Happy Father’s Day – did I inherit the engineering gene?

My involvement in ScienceGrrl has led me to question how and why I ended up studying a STEM subject and if my own experience could help to inspire and encourage budding young scientists. Every scientist and engineer has their own story about what has inspired them and Father’s Day seems like a good time to share mine. Yup, I’ve come to the conclusion that my dad is a major reason why I ended up studying engineering. People have always told me I have my dad’s eyes, but I wonder how many of them imagined that a career in engineering might also be hereditary?

It was never my intention to research remediation of contaminated land and water and work in an engineering department but looking back perhaps it is not that much of a surprise I’ve ended up where I am. My dad is a civil engineer, DIY enthusiast and in all honesty, a bit of a nerd. I’m not saying that to be mean, I’m saying that so I can tell you my dad is the person who showed me being a nerd is cool. As kids, my younger brother and I loved our reference books and construction toys. We didn’t love that our dad always managed to win at building Lego towers, but I think he had an unfair advantage.

My dad never told me what I should study or what career path to follow – it was simply his enthusiasm for engineering and technology that made me love it too. His career as a civil engineer has led to a passion for infrastructure; roads, bridges, tunnels, you name it. Whether it’s driving along a newly opened stretch of motorway or dragging me onto a tram the first time he visited me in Sheffield, he’s never happier. For his birthday this August, my dad, brother and I will be climbing one of the towers of the Forth Road Bridge – also the location for our Christmas Day walk.The Forth Road Bridge

For years my dad worked on a large project that involved cleaning up an old oil refinery and developing it into a golf course. Sometimes at the weekend we would take a drive up to his work and he’d show us around the site, pointing out the different parts of the project and explaining how the water and soil was being cleaned. I was only in primary school at the time, but years later as an environmental chemistry student at university, the modules on contaminated land and remediation were the ones I enjoyed the most. When I graduated it seemed like a natural progression to move onto a masters and then PhD in environmental engineering. I don’t think my dad ever intended to be such a big influence on my career choice but without him I would not have been so aware that science and engineering were possible choices for me.

ScienceGrrl’s “Through Both Eyes” report published this year explains how perceptions of STEM jobs as gendered by girls and their parents can act as a barrier to girls pursuing careers in these fields. A careers article in Top Gear magazine about a Formula 1 team was criticised for addressing schoolboys and including a graphic where the only females in the team were in media or hospitality roles. Female role models are not only important for girls, but also for parents who should be able to imagine their daughters following any career path, not just those that are traditionally thought of as ‘girls’ jobs’.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a nerdy engineer for a dad, that’s just my own experience. We can all be a role model to a younger person – to sons and daughters, nieces and nephews and our friends’ children. That construction toy, science book or day trip to a science museum could be the birthday or Christmas present a future scientist or engineer one day cites as their inspiration. Thanks George for being mine!

Steph Kerr @stephkerr is an environmental engineering PhD student and ScienceGrrl based in Sheffield.