Doosan Power Systems engineer Marie Carruthers has been named one of the youngest-ever fellows of the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Will Dalrymple speaks to her about her work and balancing the demands of a career with being a young mother.
Engineer Marie Carruthers, 35, manages technology integration across nine sites in Scotland and Northern England for Doosan Babcock. Her role touches many different sectors including nuclear, oil & gas and pharmaceuticals.
"In my role I am the site teams’ primary contact for any technology-related queries or issues or simply if there is a way for technology to solve a current problem or improve delivery or assist in customer relations," she told Will Dalrymple in February.
The varied role involves integration of Doosan Babcock’s technology businesses (NDT, Metallurgy, Plant Integrity, RVI, Laser Scanning, Nuclear Technology Services), with the Doosan North Branch site services.
Ten years after starting her career with Doosan Babcock, Marie Carruthers has been named a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Fellowship is the Institution’s highest class of membership and requires an engineer to hold a position of senior responsibility in their chosen area of mechanical engineering as well as meet criteria that test their leadership, influencing and strategic qualities.
Marie Carruthers, who grew up in Sweden, spoke with Will Dalrymple about her role and what inspired here to become an engineer.
Will Dalrymple. Doosan works across many different sectors, from nuclear to pharmaceuticals, which have very different needs. Isn’t it hard to cater to such diversity?
Marie Carruthers: I started off in nuclear. That always helps, and it is the most particular of the industries that I deal with, although oil and gas is not far behind. It is also very particular, but more likely to try new things.
I work on bringing in new technologies; we might try it in an oil and gas environment first (or vice versa depending on the technology), or in other sectors, and build up a good case as to why it works and capture any lessons learned. That is the reason why it is beneficial to span all of these industries: we can draw different experiences from different sectors. Each one does things differently; sometimes that is because it has always been done that way, but if they see that something new has been used elsewhere and we have a ready-made solution, it is reassuring.
WD: Could you give me an example of what you do?
MC: It varies a lot! One example is site support. A site might phone up after inspection found corrosion issues in a vessel. Do they know how much it has corroded? Is more inspection needed? Should it be repaired? Has anyone done a fitness-for-service test? What are the customers’ wishes: do they want to use their own in-house people? I build up a picture of what has happened, and suggest a way forward.
I tie into 180 specialists, all of whom are managed by group leaders… Once a project is up and running, it becomes more a customer relations role; sometimes there is project management as well, which I like. There is so much on the go. A lot of the work is reactive, but there are long-term improvements and inspections that are done alongside.
WD: You said that your first job was in nuclear: what was that?
MC: It was a summer placement for my mechanical engineering degree in Sweden, which requires practical experience. I had 10 weeks welding on the Oskarshamn maintenance team, supporting all three units.
Why welding? I’m a mechanical engineer; it is a very commonly used construction method that is really useful to have a deeper understanding of, and that placement was what was available. It was great experience and it helps me a lot now. It was nearly 30 degrees that summer in Sweden, but fortunately at the plant there were lots of places where you could swim during the lunch breaks.
I started my mechanical engineering degree in 1998, and came over to UK in 2001. I did a master’s degree here in materials technology. During my mechanical engineering degree, I worked part time at a Swedish foundry doing metallurgy. I wanted more academic skills in this area, and fancied metallurgy. I applied to Doosan, and worked in their metallurgy and NDT department. At that time, its NDT department was doing work at Oskarshamn. I never ended up at Oskarshamn- I did some work at Forsmark, and then did my main work in the British Energy fleet.
I spent 3-4 years in Doosan’s NDT department, and then moved on to destructive testing. It was really interesting! The work I do now with inspection wouldn’t be possible without a background in metallurgy and NDT. I worked in destructive testing until 2009; that was a great job. There was a year’s maternity leave in there.
When I came back, I was asked to take on an integration role to site teams in the North of UK. They needed someone who understands the different departments within asset integrity, who could tie together the sites, and support them, be visible to customers, and break down internal silos.
WD: What was your favourite job?
MC: The current one. My favourite project was on weld development, looking at corrosion under insulation, because it needs quite a few different disciplines to come together. There was a research element, and I worked with great people, and I learned so much, and we left the customer with something real, an approved weld procedure, that if they have an issue, they can go in and repair it.
WD: In nuclear, don’t you find it difficult to manage so many different disciplines?
MC: Sometimes I find that engineers from different disciplines are talking a different language – messages can get lost. I need to make sure that this doesn’t happen. I don’t think that we at Doosan are particularly bad at it; it is an industry thing.
