• Natalie Wild

Women of Tech Meets: Maggie - a PhD Engineer

Updated: Apr 13, 2019

Fuelled with passion and determination to bring positive change to the world using her knowledge of Lithium-Ion mechanisms, Maggie is gearing up to take on Silicon Valley.

This week I met with Maggie.

Maggie came across as a highly intellectual and intelligent lady who in all honesty, blew my mind with her understandings, insights and knowledge. Elon Musk, if you’re somehow reading this, you need to hire this lady – now.

From a professional standpoint, Maggie is seeking opportunities to work in industrial technology after gaining extensive academic experience. She recently graduated last year with her PhD – she developed a high-temperature reference electrode and lithium-ion sensor in order to measure the corrosion rates inside the pipes of nuclear plants (something never done before!!) - and is gearing up to take on Silicon Valley, bursting with pure determination to use her knowledge and experience to be a driving force for positive, impactful change in the world.

Maggie is currently developing a Python Programme that will enable her to automate some aspects of her Doctoral work “Its kind of my interview piece when applying for jobs, I think you have to do things like this now to be noticed”.

Describing herself as an Engineer, Maggie explained to me the way in which she doesn’t see herself as a Programmer, but understands code when she sees it “It’s more of a tool for me. I take these tools that programmers develop and apply them in an Engineering sense”.

What was it that initially sparked your interest in tech? It’s a very unique path that you’ve taken

“I started very young. My Dad has a Doctorate in Quantitative Genetics and my Mom is a medical Lab Technician. I have early memories of my Dad driving me to school telling me I’m going to grow up to be a Rocket Scientist. I also have three older brothers who are all Engineers. But by no means did that mean it was a set thing that I would be an Engineer, I have always had a choice. I did things like painting and languages at school, but I loved Math, really loved Math.

When it came time to make study choices, I decided on an Undergrad Science Degree in Chemistry and a minor in Math, and my brothers were like ‘why don’t you just do Engineering, that’s Science and Math, all of it’, so I went on to do a Batchelor of Science in Chemical Engineering Degree that included multiple Chemistry courses and labs, it was great fun.

Whilst studying for my Batchelor Degree I worked a summer job contracting. I was developing urethane acrylate UV curing polymers for daylighting units. I had a grant, I set up my own lab and worked by myself, did all the formulations and all the research independently.

Towards the end of the summer I went to this company’s office in Pennsylvania to do some extra testing, and there was this amazing woman running the lab there, in her high heels, with all her patents hung on the walls – it was such a great introduction into that. It was inspiring.

I went back to school and got a minor in Nuclear Engineering, which developed my interest in the corrosion of materials. It seemed like the next logical step was to pursue that interest so I went on to get my Masters of Science in Engineering and then my PhD, and that’s where I’m at now.

A huge amount of my PhD work was looking at all the electroanalytical data – there were tens of thousands of points per test, and you can be running hundreds of tests per day, I realised recently that I probably should have started writing this Python Programme 7 years ago (she says laughing), but it just wasn’t an option then with everything else to do.”

From where you’re at now, what would you say is your long-term goal?

“My goals have changed a lot over the last 10 years.

10 years ago, I wanted to be a professor with a long-term goal of being Dean of my department and then one day President of the University, but now that’s just completely different.

I appreciate that I needed the academia to get me my PhD and that level of understanding – how much research it takes to know something about anything, and how much there really is to know overall, and then that realisation that you don’t really know anything, and the vast quantity of information that’s out there.

At the time, the work I was doing was brand new, and so anything to do with quantifying the Lithium-Ion mechanisms was all battery research, so I read a LOT of papers on batteries.

Now Lithium is the heart of our mobile devices, our cars – it has applicability into efficient power designs for data centres and other infrastructures, so I want to be involved on that side of things, on the tech side.

As corny as it sounds, my long-term goal is to change the world Elon Musk style – I want to take global problems and solve them, but I understand that if you want to solve global problems then really, you’ve got to ‘run the company’.

I’d like to work in a heavily technology-based field for 5-10 years to build on my Engineering background, maybe upgrade to MBA.

We’re at a point in time where companies are recognizing the benefit of hiring more women into management positions and boards, so I’m in a unique position where I have a lot of background, a lot of education, and with the tech and business experience, I can be in a position of control at a company where global solutions are being deployed. I’d like to make decisions about how factories are powered, make a switch to have Tesla 18 wheelers delivering everything and feel like I’m making a difference that way.”

Of your achievements to date, is there a particular moment or piece of work you’re really proud of?

