King to lure female engineers

August 13, 2004

At a time when female students are staying away from physics and engineering in their droves, Imperial College London's decision to parachute in a woman to run the largest engineering faculty in the country is significant.

Julia King, the chief executive of the Institute of Physics, will start her job at Imperial at the end of September and is unlikely to do so quietly.

In her current role, Dr King employed rap stars to try to inject a little sex appeal into a subject that is often dismissed by schoolchildren as too difficult.

She described her greatest achievement as putting her learned society on the map, but this populist agenda is not universally liked.

"We have got the institute's comments onto the news more often and that is controversial," she explained. "We have 37,500 members who won't all agree with what we are saying. Some of our membership is quite conservative and doesn't see the point in having a rap record about Einstein. I think it's great."

A central bone of contention was Dr King's fight to convince children that physics is fun. Many argued that she should also have stressed that physics was never going to be easy.

She said she understood this concern, yet she insisted that her role at the IoP had not just been to deliver the next generation of physics academics and professionals. "I'd like to see a society where everyone studied science. Many will be parents. They will all become adults taking on difficult decisions. I want them to have an empathy with physics and to understand the concepts," she said.

Einstein Year - the UK's costly contribution to the International Year of Physics, which begins in 2005 - will be the first large-scale test of Dr King's theory.

As part of a long list of physics gimmicks, the institute spent £500,000 kitting out three lorries with experimental laboratories. The lorries are set to drive between supermarket car parks and village fetes, bringing hands-on physics to an unsuspecting public.

Dr King admitted this was a risk. "We were quite reserved at first. There was a fear that if we spent a lot of money and had no impact, it would be a failure," she said. "But now we've moved to wanting to shout about it from the rooftops. There is a real buzz about the place."

Dr King was somewhat regretful that she was walking out of the institute just as this high-profile venture kicked off.

She hoped that her new appointment would make her an important role model for disillusioned young female engineers.

"I hope it will be a sign to women who may be deciding whether to stay in engineering that the jobs are there and they should compete to get them," she said.

But Dr King acknowledged that things were much easier when you were competing at her level. Those starting out were likely to have less confidence and generally have a tougher time.

She said: "I have met young women in industry and in universities who found it quite oppressive being part of such large groups of men. They felt teased or sidelined or very much on public display."

She pointed out that if a female engineer made a mistake, everyone in her department knew about it, but if a man slipped up the next day no one remembered who it was.

Dr King said one of her big plans for Imperial was to try to tempt some of the bright young women who predominate in medical schools over to engineering. "When I was an undergraduate, only 15 per cent of those in medicine were women and now they are the majority," she said enviously.

She suggested that blurring the boundaries between engineering and medicine - by pushing medical technology such as magnetic resonance imaging, for example - was one way to draw women in. "It will be about portraying engineering as the servant of the human being," she said.

And Dr King, who held a number of senior positions at Rolls Royce, said she intended to exploit Imperial's famous business connections. She argued that many engineering researchers were not very good at selling their ideas to industry.

"If you want to get your concept funded, you've got to make a case that will make the executive board sit up and feel excited," she said.

One senses that she will be adopting a similar approach in her new position.

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