The first time I was ever in a Swedish foundry, I walked in just as a mechanical engineer had left the office. The metallurgist who was still there was complaining that the mechanical engineer wasn’t listening. Thicker aluminium castings are generally weaker because of the grain structure. When the mechanical engineer designer assumes that he can make the casting stronger by making it twice as thick, there is a disconnect. People are trained in specific areas; one person can’t know everything, so the general roles can help support in making sure the message doesn’t get lost.
WD: What constitutes good engineering?
MC: It might sound silly, but the right attitude; because you can teach most things, but you need passion and drive to solve a problem and get good solutions, wanting to learn more and get good solutions. I work with a lot of people who really enjoy being engineers; in my opinion, they make the best ones. It doesn’t matter what the challenge is, they will come up with a solution. It may not be perfect, but I think the most important thing is about having an interest in coming up with solutions.
WD: What really annoys you about engineers?
MC: I’m one myself so I can’t point too many fingers. There are quite an array of personalities, and there can sometimes be interesting personality clashes. Another thing that some do is strive for the ultimate solution, which may not always be needed. We need to reign ourselves in and not get too carried away with what we are trying to develop. Simplicity is usually the best way.
WD: Is Britain over-engineered?
MC: I’m from Sweden, which I would say is even more over-engineered. In my opinion no. Britain has a more pragmatic approach to problems; Sweden relies on quite a theoretical approach that takes a bit longer. For example, after I came over, I took a polymer (plastics) class, and my friend Lina, who was a mechanical engineer, did the same course in Sweden, and we had the same exam question: how can you tell whether a polymer is amorphous or crystalline? Lina had to do a really long calculation that took half an hour. In Britain we were taught that if you can see through it, that is, if it is transparent, it’s generally amorphous, if you can’t, it’s crystalline. That’s the difference between Britain and Sweden. If you have to think on your feet its better to have the British training.
WD: What is your role supposed to be as a fellow of the iMechE?
MC: There is nothing official; being a fellow is the highest level of membership. What I had to do to become a fellow was to demonstrate that I had relevant experience and also show how I was engaged on a personal level in driving technology forward and promoting engineering. I work mainly bringing young people into engineering, and focus on girls.
Another thing to do is to work with careers advisors. They don’t tend to suggest engineering to go into as a career. For example I was good at maths; my career advisor suggested I train to be a pharmacist. They have a big role to play, and they need to be educated to encourage girls into engineering as well.
WD: How would you respond to girls who say that they are no good at maths?
MC: I have several friends who said that about maths, but who would have had no problems training to be an engineer. Boys are given more confidence at school than girls. We need to give girls more confidence that it is not going to be as difficult as they think. Another thing to do is to work with careers advisors. They don’t tend to suggest engineering to go into as a career. For example I was good at maths; my career advisor suggested I train to be a pharmacist. They have a big role to play, and they need to be educated to encourage girls into engineering as well.
WD: Your father was an inspiration?
MC: In Sweden it was not uncommon to bring kids in to work during the school holidays. When I was nine, I went to the E.ON headquarters in Sweden. My father also took me to visit gas storage vessels. And when my dad worked at Barseback, which was closed down, there was a family day organized to demonstrate against its closure, which we attended. When I was older, 18-19, he brought be to Barseback before it closed and gave me desk jobs to try…Those trips gave me interest, encouragement, and the confidence to be able to do it.
WD: You are a young mum, and are now part time. In my neighbourhood many parents, and the school, seem to expect that mums should pick up their kids from school. Have you felt these pressures? How do you deal with them?
MC: It is a challenge at times. I’m part-time-ish. I do a couple school pickups a week. I try to be there when it matters. I don’t think engineering companies are as far forward in terms of dealing with working mothers as more traditionally female industries-just because of experience, that is, there are a lot fewer women. At Doosan I think that I was the first nuclear-classified worker who regularly entered the RCA to be pregnant in 15 years.
I also see that maternity leave pay is pretty bad in engineering apart from big operators-BP, EDF-you are on statutory minimum, because again women are not a big part of the workforce. This is something that is important for the future, as more and more women are coming into engineering. But I have a very flexible manager who respects that I have to strike a work-life balance. It has made such a difference, the support of management, and they know that I will be there when I can. I answer the phone on my day off; I talk inspection on the playground.
WD: It all sounds very intense.
MC: I’ve never had a boring day in my life; I would definitely recommend it. I really enjoy my job!
My son is already drawing power stations. When I pick him up, he talks about his day, and I talk about mine. When his bike breaks, I can help fix it. I am not the only one that does maintenance, but I am one option. There’s a problem that needs fixing; let’s have a look and see if we can do something. I am trying to get across that science is fun, and to have the right attitude.
Based on an interview with Will Dalrymple, editor of Nuclear Engineering International. Follow Will Dalrymple on Google+