To mark International Women in Engineering Day 2021, we are very pleased to introduce Gemma Cox, a third year mechanical engineering student at the University of Warwick who has been named as the winner of this year’s Ricardo Engineering Prize which recognises the most promising female engineering student.
Each year, with its Engineering Prize, Ricardo sets out to encourage talented female engineering students by recognising their technical achievements, ability to solve complex problems, and their communications skills. Through a work placement at Ricardo, the company also gives them the opportunity to take a positive first step in their professional engineering career and make a contribution to the future of technology.
Here, Gemma tells us more about some of the exciting projects she is working on as part of her degree, as well as her entrepreneurial extra-curricular activities, and how she hopes to inspire other women to consider a career in engineering.
Q: What inspired you to want to study engineering and become an engineer?
Gemma Cox: “I don’t come from an engineering family. I didn’t have any exposure to engineering at all growing up. I just helped my dad out with DIY and I really enjoyed making things like building Lego and making clothes – it’s something I still do now. Then, in our design classes at school I found that I was actually doing 3D projects: making models and structures and things like that. So, it was a combination of all these elements and then other people's comments that led to me look into engineering in the first place.”
“I was very lucky to get a week’s course in Durham with other school kids run by the Engineering Development Trust (EDT). There were talks and little mini projects and learning about all the different kinds of engineering and I found that incredibly helpful in figuring out that engineering might be something I would enjoy. I was very pleased to get onto the mechanical engineering course at the University of Warwick, I've really enjoyed the course, tutoring and all the extra-curricular opportunities so I'm sticking around for a Master’s degree. Engineering is definitely where I'm going.”
Q. Can you tell us a little about the work you have been doing for your advanced mechanical engineering design module and your Y3 project at Warwick?
Gemma Cox: “The engineering design module this year involved modifying performance motorbikes. The team I was in had to take a single cylinder 50CC engine block and modify into a multi-cylinder engine block. It was a team-based project and within our group we had to decide which engine type to modify it to. We ended up choosing a V4 performance motorbike because a few of us in the group were rather passionate about motorbikes!”
“The biggest challenge was probably organising the team and meetings because Covid restrictions were making collaboration rather difficult. We had to model our new design in Fusion 360 CAD software and we undertook simulations and analysis. Only one person at a time could be in the software so it was challenging; but it was a very good learning experience to be able to ensure everyone was getting involved fully able to make their contribution in the way that suited them and benefited the whole group. Working in a team is something I personally really enjoy because it’s always surprising how ideas pop up and get developed, and people with different backgrounds and experience come up with inputs that you would never have occurred to you if you were doing the project on your own.”
“For my Y3 project, I chose a design brief in partnership with the Midlands Air Museum. I was really fortunate to have a brilliant supervisor in Richard Lillington. He is an experienced engineer and I learnt a lot brainstorming ideas with him about approaches to the brief. Eventually I decided to do an interactive display of the internals of a W1 Whittle Jet engine. Sir Frank Whittle was the pioneer of the Jet engine and I thought it was incredibly inspiring that he triggered that whole progression to the technology we are still using today.”
“Doing this project meant that I got invaluable knowledge on the internal workings of jet engines and gas turbines as well as some human interest stories about Sir Frank Whittle's amazing life and achievements. It was a really exciting project to work on. I have completed the design of the model but it is still currently in construction. I'm a little bit behind schedule with the workshop because of Covid restrictions, but I’m hoping that working to tight tolerances and specific requirements for manufacturing parts means it will eventually all fit together. I can't wait to actually see it finished and on display in the museum!”
Q Can you tell us more about the very exciting extra-curricular activities you are doing for Warwick Moto, an environmental impact design study and Warwick Drone Racing Team?
Gemma Cox: “Engineering is incredibly broad, so I decided to throw myself into a wide range of different extra-curricular projects to see which ones specifically piqued my interest and if it turned out that I had a specific area that I really, really wanted to go into.”
