Interview with Elena Rodriguez-Falcon

The inaugural provost of Hereford’s new engineering university on moving from Mexico’s industrial heartland to the UK’s Steel City and life as a gay woman in a male-dominated profession

April 19, 2018

Elena Rodriguez-Falcon joined the New Model in Technology and Engineering (NMITE), an engineering university scheduled to open in Hereford in 2020, as its provost and chief academic officer in January. She was previously professor of enterprise and engineering education at the University of Sheffield, which she joined in 2002, having taken a master’s in mechanical engineering and industrial management at Sheffield Hallam University in 2000. She also holds a doctorate from the Autonomous University of Nuevo León in Mexico.

Where and when were you born?
Monterrey, Mexico, on 10 April 1972.

How has this shaped who you are?
It has completely shaped who I am. I decided to study engineering because I am from an industrial city, where engineers are in high demand and are well paid.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was a very dedicated undergraduate and a happy one. I was able to work as a junior engineer during part of my undergraduate degree; that also allowed me to be a more effective learner and one who understood what engineering was really about.

What was your most memorable moment at university?
Meeting my friend’s brother, Oscar, who had had a car accident and was paralysed from the neck down. Oscar helped me to appreciate the challenges of his disability and how different medical devices helped to improve his life. I was inspired by Oscar’s determination to not be defined by his disability and by his family’s ad hoc engineering innovation to help make Oscar’s life better. This experience influenced the rest of my life and my professional career.

After working in industry for many years, why did you choose a UK university, rather than one in the US, for postgraduate study?
Because Sheffield, where I spent the past 20 years before coming to Hereford, is very well known in Monterrey for its steel industrial history. I suppose, to some extent, many Mexicans and people from other parts of the world had always felt welcome in this country. Sadly, things are changing.

What would you like to be remembered for?
For changing engineering education and for doing it with integrity and with bucketloads of passion. But I also want to be remembered for helping people as much as I can. That is why I have come to NMITE, an exciting engineering university being created in Hereford. It will be a pioneering establishment that will change engineering tuition in the UK and, hopefully, the world for the better.

Recruiting more women into engineering will be vital to fill the shortage of UK engineers. What one thing would make the biggest impact in attracting more women into the profession?
We have to accept that the efforts that we have made so far have not been enough to dramatically change the numbers of women entering engineering disciplines. At NMITE, our goal is to have a gender balance. One way of helping to attract more talented female candidates into engineering is that we will not require maths and physics A levels, removing one barrier to entry to engineering degrees. This will help, no doubt, but we truly need to raise awareness of what engineering is with students’ main influencers, their parents. It is too late to do this once children are at school.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
There are two: that it is a dirty discipline, and that it is just for men. Both wrong!

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
I admire many people, particularly those who take risks, who are not afraid of making mistakes and who work hard to overcome their personal challenges. But I don’t admire anyone more than my parents, who gave me the opportunities to grow and develop and do amazing things with my life, even though they had little experience themselves of such opportunities.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t be afraid to be who you are, because who you are is the best thing about you.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not having come out [as soon as] I realised I was gay.

What divided your life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’?
Coming out as a gay woman.

What do you do for fun?
I love spending time with my partner, Tracy. We like going for walks, going to the pictures and shamelessly binge-watching box sets.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
I would fight vehemently to ensure that international students continue to be welcome in the UK. Brexit and immigration policies are threatening the cultural diversity of our educational provision.

What advice do you give to your students?
The advice I was given by my first line manager: “Make as many mistakes as you are able to.” What is the worst that can happen? That you learn from them? That you know what not to do next time? That you are able to change things? As long as you don’t make the same mistake twice, you will have gained more than if you never tried.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Mamokgethi Phakeng has been named the next vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town. The mathematics education professor, who has been Cape Town’s deputy vice-chancellor of research and internationalisation since January 2017, will replace Max Price on 1 July. Professor Phakeng has set out a vision for UCT to be an inclusive university that is “unapologetically African”. “I know that the task that lies ahead is a mammoth one, and I do not underestimate its complexities,” she said. “In every challenge we face, there are also opportunities. I also know that alongside all the members of the campus community, we will meet the challenges and reach even higher milestones as an institution.”

Iain Young has been appointed the University of Sydney’s next dean of science. Currently head of the university’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Professor Young left Scotland for Australia in 2008 to become a head of school at the University of New England before joining Sydney in 2014. Stephen Garton, Sydney’s deputy vice-chancellor, said that Professor Young would “bring to the deanship a deep understanding of research leadership and strategy”.

The University of Northern Colorado has named Andrew Feinstein its next president. Dr Feinstein, who is the provost and senior vice-president for academic affairs at San José State University, said that he was “humbled, honoured and very excited” by the appointment.

A retired admiral has been appointed the new chair of council at the University of Southampton. Rear Admiral Philip Greenish will take up the three-year post in August, replacing outgoing chair Gill Rider.

Lynnette Zelezny has been appointed the first female president of California State University, Bakersfield. The current CSU Fresno provost will be become the fifth president of the university when she succeeds Horace Mitchell at the end of the academic year.

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