will do their best and not let you down.

I’ve only had one bad day in the energy industry…

I drove into the back of my drilling manager’s car when I was in my earliest years at BP in Sunbury. He was not very nice to me when I did that – and I suffered badly as a result! But, I’ve never regretted a day of my career. There are always ups and downs, but looking back, I feel privileged to have seen and done so much. I have been to places I’d never dreamed of visiting and made friends around the world. It’s fantastic and I encourage women everywhere to follow their goals – and don’t let anyone stop you.

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