TV presenter Shini Somara talks to chemist Sarah Chapman, application engineering technical manager at 3M EMEA, STEM Ambassador and champion of role models.
Shini Somara: What do you do as an application engineering technical manager?
Sarah Chapman: My company, 3M, makes a variety of products including industrial adhesives. My job is to manage a team of engineers who continue to develop sealing and bonding solutions for trains, planes and cars. It’s fascinating how widely used our products are. Before this job, I never appreciated this. I assumed, for example, that most vehicles were either screwed or welded together, but often adhesives can be used to keep weight to a minimum and help reduce component fatigue. Despite leading my team, I am constantly learning from their expertise.
SS: In addition to your job, why are you so passionate about being a STEM Ambassador?
SC: Originally a chemist, I feel it is my responsibility to help to improve the way in which STEM is represented. Role models are usually big stars of the industry, who are highly accomplished. But their impressive accomplishments can often make them unrelatable. In my own personal experience, role models who are a little less perfect tend to have had a greater impact in inspiring others.
As a STEM Ambassador, I try to communicate that engineers are problem-solvers regardless of the diplomas, degrees and qualifications they may have. To solve problems, engineers need to be creative and curious and good at collaboration.
Perhaps if we portrayed engineering this way, more people might see themselves playing a part in the industry.
SS: What are the key traits of effective mentors and role models in your opinion?
SC: The effective mentors and role models I’ve known encourage people to fulfil their own potential. Mentees are guided to set their own goals and pursue whatever success looks like to them. I talk about stars and streetlights, because whether you are highly accomplished in a STEM field or simply contributing to a STEM field, all roles are valued. Sharing stories and experiences of these roles lights the way for others.
SS: How might the industry be able to encourage more people into science?
SC: I think one way is to encourage employees to embrace all the hats they may wear. For a long time, employees were trained to wear different hats to maintain a level of professionalism. Certainly after Covid, however, people have had to integrate their different responsibilities.
As a working parent, my company allows me to be transparent about the different things I must juggle. Seeing my colleagues do the same is an effective form of role modelling. In my opinion, witnessing the juggle helps everybody. Happier colleagues perform better and innovate more.
SS: What key messages do you try to communicate to a future STEM workforce?
SC: I often give talks in schools about the platypus. A platypus doesn’t know which group it belongs to because it has a bill, but is not a duck, it’s fast on land, but not a land animal. It can swim really well, but is not a fish.
I really relate to the platypus because I have a chemistry degree, but I’m not a practising scientist. I have an engineering job title, but I’m not an engineer. I’m quite creative and work in innovation, but I’m not an inventor. It’s been challenging to work out what I am. This challenge has led me to the realisation that it’s OK to just be myself. I don’t need to give myself labels or squeeze myself into a particular identity. And it’s this acceptance that has opened me up to a huge range of multi-disciplinary jobs.
The tech sector continues to expand and broaden into most job roles. Behind most technologies there are engineers, technicians, designers and programmers. Therefore, the sooner we encourage people to build and develop their technical skills and talents, the sooner we can close the STEM skills gap.
I really encourage the sharing of stories, whether that’s through talks, podcasts, books or TV. So, whether it’s the stars or the streetlights talking, the systematic change required will only happen through changing mindsets and perceptions of STEM, and everybody can help with that, no matter how big or small their impact.
I’d love to see more people being a bit less scared of STEM and just really embracing that curiosity, and that will only be achieved by people embracing their whole selves, no matter how unconventional they are, so that others can follow in their own footsteps.
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