PhD Supervisor – University College London
Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Building and Urban Design, Deputy Programme Director for the MSc Health, Wellbeing and Sustainable Buildings
At what age did you first become interested in science/engineering and what was your career path to arrive at this point?
I spent a large part of my childhood playing with LEGO and I ended up studying architecture so there might be a correlation there! I was always interested in buildings and the different ways space can be configured to accommodate different functions and activities. Aged six, I started drawing endless architectural plans of the room I was sharing with my brother in an attempt to come up with a creative way to divide it into two, as I desperately wanted my own space! I was also reading many comics and was fascinated by any kind of printed media so I thought I would become an illustrator, graphic designer, editor or writer. My parents are both mathematicians and they definitely encouraged an interest in science. I think people expected me to study maths and become a teacher. I do not think, however, that I knew what an architect or engineer does until after I went to university. Girls were not really encouraged to become engineers and, in hindsight, we received very little career advice at school. I simply chose architecture for my undergraduate studies because it combined art, science and social sciences. Although I really enjoyed studying architecture, I felt frustrated at how the design process was often not evidence-based and was instead relying on rules of thumb or assumptions about how certain design strategies would work out in practice. It was shortly after I started working as an architect in the industry that I decided that I needed to understand building physics in more depth, and learn how to minimise the environmental impact of the built environment whilst improving people’s wellbeing. This led me to do the MSc course in Environmental Design and Engineering at the Bartlett, followed by a PhD on the role of London’s urban heat island and climate change on energy use, thermal comfort and health.
How has your experience as a woman at UCL differed from that in previous workplaces?
I previously worked in the construction industry, my experience there was less positive as sexism, and gender discrimination is sadly still rife. I still remember how in one of my first jobs, I was asked to visit a construction site and talk to the workers about our project. A colleague of mine advised me to avoid smiling and dress in a ‘non-feminine’ way during my visit there; otherwise, I would not be taken seriously because I was a woman. Women working in construction or built environment science will have many similar stories to tell ranging from overt sexism and harassment to daily micro aggressions. I believe that it is to a large extent this kind of attitude, combined with gender stereotyping that starts from a very young age, that discourages women to go for STEM subjects. Working in academia has been a much better experience and amazing colleagues who are keen to promote gender equality surround me. In 2016, I was part of the Bartlett Athena SWAN Gender Equality Bronze Award Application Self Assessment Team. In particular, I was responsible for the co-ordination of the working group collecting evidence and analysing statistical data on existing policies, practices and attitudes towards flexible working and maternity, paternity and shared parental leave across the Bartlett. I helped outline strategies for further promotion of gender equality through the adoption of flexible work frameworks that take into consideration the needs of parents and carers. When I first joined the Bartlett built environment research was a male dominated area; a little more than a decade later now, things have changed quite a lot and although women are still not sufficiently represented at senior levels, hopefully this will change in the years to come!
What do you hope to achieve in your career?
My work synthesises building physics and epidemiological evidence to identify heat vulnerable areas within cities where climate effects are exacerbated by urban heat islands, ageing trends and health inequalities. My current research interests focus on the interplay between climate justice, health and the design of our built environment. Whilst there has been an increasing recognition of the role the building sector will play in the transition towards a low carbon economy, less attention has been paid to building and urban design in the context of climate disadvantage. In previously heating-dominated countries, such as the UK, this is partly due to the fact that research and policy groups often tackle fuel poverty and climate adaptation agendas in isolation. For example, despite the increasing concerns about air pollution and overheating, such issues are rarely framed as energy or energy poverty issues. In addition, the majority of studies aiming to quantify the impact of climate change on energy use, comfort, health and wellbeing do so at the building stock level without incorporating social determinants that may magnify risks for health and wellbeing. The recent rise of the political economy of ‘wellness’ and the wellbeing agenda among building designers and urban planners also raises new questions about how health and wellbeing are linked with entitlements of wealth, social status and privilege. I would, therefore, like to continue research and further develop research-led teaching programmes in this area, such as the recently launched MSc Health, Wellbeing and Sustainable Buildings.
Does balancing work life with family life and/or social life work for you at this stage?
Academics often perceive their work as an important part of their identity so ‘switching off’ can be quite challenging. Until last year, I was the Working Group Leader of the Creativity and Wellbeing Strategy of the UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering. This initiative aimed to assess the current levels of work satisfaction, engagement and wellbeing within the Institute, and identify potential risks to creativity resulting from external and internal pressures, such as the ever more intense pace of work life, the pervasiveness of mobile communications, academic competitiveness and the dominant culture of overwork. This Strategy has now led to the adoption of a range of Departmental policies, such as a mentoring and apprenticeship system for writing research proposals, changes made to the structure of internal communications in order to reframe and celebrate success in teaching, enabling and outreach etc. My personal priority is finding time for personal scholarship and reflection; something that often is side-lined when day-to-day activities and various deadlines compete for our time and attention. I also feel extremely privileged to have access to a number of policies that help towards achieving a better balance between work and life outside the workplace. For example, I was one of the first people in our Department to go on Shared Parental Leave, followed by flexible working arrangements that allowed me to continue breastfeeding following my return to work. Although the Shared Parental Leave regulations came into force in the UK in December 2014, uptake has been quite low due to the stigma associated with men taking time off to look after their children. I think that providing parents and carers with more flexibility is a crucial step towards gender equality and wellbeing.
Do you have any insights or wisdom to pass on to younger women about to embark on a similar journey?
I would encourage everyone to challenge existing preconceptions and gender stereotypes in the workplace and elsewhere. There is nowadays increasing awareness of the impostor syndrome and how the lack of female representation in many fields may exacerbate it. Thankfully, young women embarking today on a similar journey to mine have access to many more support networks. There is a strong and diverse feminist online community, and many discipline-specific initiatives. The excellent Women into Science and Engineering (WISE), Women in Building Services Engineering (WiBSE), Women’s Higher Education Network (WHEN) and UCL Women are only a few examples. Most importantly, I would encourage young women to follow their interests and not be afraid to go down less well-trodden paths, such as science and engineering. Moreover, if you are interested in energy demand and the built environment, you might like to consider joining LoLo. We need your talent and enthusiasm!