Both were selected by a panel of industry experts, as among the 50 winners from over 300 nominations across the UK. The WE50 awards are an annual initiative to recognise talented women in engineering, announced to coincide with International Women in Engineering Day - which is also organised by WES.
This year’s awards focus on engineers who have made significant contributions to sustainability in ways that align with UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goals or the Net Zero Carbon Programme.
The School’s Dr Karen Donaldson, Postdoctoral Research Associate, and Gunel Aghabayli, postgraduate researcher, were top 100 finalists.
Dr Camilla Thomson (Winner)
Dr Camilla Thomson joined the School of Engineering as an undergraduate student, gaining her MEng (Hons) Electrical and Mechanical Engineering in 2004. Following a career in industry, she returned to the School of Engineering to complete a PhD in Carbon and Energy Payback of Variable Renewable Generation, before progressing through postdoctoral roles to become Chancellor’s Fellow in Energy.
Dr Thomson’s research focusses on the effectiveness of sustainable energy innovations in addressing the challenges of the climate emergency. In particular, she works to understand the environmental impacts of changes to energy systems, including at the generation, transmission and demand stages, to inform policy, investment and design.
Dr Thomson explained, “I am passionate about making sure that the changes we’re making to energy systems aren’t only achieving a net reduction in carbon, but doing this as quickly, cost-effectively and sustainably as possible.”
An active supporter of women in STEM, Dr Thomson recently founded the Molly Fergusson Initiative in the School of Engineering, to promote the visibility and community of people who identify as women. She explained, “I firmly believe that one’s choice of career should be independent of gender. The Molly Fergusson Initiative aims to foster a supportive and inclusive environment by improving connectivity between staff, students and alumni of all genders, at all levels, and in all disciplines and research specialities.”
Clare Lavelle (Winner)
After graduating with a degree in Mechanical Engineering with Management in 2003, Clare Lavelle started her career in Scottish Power's transmission and distribution business as a graduate trainee. She progressed to a role as technical lead for the company’s newly formed marine renewables team - whose projects included development of the world’s first commercial wave farm project at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, and investment in the Hammerfest Strom tidal technology.
Clare is now at Arup, where she grew a multi-million pound Scottish Energy Consulting business from the ground up, advising global clients and governments on decarbonisation. Following her successes across multiple sustainable engineering innovation projects, in 2019 her team was nominated for a Scottish Green Energy Award for outstanding service to renewables.
Clare commented, "I am delighted to be named in the WES Top 50 Women in Engineering (WE50) list. This year WE50 recognises impact in sustainability - core to our values at Arup - and the reason I decided to study engineering at the University of Edinburgh.
“I’m proud to have been able to support projects that have had a material impact on achieving Net Zero, like leading consenting for the Moray East offshore wind project which will supply 40% of Scotland electricity. And my passion is innovating technologies and markets which enable deep decarbonisation, including my work leading the design and development of SGN’s H100 hydrogen for heating demonstration project, a world first. It is thrilling to be recognised alongside some of the UK’s most talented engineers working to tackle climate change."
Dr Karen Donaldson (Finalist)
Dr Karen Donaldson is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate within the Soft Systems Research Group, which uses a wide range of bio-inspired engineering approaches to tackle society’s challenges. She is currently working on the ‘Connect-R’ project to develop an industrial-scale self-building modular robot to provide access to worksites in hazardous environments such as nuclear power stations.
Dr Donaldson was nominated by her colleague Dr Simona Aracri, who explained, “I believe that Karen’s space and agricultural research, encompassing the study of the soil composition on our Earth and other planets, has the potential to influence future agricultural management and to promote sustainable growth, which we are all going to embrace in the years to come. Her work reminds me how vast engineering is and how women can truly be part of any aspect of it.”
Alongside her research career, Dr Donaldson is a tutor, STEM ambassador involved in school outreach activities, and co-founder and trustee of the Everlasting Foodbank, a foodbank, cafe and kids club to support those in need. She is also developing a charity project to host afterschool study sessions for young people.
Gunel Aghabayli (Finalist)
Gunel Aghabayli is a PhD student working on designing and modelling liquid air energy storage for CO2 utilisation through low carbon energy. Gunel has pioneered a project to turn CO2 emissions into valuable organic compounds cheaply and efficiently using a new catalyst, with her startup company C02atalyser, co-founded with her supervisor Associate Professor Yusif Abdullayev from Azerbaijan in 2017.
Gunel has successfully entered the C02atalyser project into various entrepreneurship competitions, reaching the top 15 in the global finals of ClimateLaunchpad – the world’s largest green business ideas competition – and also achieving success in the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation’s Green House competition for startups, and Heriot-Watt University’s Converge challenge. Her pitch attracted investment, and the CO2atalyser project team secured a USA patent.
Alongside her research, Gunel is active in STEM outreach and has mentored many young female STEM students in Azerbaijan, supporting them to pursue higher education overseas. Within our School, Gunel is a founding committee member of the Molly Fergusson Initiative and continues to be part of the core team driving forward its activities and helping shape its direction.
Head of the School of Engineering, Professor Conchúr Ó Brádaigh, said “I am delighted to see several talented engineers from our School recognised in this year’s WE50 Awards.
“Our alumna Clare Lavelle has gone from strength to strength since graduating in 2003; becoming a driving force for renewable energy and sustainable engineering innovation in Scotland, both at Scottish Power and Arup.
“Dr Camilla Thomson is working collaboratively with other researchers and policymakers on one of society’s most significant sustainability challenges: greening our energy supply. She is also a valued advocate and champion of other women in engineering in our School through the Molly Fergusson Initiative.
“I also congratulate Dr Karen Donaldson and Gunel Aghabayli on reaching the final 100 from a competitive UK-wide field – a testament to their achievements and potential.”
Elizabeth Donnelly, Chief Executive Officer of the Women’s Engineering Society explained why WES had chosen the theme of sustainability for 2020. “The 2019 Climate Emergency Declarations followed unprecedented weather conditions across the planet. Engineers were instrumental in repairing the Toddbrook Dam after it collapsed in August last year, and it will be engineers who will provide many of the solutions needed to address the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. We felt that it was the right time to showcase the amazing women who are already working on these issues.”