“Warwick Moto is developing an electric superbike. It’s interesting to be focusing on the electrification of motorcycles because it feels like the industry has perhaps been a bit slower to move to electrification, but it is definitely progressing to the next big thing. It’s good to be making a contribution to that change now. I really enjoy the project. I might not be able to ride a motorbike myself, but I am fine with watching them and building them!”
“The Warwick Drone Racing Team, came about because there was as a group of us who had been really getting into drones and drone racing and so we tried to start up a society for it. I’m lucky that as I am an engineer, I'm more aware of it but I know quite a few friends or fellow students have drones themselves and enjoy racing. The initial stages of setting up the society were quite exciting as we went round to see the team at Coventry and saw them racing their drones in an arena which was rather fun.”
“For the environmental impact design study, a friend’s tutor was working on a project, trying to analyse the flow of fluids and plastics in a river or stream then using simulation to work out how the plastics will flow under different conditions. I got the opportunity to help out with the equipment and gained some invaluable learning. Although my involvement was relatively short because the study ended up being a fellow student’s actual project for their degree, I got a bit of an inkling into the environmental considerations that engineers increasingly have to consider in their work.”
“I think it's really good to just try out a few different aspects of engineering. Even if you don’t get to experience the project for very long it's still something that you have tried out and been exposed to. I know that with the Warwick Moto project in particular, it can be rather daunting for girls to try and get involved with a project like that, so would be great if I can encourage more girls to be confident going into these sort of teams. They are just as qualified as anyone else on the team, so they just have to go for it!”
Q. You’ve started two businesses – can you tell us more about what inspired you and what you’re doing? How are you enjoying combining engineering and business development?
Gemma Cox: “I was inspired by my brother. He’s always been very entrepreneurial and I think it rubbed off on me a little bit. We have always seen gaps in the market and opportunities: as little kids we used to bake cupcakes and sell them to the Wimbledon tennis crowd. We would always be trying to make a little bit of money at a young age and at that point my main contribution was actually describing to my brother the difference between income and profit – even though my brother is older than me! That was quite transformative. I mainly find myself doing the financial and design jobs.”
“My brother and I had the idea of producing some Roman Baths themed soap. When that started to grow we incorporated a company and that was in 2015. So, we designed the packaging and we were selling it to museums and tourist shops. Our best sale was when we got orders from the tourist shop at the Roman baths in Bath! When my brother went off to university he identified another little gap in the market doing T-shirts and other merchandise for Freshers’ Week. We found ourselves transferring from soap into T-shirts and for about four or five years we’ve been supplying pretty much all the colleges in Oxford and a few in Cambridge, Durham and other universities and customers. We have also supplied T-shirts for a refugee charity called Solidari-Tee.”
“I used my experience gained from running that business to start up a second business called Ardenti Engineering. I’m co-founder of the business with a very talented friend of mine who has really good CAD skills. We thought we'd use engineering knowledge from our engineering degree course, together with my business experience to offer CAD design services at low cost. So far, we have had commissions to design adjustable dumb bells and we’ve done some technical drawings for railway gantries, so a little bit of everything, but it's all just been really good experience.”
“I found you need to be constantly innovative, come up with ideas and be adaptable. I think creativity is so important in engineering because problem solving so often requires or benefits from really creative ideas and solutions. The business side of it has helped me to understand the impact of managing costs in production – for example adding a tiny extra colour or something to a T-shirt design can make a huge difference to the cost and hugely complicate the manufacturing process. I found that it's very been very useful to have business experience: with lots going into an engineering degree you can have a slightly different perspective on it especially having a very rounded view of a whole process and what is actually involved with it, which I feel has been an invaluable perspective.”
Q. That mix of environmental, engineering and entrepreneurial activity gives you the perfect CV for doing a placement at Ricardo, which is part of your prize for winning the award. What are you hoping to learn from your placement?
