Dr Claire Benson is a fire and explosion scientist with over 15 years’ experience researching and lecturing as part of the Explosion and Fire Research Group. She has a PhD in chemical engineering from LSBU, specialising in high pressure oxygen system safety. Claire is also behind the series of events for LSBU’s centenary of Women in Engineering.Can you tell us a bit about your background and why you came to LSBU? I’m from a small, largely working class, town on the outskirts of London, near Heathrow. I grew up with my mum and grandparents in a little terraced house. We weren’t poor but we lived pretty frugal life. My great uncle and some cousins had been to university but no one I knew in my regular life had. I had no idea what university was really, or what it meant other than a chance to do more with my life. I loved science and maths, but also sport, dance, English and history so choosing a career path was quite hard actually. As for LSBU, believe it or not a careers computer guidance system told me I should be a forensic scientist. I may be one of the few people who actually got given a good and true option. I was originally thinking about medicine and forensic pathology but getting me through 5 years of uni was going to financially difficult for me and my mum so I looked at other options. I found there were forensic science degrees (only about 5 in the country at the time) that did a broad range of forensics – one of those was LSBU. I expected that I’d need to specialise later, maybe with a masters. I chose LSBU, or South Bank University as it was then, for 2 reasons. First it was in London so I could commute rather than live in. But the second reason is more important. I came to an open day and saw Prof. Phil Nolan talking about his research on fire science and fire investigation. It was absolutely fascinating. I was really impressed with the work he was doing with fire services to help people. How and why did you choose your initial subject and your PhD research? Forensics is brilliant. It’s interesting, broad ranging and has massive impact on people’s lives. It’s an incredible link up between crime scene handling, really detailed fine science work, and the legal system. I got to study a lot of analytical chemistry as well as fire science, incident investigations (like factory explosions) and even did 3 law modules. I joke with my husband that I studied as much criminal law as he did, and he’s a lawyer. It was really varied and fun as well as academically challenging because of the variety. I fell in love with fire investigation science and did a dissertation with Prof Nolan and the London Fire Brigade looking at the aftermath of car fires. We did chemical analysis on the post-fire scene and looked at the health implications looking for nasty chemicals like hydrofluoric acid, hydrochloric acid, aromatics and heavy metals. The results were used by the fire services to push for change, to get local councils to remove vehicles before they were set alight. I left university for a year and just worked out in the world for a while but I really wanted a job in fire science. It was a difficult job market at the time and everyone wanted candidates with experience. Then out of the blue a PhD opportunity came up at LSBU doing fire safety and chemical engineering research for the Ministry of Defence to stop breathing systems exploding. Did you face any particular challenges around people’s expectations of what women should be studying? (Give that some people still consider engineering subjects an unusual choice for women) If I did, I didn’t notice but then I came into engineering via forensics which has a large number of women practitioners. Initially I hadn’t heard of engineering other than mechanical or civil engineers. When I applied for the PhD I didn’t really know what chemical engineering was or what a PhD beyond a very thin definition. I had to do a lot learning very quickly to catch up. Do you think that engineering has changed for women in the time you’ve been involved with it? I definitely experienced a small amount of sexism and inappropriate behaviour earlier in my PhD (not from my immediate colleagues but from further afield) but I’m pleased to say it’s been a long time since I saw anything like that. That said you still hear stories about how people are treated so I do watch for it. But that’s not an engineering thing. That’s an everywhere thing. I think #MeToo has shown how prevalent misogyny is. My impression in academia is the number of women I see working in engineering is more than I saw 20 years ago as a student which is nice. I imagine that will drive change. There’s a wider community of people with some common experiences there. But I work with a great group of people, all men in my immediate research team, and I’ve never felt like an outsider. That’s a credit to the people I work with, even if it is as it should be. What prompted you to organise the events around celebrating LSBU’s centenary of teaching women engineering? When I found out it was almost 100 years since we started teaching women I was thrilled we’d been doing that so long. I immediately thought this needed to be celebrated. It seemed like a great way to explore the engineering work we do at LSBU and especially given we have so many amazing women staff who do really interesting research work. After talking to Ruth MacLecod from LSBU archives and Caitriona Beaumont from Law & Social Sciences, it became clear it was a bigger thing than that. Exploring the history of women’s education at LSBU and the stories of the women who studied or worked here became really important to us all. When we spoke to others around the university they were just as interested and what was going to be a single event or small project turned into a massive programme of events involving five different LSBU schools and numerous departments at the university helping out. It’s been amazing to curate. What changes would you like to see happen in the future? I’d like to see more women working in engineering not just for the sake of it but because it matters. As someone who works in engineering I honestly believe there’s very little you have to do as an engineer that scientists from other areas, or even brilliant minds working outside science, don’t or can’t do. One of the biggest areas of difference is economics, and I wish I learned more of that, but there are plenty of female scientists or professionals who handle the same level of complexity and lateral thinking that engineers do. But while law and medicine have found a way to appeal to women, Engineering hasn’t. I find that sad because engineering is responsible for taking most science and translating it into the real world. It’s the vector to take great scientific discoveries and to put them to use in the real world as working solutions. But if one group of people has most of the influence on how that science is implemented, the results are going to be inherently biased towards one group of people. I’ve talked across the LSBU 100- WIE programme about examples where great and useful products were dismissed because men weren’t interested, about a racist soap dispenser that only work for white hands, not black, and how we miss the chance to improve systems if we don’t question design that can be rooted in the male experience. That’s why I’d like more women to be in engineering. They should have a say in how science is used and implemented so we can all benefit from the most ideas and perspectives. How do you think more women can be encouraged into engineering? I think there needs to be better communication of what engineering is, as I think most people would struggle to describe it. Firstly kids need to see what it covers and all the problems it helps to solve. In fairness I think thanks to great science and engineering communicators on platforms like youtube, the communication is improving. They’re great at showing different areas of engineering. But I think kids needs to understand the job of engineering is like and that still isn’t largely communicated well. Based on what I see in engineering degrees and in the projects I work on I’d say in essence Engineering = Science + Problem solving + Money understanding or budget. It’s really just about being able to apply science and cost it to make sure what you’re producing works in the real world technically and financially. Plenty of women can follow that process. And rather than being in a mucky workshop (although modern engineering workshops are pretty clean in my experience) much of the engineering work is done on computers now. But we also need to make sure young girls see engineering as a possible option. We’re never going to force people to do things they don’t want to but it seems, from UK studies, that pretty early in the UK girls decide they aren’t going to be engineers, before they really understand what engineering is. So something in society is telling them girls aren’t engineers. In Russia nearly 40% of engineers are women compared to 12% in the UK. I’d love to see us understand the difference and some really good education earlier to show there are great options. What’s next? I have been really lucky for 2 years to be part of the amazing ENABLEH2 project looking at the possibility of hydrogen propulsion. Hydrogen may be the answer to the aviation industries need to decarbonise, or it may not (I think it’s early to say) but being part of research that could be shaping the future and helping to solve the biggest challenge facing our generation, global warming, has been very cool. I’ll be continuing to work as part of that project but I also want to look forward and to try to look for more big challenges that I can use fire and safety science and engineering to solve. We’ll see where that takes me.