Professor Holford is a Chartered Engineer (Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers), a Chartered Physicist (Fellow of the Institute of Physics) and Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales. She is an active researcher in the field of acoustic emission applied to damage assessment across a range of industrial applications including bridges, aerospace landing gear and a range of materials including composites, concrete and metals. Karen will be standing on one of our soapboxes tomorrow in Swansea, where she’ll talk about “Engineered structures for future societal needs”
SS: Karen, how did you get to your current position?
KH: By working my way up! I was the first member of my family to go University. It was actually my art teacher that told me I could study engineering and that there were companies who would sponsor you to go. I applied and was lucky enough to secure a place at Cardiff University, sponsored by Rolls-Royce (Aero) in Bristol.
I then went back to Rolls Royce and was persuaded to do a PhD. I came back to Cardiff to study and I realised that the endeavor of doing a PhD really suited me. When I finished I looked for a job in research and development and became a senior engineer in a local company called AB Electronic Products. That was a fantastic job, it allowed me to travel and work on multidisciplinary projects
I’d been advising Cardiff University on a new degree course called ‘Integrated Engineering’. One of the professors said, “oh you should come to work for us, we’ve got a place for a year”. So I took a bold step, jumping from working in a highly paid, secure job in industry to take a one-year contract with the University. The rest is history; later that year (1990) I secured a lectureship in Engineering, becoming Head of School in 2010 and two years later became Pro Vice-Chancellor for Physical Sciences and Engineering. I still retain my research role, as it is very important to me to be able the work with great students and staff on projects that have a real impact in industry.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
KH: I had always been fascinated by technology. But the thing that really sparked my interest was watching the moon landing with my family when I was 6 years old. I had so many questions; how did it happen? How did the astronauts get there? Watching Concorde flying over my house on test flights, and hearing the sonic boom, was another event sparked my curiosity; what’s a sonic boom and why does it happen? My parents inspired my love of learning by encouraging me to find out the best source of information for my inquisitive mind. The person who has most inspired me is Baroness Platt of Writtle, a trailblazing engineer; she studied engineering at Cambridge – despite doing exceptionally well she was not awarded a full degree at that time (1943) because the title was not available to women. She went on to work in Hawker Aircraft, who built the Hurricane, and used to tell colourful stories about being outnumbered by older cynical men on the shop floor and the need to never be found wanting. Sadly she died earlier this year, aged 91, but the last time I saw her she was still passionately speaking about engineering.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
KH: Discovery is what drives me. My research aims to improve techniques for damage detection in structures – these can include bridges, wind turbines and aircraft components such as landing gear. I find it fascinating to work with brilliant people who are full of ideas; the process of working in a team to solve a problem and the sense of achievement when you find something new that no-one has discovered before are both important to me.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
KH: The enthusiasm of others who have taken part!
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
KH: Real equality would be achieved when it is not considered unusual for a girl to be a scientist or engineer and for a woman to be a leader – this requires everyone to be very mindful of the example we set and the messages we convey. We are getting there so I’m very optimistic that the culture change is happening – it’s just not happening quickly enough!
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
KH: Jump in and have fun. Believe in your own judgment and celebrate your success along the way. Don’t be afraid to apply for any position that you are passionate about – even if you think you might not be ready, let others be the judge of that, you must be in the game to win it!