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Dr Rebecca Walton

Dr Rebecca Walton freely admits that she “stumbled into engineering by chance” while at school. Now the Vice Chair of an IET Technical Professional Network (TPN), she’s determined to raise the profile of engineering, particularly among young people.

Rebecca hadn’t always dreamt of becoming an engineer. “When I was at school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do as a career,” she said. “I was always very interested in science, but I knew I didn’t want to do a pure science subject.

“By chance, my best friend’s dad was a Professor at Preston Polytechnic [now the University of Central Lancashire] and told me about a one-week WISE [Women into Science and Engineering] residential course for girls that was being held there during the school holiday.

“I went along to the course, not really knowing very much about it. It turned out to be amazing: we looked at many different engineering disciplines – civil, electrical and mechanical – and there were loads of interesting workshops. It really opened up my eyes to the possibility of a career in engineering.”

Engineering degree

That one-week course was a turning point for Rebecca. In 1991 she commenced a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Birmingham. She said: “I can remember ‘rocking up’ to my first lecture and being really surprised to discover that of the 150 engineers on the course, less than 10% were female.”

After her first degree, Rebecca stayed on to do a PhD in Electromagnetics with Costas Constantinou and joined the IET as a student member. She said: “The IET publications are very good and I found the IET conferences really useful in supporting my research.” A two-year Research Associate post at the university came next, working on collision warning radar for Jaguar cars.

In 2001 Rebecca joined BAE Systems’ Electromagnetics discipline as a Lead Electromagnetic Engineer. 17 years later she moved across to Engineering Integration, to take up her current role as Senior Technical Management Engineer.

First volunteer steps…

In 2015, the editor of the IET’s Microwave Antennas and Propagation journal invited Rebecca to review a couple of papers that had been submitted for inclusion in the publication. This was her first foray into the world of IET volunteering. “I really enjoyed technical reviewing; it kept me in touch with the latest thoughts and research,” she said.

But it was Rebecca’s attendance at the IET AF Harvey Prize Lecture in 2016 that really set the volunteer ball rolling. The lecture – ‘Antenna Engineering in the Era of Big Data’ – was delivered by Professor Yang Hao, one of Rebecca’s contemporaries during her postgraduate years in Birmingham. At the drinks reception after the lecture, she unexpectedly met a BAE colleague, the late Rob Lewis.

Rebecca was keen to start increasing her engagement with – and contribution to – her engineering community, so she asked Rob if he happened to know of any IET volunteering opportunities. She struck lucky: he was actually the Chair of the IET Antennas and Propagation Technical Professional Network (TPN). “Rob told me that the TPN was looking to recruit new members to its Executive Committee,” she said. “He later gave me a call and explained at length what would be involved. He then put my name forward and I was accepted.

“The Executive Committee is responsible, among other things, for identifying and putting on relevant events to the Antennas and Propagation community – there’s a real mix of people from academia and industry with differing expertise and experience.

“There are 16 of us on the Executive Committee. We all respect each other: everyone is allowed to have their say and a variety of topics gets discussed. It’s a really great group of people to be working with; we share the same mindset and are very supportive of each other.”

Being a member of the Executive Committee was not an onerous commitment. “It involves two face-to-face, full-day meetings a year; two Skype conference calls, each for around two or three hours; and supporting the community in general,” said Rebecca.

“With 16 of us, obviously we don’t all help out at all of the sessions. What tends to happen is that someone will propose an event title; someone will then be asked to take the lead and write the event programme, and other members then offer to provide support.

“Each year, we focus on current ‘hot topics’ that we know people are interested in – for example, 5G, metamaterials, antennas for medical applications, and antennas and propagation for terahertz applications. But we also look at up-and-coming areas of interest.

“We then identify and focus on a number of events that we will organise and support during the year. One of the main ones is CAWE [Colloquium of Antennas, Wireless and Electromagnetics], which is dedicated to researchers who are in the early stage of their career.

“We also support and collaborate with our ‘near neighbour’ TPNs, like the Electromagnetics TPN and the RF [Radio Frequency] and Microwaves TPN; and we support and provide input to events like EuCAP [European Conference on Antennas and Propagation]. We’re always looking for opportunities to collaborate with different fields of engineering.”

Increasing volunteer involvement

In recent years Rebecca supported a niche event: Novel RF Materials and Manufacturing Techniques for Antennas. She took on a major role in 2018, helping to create the programme for the two-day IET conference, as well as inviting the speakers and co-chairing one of the sessions.

In the same year, Rebecca co-chaired the Loughborough Antennas and Propagation Conference (LAPC), which is an IET event. “That was quite a big job, but we had a very supportive organising committee, including two people from my TPN,” she said.

“I got involved in a number of tasks: deciding on the format of the conference; identifying and inviting speakers; setting the technical programme; identifying (through my TPN) the winner of the IET James R James Lifetime Achievement Award and presenting it to Pat Foster at the conference dinner.

“I felt incredibly lucky and privileged to be presenting the award because this was the first time that it had been awarded to a female engineer,” said Rebecca. “What made it even more special was that Pat wrote the first piece of software I ever used at BAE. I remember attending her presentations at work, 15 years ago, and I had quite a lot of interaction with her, back then. Having that personal connection with the winner felt really special, actually.”

Rebecca was initially involved with the event the following year. This time it was held in Birmingham and had a new title: APC 2019.

Tackling the greatest challenge

 Rebecca is now the Vice-Chair of the Antennas and Propagation TPN. It involves supporting Chair Anil Shukla and IET Community Manager Natalia D’lima; attending meetings; being available in the absence of the Chair or other committee members, and helping to organise a number of events.  

“In my new role as Vice-Chair, I (hopefully) will have more influence on where we focus our TPN’s efforts,” said Rebecca. “I would like to increase our effort on early careers because I believe our greatest challenge is to get young people interested in engineering, and then to get more new engineers interested in being part of the Antennas and Propagation community. It is perceived as being quite a difficult area, which can put people off. It’s also fairly ‘niche’, so when you go to conferences, you tend to see the same people.

“Last year one of our committee members helped the IET’s Education team create some school flyers and posters promoting engineering. We’re looking to take things a step further by practically demonstrating propagation at school education events and IET roadshows. We would also like to design and create an affordable ‘kit’ that volunteers could use in schools for STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] activities.”

Advice to potential IET volunteers

When asked what she would say to anyone who is considering becoming an IET volunteer, Rebecca offered the following advice: “If possible, find someone who already volunteers and speak to them about what it involves and the extent of the commitment. There’s often a misconception that it will take up too much time, with too many meetings. Yes, you may occasionally have to juggle your volunteering with your day job, but this is often for only short periods during the run-up to an event.

“Volunteering for the IET is a great way of expanding your personal network, because you get to meet really interesting people, especially if you get involved in organising events. You also get the opportunity to attend a variety of presentations that may be outside your particular area of expertise, which helps to broaden your knowledge. As a volunteer there are plenty of opportunities to develop your soft skills too – through influencing, organising, decision-making, teamwork, communications and presenting.

“When it comes to volunteering, each person will get something different from the experience. My   advice is simple: be bold and give it a go!”

Interested in getting involved with Technical and Professional Networks?

Find out more on the Volunteer Hub