Dr Thomson was selected by a panel of industry experts as one of 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 women 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 also named 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 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.
“We are preparing a programme of networking events, establishing funding to support staff- and student-led activities, and developing activities to disseminate information about available resources and hidden barriers. We envisage these activities extending to encourage more female school leavers to come and study Engineering, and more of our female graduates to remain in the Engineering, and the sustainability sector in particular.”
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 bioinspired 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. 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. Engineers play an essential but sometimes under-appreciated role in responding to society’s environmental challenges, and I am proud that our School is well represented in this year’s sustainability-themed WE50 awards.”
Sally Sudworth, WE50 Head Judge, the Environment Agency’s National Programme Manager for Asset Management & FCRM Sustainability Lead (Net Zero Carbon Programme) and WES Honorary Secretary said, “The panel of judges was thrilled by with the outstanding achievements demonstrated by all of the winners and were thrilled by the difference being made by the candidates”.
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.”