Liren Li works for BP as a reservoir engineer, ensuring maximum recovery from their oil and gas field operations. You would think this keeps her quite busy but on National Women in Engineering Day she explains why she thinks it is also important to spend time mentoring students at the Space Studio School in Feltham
"I have always enjoyed maths and physics and I wanted to pursue engineering at university because I saw engineers as people who apply theoretical knowledge and analytical skills to solve real world problems. They make a real impact on people’s lives through their use of their scientific knowledge. I was educated in China up the age of 17 and then put my engineering dream into reality, studying in New Zealand for my A levels and first degree in Engineering. I then went to Oxford University to complete a PhD before joining BP in London in 2011.
In the UK there seems to be a real issue with women not choosing to follow engineering careers. Only 9% of professional engineers in the UK are women, a female engineer is seen as being unusual. Even in China, where it is more common for girls to study science, maths and technology to a high level, it is more common for girls to go into things like economics and computer science than engineering, so I had to be very single minded in pursuing an engineering career.
Perhaps it is for this reason that I am keen to work in schools to help the students, and particularly the girls, to see how science and engineering careers can be very worthwhile. Through the BP in the Community programme, I am a mentor at Space Studio School in Feltham for Go4SET, a ten -week project for 12-14 year olds run by the education charity Engineering Development Trust. Go4SET provides an opportunity for students to meet people who work in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers and to be mentored by them in projects that allow them to see how STEM projects can make practical differences in people’s lives. This type of work experience can be very valuable in inspiring young people, and particularly girls, into STEM careers.
This type of activity can help to overcome the reasons why girls don’t consider engineering careers carefully enough. There is a danger that science subjects are perceived as difficult, when they actually just need a different method of study, and these perceptions create a barrier to girls pursuing engineering. I think for girls, an additional issue may be a lack of support and encouragement to excel in maths and physics and a lack of female role models. If schools do not provide enough support and encouragement, and the girls don’t meet role models, they will naturally think that it must be difficult to be a female engineer.
This is why programmes in schools such as the ones that BP runs with EDT are so important. It has been very satisfying for me to see the students at the Space Studio School making excellent progress working together on the Go4SET project. In the beginning they thought it was too difficult, with too little time, but in the end they realised what they can achieve when they commit to the task, stick to their plans and work together. It was a little demonstration to them of just how satisfying engineering project work can be.
National Women in Engineering Day is an excellent opportunity for girls to see that there are many women engineers to admire. As they consider their school subject options, girls should remember their example and try to get a better understanding of engineering careers. If they like the engineering related subjects they should pursue them, because they will ensure that they have a really wide choice of career options available to them in the long term and they will not have closed the door on engineering, which I have personally found a really exciting career to pursue."