Gemma Cox: “Before I came to Ricardo for the assessment day for the prize, I hadn’t appreciated how big the Ricardo Group is. There is such a range of options and opportunities. I was impressed by the fact that my interviewer on the day said that no two projects are ever the same, and that you are constantly learning new things. So, even though you may go into a project, having a particular interest, you get to learn so much more and most likely you will have opportunities to see different technologies, and how the engineering disciplines themselves interact with each other. From my placement, and hopefully working on a real-world engineering project I want to try and figure out if there is a specific area that will be of real interest in my future career. I’m hoping the placement might also give me an idea of what to focus on for my final year because I'm coming back to university for my fifth year to complete my MEng.”
What are your long-term career ambitions and what would you most like to achieve in your career?
Gemma Cox: “This year I've managed to get a year in industry and I’ve got my work placement at Ricardo lined up for this summer, so I’m really excited to get my teeth into actually starting an engineering career. I'll be looking to work in the transport sector and the mechanical design areas of engineering. I'm very open to giving everything a little bit of a go and seeing what interests me. There have been so many interesting changes in the transport sector recently to try to reduce environmental impacts so that it is an exciting time. I've always just wanted to be in a career that I really enjoy and it would be great if I could contribute meaningfully to a team doing meaningful work.”
Q. What does winning the award mean for you?
Gemma Cox: “I am still a little bit in shock, and it hasn’t properly sunk in! Winning will give me a big confidence boost and will really encourage me to push on. It’s also given me a really nice way to encourage other people to try engineering.”
“I had a little bit of a disaster with my A-levels and basically on the day I got my results, I had lost my offer of an engineering course and had been left with just an offer from a backup university which wasn't in engineering and I felt a lot of pressure to just accept that offer. I remember very vividly sitting in the school library with tears streaming down my face and just being adamant that I wanted to do an engineering course. So, I stuck to my guns and was fortunate enough to get on the bachelor’s degree for mechanical engineering at Warwick, which I have been able to turn into the Master’s degree I always wanted to do.”
“Winning this has made me feel like that was the right decision to trust that I would actually enjoy engineering and to stick with what I wanted to do. I think most importantly I hope it will encourage other female potential engineers to have the confidence to give engineering a go.”
Q. What would you say to encourage the next potential Gemma Cox?
Gemma Cox: “I really want to use this opportunity to encourage people who also wouldn't usually fit the mould or haven't really considered engineering as a career. Don’t feel like you have to have been fixing your Dad’s car or dismantling computers since you were in nursery because I definitely didn't do that! I just enjoyed and had a natural aptitude for maths and sciences but also really enjoyed doing very creative things as well. If you enjoy making things or putting things together then engineering could well be something that you would enjoy. I really enjoyed designing and making clothes and that has actually got a lot in common with the processes that are involved for engineering. It's very creative, and you often need to come up with novel solutions for unexpected problems.”
“Also, I’d encourage people from as many diverse backgrounds and with as much varied experience as possible to get involved in engineering. Working in a team with many different viewpoints leads to really exciting and surprising ideas and better results.”
“If you’re already studying engineering I would encourage you to put yourself forward for competitions like the Ricardo Engineering Prize or any others. They do take up a little bit of time - and I know sometimes in an engineering course time is not abundant - but the process of applying does make you think about what you're good at so that you can work out what areas of work might best suit you.”
“Above all, I would like to encourage women not to overlook opportunities like this because many, many women lack self-confidence and often just assume that they won’t be good enough. I've thought that about myself applying for this competition: everyone else will be better than me so I won't apply because there's no point! Rather embarrassingly, I was so unconvinced that I emailed my dad and asked him if he thought I should apply. He said ‘Why not?’ so I did. Obviously I'm pretty glad I did! Winning has given me a great confidence boost, so I'd say to any female students: you are definitely good enough, so just go for it!”
Learn more about Ricardo's Early Career opportunities.