“My Doctoral work. So, Lithium Hydroxide is used to manage the pH in nuclear systems to keep it stable, I basically took lithiated rust, like what’s inside the pipes of nuclear plants, and refined that over a number of years to measure the corrosion rates inside the pipes. It had never been done before. The Math used to describe that had never existed before, the model to describe that chemical reaction was all new. It was so cool. It was such a rush. I would love to go and diagnose Lithium-Ion mechanisms in California.”

Are there any particular challenges you’ve faced working in male dominated environments? And how did you overcome them?

“There were a lot of male Professors, Grads, Engineers, almost no female PhD students at University, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever been judged for being a woman doing this. Sometimes you get a second glance, like ‘what’s she doing here’ but, I let my work speak for itself. No one has ever walked up to me and said anything negative towards me.

I used to get asked a lot if I was getting married soon, instead of ‘how’s your research going’ – are you asking Dave that? If he’s getting married soon? No. I might never get married and that’s fine (FYI though, Maggie is happily engaged to her fiancé)

When I was new to teaching, I took over teaching a Professors Undergrad class, he had to leave the semester early. At the start of the semester, these students sign a contract agreeing to what’s expected from them, how grades are marked, when things are due etc.

After the first mid-term they were trying to haggle with me “well I failed this mid-term but what If I combine my marks with…” and I’m like no, that’s not how this works. I think they saw me as an easy target, I felt like they wouldn’t have been asking a 6ft 4” guy who had his PhD and was established to bend the rules. I got really good at saying no in a very polite and firm manner.”

Are there any particular deterrents in your opinion as to why women don’t want to come and pursue a career in Engineering or Tech?

“I think there is still a stigma that it’s a boy’s job, I have never felt that personally.

I wonder sometimes that the media and publications don’t help, I have read so many articles about women leaving tech jobs in droves because they ‘don’t want to put up with the abuse anymore’ – things like that are a big deterrent to others. People are far less likely to want to go into that if they think they’ll be bullied out of their job.”

Is it something you’re mindful of with your plans for Silicon Valley?

“Mindful but not deterred. I am going to do this.

I didn’t go to University for 15 years to be bullied out of a job”

What do you love the most about your work?

“I am always getting to do new things, discover new things. Every day is different. I really enjoy doing something hard and challenging, I am happy in myself when I feel challenged and I get challenged a lot.”

Is there anything that you don’t like so much about what you do?

“When you are so specialised in something, you can’t just leave it at work or at home, I am always thinking about it, all the time, where ever I am, and there’s no real way to get away from that.

In Tech it sometimes feels like you have to stay on top of all the new things coming out, like you have to know everything that is going on, it can seem overwhelming.”

Is there anything that you think universities or employers could be doing to break down the barrier and encourage more women to pursue a career in Engineering or Tech?

“There are so many things. I think a key one is starting people young. And not just in High School and Middle School. Teach children what coding is, what the principles of AI are, and about ways this technology is used in a real-world sense and then it’s not such a foreign concept to them as they grow.

Tech is so integrated into our lives now, why are we waiting till kids are in their teens before we give them the option to really learn about it, if they want to that is. Its still all optional.

[I agreed whole heartedly with Maggie on this, I think that’s a really good point. I’ve spoken to a lot of women already who tell me they had no idea about the tech industry or the multitude of paths you can take within it until they reached their mid/late 20’s, all now wishing they’d been taught about tech from a much younger age. Some even suggesting that they’d felt they’d missed out on life opportunities earlier on, because the education system didn’t tell them tech was an option, or in some cases even dissuaded women from going down that route. It makes me wonder also about the opportunities and advances the tech sector has missed out on because women haven’t had much of an input here in the past. We know that men and women literally think differently, which means different approaches to problem solving.]

My final question for you today Maggie, is – what is the one piece of advice that you wish someone had given to you at the start of your academia journey?

“I was fairly warned that the PhD would be tough, but I had no idea how tough.

Finishing is hard.

I almost wish that I’d had a daily reminder pop up on my laptop just saying ‘finishing is hard’

Everyday that you want to take a day off – finishing is hard – but when you’re done, you’re done and you can throw a huge party to celebrate. I think this applies in the broader sense too, not just for a Doctorate, anything can be hard to finish.

Speaking to Maggie was so enlightening and inspiring. I’ll be keeping my eye out for her in the media for sure, I genuinely believe this lady can take on the world and really bring about the positive changes to solve global issues that she strives to achieve.

Maggie is currently seeking out a role in Silicon Valley where she hopes to work for a company that is doing really significant things, adding “I really want to go diagnose Lithium-Ion mechanisms in California” – Good Luck Maggie! You’ll be there before you know it.

(despite much fiddling around, the blog post settings were only displaying part of the bottom half of Maggie’s photo as the cover/toggle photo for the post so I had to crop it down, but this lady worked hard for the opportunity to wear this outfit - so here she is again!


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