National Grid power systems engineer Sally Nicholson overcame difficulties in maths in order to gain an engineering degree, becoming a passionate promoter of engineering to school children and a major IET award winner.
Winner of the IET’s Sir Henry Royce Medal 2011, Sally Nicholson’s life was all about engineering. With an engineer for a dad she’d spend her Saturday afternoons not playing with dolls, but helping him out in the workshop on his latest project.
“He never pushed me towards engineering but I just grew up with it,” she says. “Dad set me up with my own workbench and set of tools and gave me little jobs to do to help him. Then when it came to school my favourite lessons of the week were always science. I was always drawn towards an engineering path,” she enthuses.
Sally had one big challenge to overcome however. Maths was never “the most natural of subjects” for her and she found it quite hard at school. Even so she chose science and maths A levels as she knew she needed these in order to apply for a place on an engineering degree course. However, she didn’t do very well in her the first year of her maths A level and was advised to drop the subject, which she did.
“I spent that summer absolutely devastated because I couldn't go on to do engineering. So I gave it some thought and made the decision to complete my science A level, then take a year out and restart my maths.”
Sally applied to the Year in Industry scheme and after completing her science A level spent the next year working for a subsidiary of National Grid whilst completing her maths A level at night school. Through this she got on National Grid’s sponsored student scheme and went on to complete her engineering degree in Newcastle.
“That year was really hard for me, but it was also the year that made my path successful,” she says. “I think if I’d just chosen another subject and gone to uni I would have been very unhappy.
“Night school is a hard way to do it, but it was so worth it. I think so many kids get put off maths,” she continues. “It’s so hard at school but the funny thing is although I was weak at it in school, it became one of my strongest subjects at university. I think it comes down to attitude and confidence.”
Sally currently works as a power systems engineer at National Grid and a large part of her job is to design the electrical connections for power stations and wind turbines.
“What I love about my job is that every challenge is so varied, every day is literally so different,” she enthuses. “The amount of challenges and responsibility I get is unbelievable. I’m leading projects and it’s brilliant to feel like I’m really making a difference.”
She was nominated for the Sir Henry Royce award, one of the IET’s Achievement Awards for young professionals, by her then manager for going above and beyond her day job. Not only did National Grid want to praise her for her work on a complex project to connect a wind farm using new technologies, it also wanted to highlight how she actively tries to encourage more youngsters into engineering.
“We have something called School Power at National Grid where we go into schools and run an after-school science club,” she explains. “I’ve been quite involved with that, taking part as one of the assembly presenters, running some of the after-school sessions and even writing articles and being interviewed about an education in engineering. I’ve also been one of the engineers invited to talk about being an engineer in National Grid to children who come on school visits.
“I was incredibly shocked and overwhelmed to be nominated and then to win,” she continues. “I felt I was just doing my job, playing my part, so it was a huge confidence boost for me!”
Winning the award has given Sally many new opportunities to progress her career as well as ramp-up her engineering promotion work.
She’s become more active within the IET, joining the IET’s Young Professionals’ Awards subcommittee amongst others, as well as coming on board as a panelist at a recent IET Question Time event in Reading. She has also been invited to get involved with the JCB Academy, a university technical college.
“For me it’s about trying to use the award to encourage others into engineering and shout the message that an engineer isn’t just a mechanic,” she says. “I’m going to break those stereotypes!”
Career-wise the award gave Sally a boost of enthusiasm to think about her career development and she has recently begun a secondment focusing on sustainability.
“It’s a chance to try something less technical, broaden my experiences and take a stab at something new,” she says.
“The opportunities I’ve had in my career since winning the award are unbelievable,” she continues. “I was even given the opportunity to meet the chief executive of National Grid for coffee – something that just doesn't happen very often for an engineer of my level. We talked about my career development, mentoring etc. Off the back of that coffee I’ve improved my development plan, I now have a mentor and I’ve started this secondment which will definitely broaden my career opportunities,” she enthuses.
See Sally interviewed after winning her IET Achievement Awards for young professionals at: http://conferences.theiet.org/achievement/ceremony/interviews.cfm
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