Dr Florence Gschwend is a Research Associate in the Department of Chemical Engineering. She has won several awards for her research in recent years, so for International Women in Engineering Day we asked her to tell us about her experience and the advice she would give other women interested in following a similar path.
Q: How would you describe your research in one sentence?
FG: I am looking at a new way of using unwanted wood to produce renewable chemicals, plastics and materials.
Q: When did you decide to become a chemical engineer?
FG: I began by studying chemistry, and made the transition to the chemical engineering department for my PhD. I very much enjoyed science and maths as a child, so it seemed an obvious choice for me to go on to study one of the natural sciences at university. Although my work in chemical engineering is still very much chemistry focused, I think at a PhD level almost all work becomes interdisciplinary to some extent. My chemical engineering work has also given me an advantage in my natural sciences work as it enables me to see it in a different light, with a stronger focus on what could be industrially relevant, rather than how to get a record breaking yield.
Q: Were there any unexpected challenges you faced during your time as a student, and how did you overcome these?
FG: There were countless challenges and most of them unexpected. During one semester of my BSc for example I had a very hard time with one of the lab supervisors that I didn’t get along with at all. As a result, I hated the lab work (which took up one full day and three afternoons every week) and was continuously stressed out, both during the actual lab work and during my free time. Towards the end of the semester I started to be more at ease in the lab and became more assertive when the supervisor was giving me a hard time, but it was a tough few weeks of my student life. The support of my colleagues, friends and family has helped me overcome this and other challenges, so I would say that sharing your difficulties with the people around you can be helpful in processing them. Dealing with such challenges has definitely helped me to learn that there are many ways of reaching your goals and not to panic if things don’t go exactly according to plan.
Q: What made you choose to come to Imperial College London?
FG: I came to Imperial for my Master’s degree in Green Chemistry. After my BSc in Chemistry in Switzerland, I wanted to study abroad and, while continuing something in the field of chemistry, do something that was more meaningful to me. After researching my options I found the MRes course in “Green Chemistry, Energy and the Environment” which perfectly combined my interests, so I decided to apply for it.
Q: You’ve won several awards for your work in chemical engineering, including the Royal Academy Future of Engineering Award and the EIT Change award. What was the first award you won, and how did you get nominated for it?
FG: I won the Maturandenpreis sponsored by Novartis (a prize given to students finishing Gymnasium in Basel, Switzerland) when I finished high school, which my teachers must have nominated me for.
Q: How does it feel to have won so many awards, and what is the impact on your work?
FG: There are a multitude of benefits from winning awards. Firstly, it is free PR for your work, as you can use it on your social media outlets and . People can easily share the news, which helps boost the profile of your research. Secondly, it’s a great feeling to receive confirmation that other people think the work you’re doing is important, worthwhile, and deserves an award. Winning an award is always a motivational boost! Thirdly, not all awards, but quite a few, come with some sort of prize – money, support, access to facilities, etc. These goodies can be very useful! And lastly, being recognised by a prestigious society, academy of other body gives you and your project extra credibility.
Q: Do you have any tips for students or researchers who are interested in achieving awards to boost your career profile?
FG: Many awards will require you to write something about yourself and your achievements, which is something that isn’t necessarily common in every culture or an easy task for some personality types, so it might feel a bit unnatural at the beginning. You might also feel like you’re taking credit for things that weren’t fully your own work and it might take some getting used to finding the right words that you’re comfortable with in the award applications. However, it gets easier with practice, and it’s a good thing to be able to shout about your success – after all, you will have worked hard for your achievements!
Q: How do you ensure you maintain a healthy work-life balance?
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance can be challenging, for examples I do try to do a lot of exercise, but especially when I’m travelling this can be very difficult. As I’m mostly my own boss at this point in my career and don’t have someone telling me “you’ve done enough now”, it can sometimes feel like work never stops. Setting clear and achievable goals for individual days, weeks or months can help to achieve the feeling of “I’m done for today”. Also just meeting up and hanging out with people who are in a similar boat can really help; to exchange your highs and lows and have a good rant about that grant application that is worth a lot.
Q: What advice would you give young girls and women who would like to study chemical engineering?
Do it! If you it’s something you think you’d enjoy, there’s absolutely no reason not to do it. There are a multitude of career options afterwards, from teaching to working in a lab, an office, out in the field to starting your own company. Research your options and find out as much as you can by attending open days, looking at people’s online profiles (such as LinkedIn), and find out if there are opportunities for career guidance or mentoring which may help you refine your interests.