Gunel Aghabayli, PhD student

“Do not feel the additional pressure of being a women in engineering. Push past gender stereotypes. Try to do your best in whatever you are doing”

Gunel Aghabayli, PhD student, Institute for Energy Systems

Gunel Aghabayli is a PhD student in the School of Engineering’s Institute for Energy Systems.

Gunel has a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Chemistry from Moscow State University. During her four years of undergraduate study, Gunel undertook student internships in different industry areas, including BP, the cementing company Holcim, and Azerbaijani petroleum companies. After achieving her Bachelor’s, Gunel worked for three years in the laboratory of Petrochemical Institute in Baku Azerbaijan.

In 2015, Gunel received a government scholarship to pursue her Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of Birmingham and following this, began her PhD in our School.

Here Gunel shares her experiences as an engineering student and her hopes for the future.

What inspired you to get into engineering, and is it the same thing that inspires you today?

While I was growing up, I knew that I wanted to study science or engineering. I think this inspiration came from parents, especially my mother. When I was a kid, I saw how, in our family, my mom and grandmother would always take charge of and repair electrical faults in our home, like the TV and vacuum cleaner. I used to think that women have to take care of all of these electrical problems as I used to see my mom and grandmother do it.

As I grew older, I started to do this with my toys. I did not have any Barbie dolls but instead had cars, motorbikes and Lego. I remember how I was opening my toy cars, changing their small “engines” and making new ones. Now, I am doing the same with my research! It is the same structure as a Lego game, but instead of Lego pieces, I am building a factory (plant) system with my software.

Today, my inspiration is still rooted in the dreams I had in the past. I still enjoy designing or making something new - in engineering you can achieve this by solving different problems that we are all facing now. This could be designing a new car or tackling global climate change. You will feel so motivated when you know you are part of something big.

Tell us a bit about your career and studies in engineering up to this point; what you enjoyed and what have you found most challenging?

Education in the UK was a dream of mine since childhood. In 2016, I was back in my home country Azerbaijan for a while where I worked as a Research Assistant at one of the engineering universities in the capital city Baku. This gave me the chance to interact with undergraduate students and gain experience in student tutoring.

The following year I was awarded a scholarship for my PhD at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to this, I was working on a start-up project called “CO2atalyser” with my supervisor back at home. This has involved pitching in science and engineering competitions in different countries, and being part of a team which has won four awards and a grant.

For now, I am continuing my studies and tutoring in the School of Engineering. I enjoy working on my project, while designing and sizing units such as pumps, reactors, compressors, heat exchangers, and valves, analysing and data collection for implementation within my designed model. When you get desirable results, it inspires you to take on new challenges.

Sometimes it is exhausting and makes you upset because you can feel stuck. If you are a woman in engineering you may also feel more pressure on your shoulders and that you should set a good example and motivate other women who are studying engineering.

However, when I think about why I started my journey, it gives me the inspiration to continue with my passion and put in more effort than ever before to carry out my research.

Can you explain your research “in a nutshell?”

My research is “Green Power to Gas” by utilisation of carbon dioxide emissions. The power that will be gained from renewable sources will be stored when the demand is low and will be used to utilise CO2 emissions by making natural gas. Put more simply, I am storing excess energy from renewable resources and then using it to make natural gas through CO2 utilisation.

What do you enjoy most about research and academia at the School of Engineering?

It is a friendly environment and there are a lot of opportunities for students here, including meeting experienced people and gaining life experiences that will be useful to you in the longer term.

For example, tutoring during your research time is a must. As a tutor, you are in contact with students younger than you, and learning from course organizers and lecturers on how to lecture. You learn how to bring your knowledge and share it with students.

There are also many activities available to all students including getting involved with student societies and organizations to gain project management and leadership skills. For example I was a student representative for the Engineering Graduate Society, helping organise different events, workshops and industry trips for PhD students. I especially enjoyed social networking events for PhD students, where all students could share their research and get the opinion of other colleagues.

In addition, the School has student exchange opportunities, providing the chance to apply for scholarships that enable you to go different counties and gain additional experience.

The School of Engineering has seven research institutes which are all centres of expertise, collaborating with different industry areas and with each other – providing the chance to see the wide range of research being carried out from bioengineering and robotics, to carbon capture, and renewable energy resources. In addition, there are research clubs, which bring together researchers from different research institutes. For example, I am a member of the Carbon Capture Group which includes researchers from the Institute of Energy Systems (IES) and from Institute of Materials and Processes (IMP).

Finally, I am enjoying the research that I am doing in the School. My research is one of the modern engineering challenges that we are facing today. Working on such a project inspires me a lot. Furthermore, when you are doing research in academia, it includes applying for grants, participation at conferences, paper publishing, and collaborations between research groups or research institutes, mentoring students and so on.

How would you like your career to develop in the future?

After my PhD, I would like to work in industry for a while to gain some expertise in different areas. I have already worked in research institutes and in academia for more than five years.

However, I would like to come back to academia and to do my own research and lecturing one day. I really am enjoying teaching and sharing knowledge, especially with the younger generation. I think by tutoring and doing research at different universities, I have gained some experience and ideas for my future career path.

What attracted you to a career in research?

I want to answer this question with a John Quincy Adams quote: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

I think every person I have met during my academic studies has had a significant role in my life and helped me to become who I am today. For me, a great teacher or supervisor at university is one who inspires you as a leader and helps to you to select your own path. During your PhD, this very important.

The main thing for me, is while I am in academia, I want to inspire and help other students to find their own path. I am very eager to learn, research, and find innovative solutions.

What career advice would you give for young girls and women in STEM wishing to pursue a career in research and academia?

First, they have to find the inspiration that they will never lose. If you decide to get into engineering without any motivation, when it comes to challenges, it will be hard to continue. I have met some unmotivated students during my time in academia. Secondly, learn as much math as you can, because math is the basis of every STEM field. All engineering issues can be solved by applying math.

Furthermore, study the job market for each engineering field in the first instance. Not all fields have the same job opportunities and it varies according to the country you are in as well. Therefore, you have to be careful when you are selecting your field in STEM.

In the end, do not be afraid when if it becomes challenging, because the joy that comes at the end is an amazing feeling. When you will feel stuck or challenged, try to remember the reason why you started – what was your inspiration? This will help you to carry on.

All this advice is true, for young boys as well. However, there is some special advice I would have for girls:

  • Do not be afraid to get uncomfortable, and try things that you have never done before, because you never know, it might turn out that you actually like it.
  • Do not feel the additional pressure of being women in engineering and push past gender stereotypes. Try to do your best in whatever you are doing.
  • Get advice from senior women in STEM for your future career path. We almost all faced the same challenges in our career path. An experienced person can give you solutions and ideas that will be helpful.
Gunel Aghabayli
Gunel Aghabayli