Sarah Griffiths

What have you been doing since finishing your studies? 

I joined the Cavendish Nuclear in November 2014 as a Graduate Mechanical Engineer. The graduate scheme enabled me to carry out placements around the company and learn a wide range of skills over the two years. My roles have including stress analysis for major decommissioning projects, mechanical design for handling equipment and understanding legislative requirements to support CE marking on an equipment maintenance facility. The past two years have been a full of exciting opportunities and a huge learning curve, challenging me to develop my engineering and softer skills. I have now come to the end of my graduate placements and have begun a longer term secondment in Magnox. 

Magnox is a fleet of decommissioned reactors and there are ten sites around the UK which each have their own waste streams. My work involves understanding the processes for decommissioning the Magnox sites and how nuclear waste is handled and stored in accordance to regulatory requirements. The work is very interesting and challenging due to the differences between each of the Magnox sites. My role is enabling me to learn about Waste Management methods in the nuclear industry and how they can be applied to other decommissioning sites in the UK. 

Outside of project work, I am working towards Chartership with the IMechE and I am supported by my company mentor. I am passionate about encouraging more girls to choose engineering as a career and work as a STEM Ambassador. I worked closely with the Arkwright Scholarship Trust as a mentor, interviewer and I am also presenting at their awards ceremony this year. Recently I was interviewed by The Telegraph as part of their STEM Awards, where I was able to discuss why engineering is such an exciting and interesting career path.

I was also shortlisted for the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year award and I am a finalist for the ECITB Women in Engineering award. I am also part of the Respect Workgroup for Babcock, a group working to define the equality and diversity strategy for Babcock group. I feel that I have been able to achieve a lot since graduating and have really enjoyed working in the nuclear industry.

What experiences at Leeds do you think have helped with your career so far?

My fourth year group project, Project ARTEMIS (Autonomous Robotic Technology Enabling Minimally Invasive Surgery) was very helpful for my career. The project was a collaboration between Leeds and Manchester Universities and the team designed and build a 5:1 scale swallowable gastric balloon robot. The experience of working on a long term project where half the team is in a different location helped to develop my communication and time management skills, which has been very beneficial for working in the nuclear industry where most of our sites are remote. 

Working on other team design and build tasks such as the autonomous buggy race gave me experience of working with other engineers and developed my leadership skills. The majority of my work involves team work and my experience at University put me in a great position to be able to do this effectively.

The wide range of modules available helped to encourage me to learn about areas outside of my interest and how to apply them to my work. I still use this by learning about other industries and how their technology could be applied to the nuclear industry.

Looking back, why did you choose to study mechanical engineering at the University of Leeds?

Mechanical Engineering at Leeds stood out to me as it was a great mix of lectures and practical lab sessions; I felt that this would be a great way to learn about Engineering. The department links with National Instruments meant that there were a lot of robotics modules available and that the practical lab sessions would involve exciting projects such as building an autonomous buggy.

During my visit on an open day, I found that Leeds felt right to me – the department was lively and engaging, they had a fantastic range of labs and facilities. After meeting several of the lecturers, I liked how passionate and enthusiastic they were about teaching and engineering and I felt that it was, and still is, a fantastic place to learn. 

What were the best aspects of your academic life at University and why?

My favourite year was my final year where I had complete freedom to choose my modules and was involved in the ARTEMIS Project. I felt that I was on my way to being a professional engineer and able to take full responsibility for my education and work. A huge highlight was where the project team were able to attending NIWeek in Austin, Texas, as finalists for the National Instrument Global Student Design Competition. 

I also really enjoyed my third year project, building a thermal manikin test unit – it was a great chance to learn practical lessons, such as why putting superglue on polystyrene is a bad idea and how to program a PID controller. I also really enjoyed being able to do my own research as well as supporting a larger research project. 

What other activities outside of your studies were you involved in?

Outside of my studies, I set up and ran the Robogals Chapter at Leeds, part of a UK wide society which teaches robotics to children using Lego Mindstorms. I was also a member of the fencing club and on the women’s fencing team, which enabled me to attend matches around the country and make close friends. I was also a member of the archery society, and despite being terrible at archery, I really enjoyed it and got to meet great people. 

What advice would you give to students thinking about choosing the same area of study at Leeds or thinking about the same career?

For a career in engineering, summer placements are a great way to get a feel if an industry is right for you and it’s a great way to make contacts. Speak to as many people as you can, having a network of engineers helps when it comes to finding a job after University and when you need advice throughout your career. Be open minded, I originally thought that I would work in medical engineering and I’ve ended up in nuclear, which I love, all because I tried a placement outside of my intended industry. 

For anyone interested in joining the nuclear industry, I would recommend that you research the different areas such as new build, decommissioning, regulatory and try and make contacts within the industry – LinkedIn is a great way to do this. Attend Institute of Mechanical Engineers and Nuclear Institute events which happen all around the country. I would also recommend applying to graduate schemes as it is a great way to learn about the industry. Cavendish Nuclear has a fantastic scheme and I have gained a lot from it.