Alumni profile - Maria Carmona
My role is a great opportunity for me to build a positive culture around innovative projects and sustainable solutions in the fight against climate change.
(Astrophysics BSc, 2017)
Why did you choose to study BSc Astrophysics at Queen Mary? Did you have a particular career path in mind?
I feel like many young people finishing school don’t have a clear career path in mind, or at least this was the case for me. And that’s ok! I was lucky enough to have a very supportive family who encouraged me to study whatever I was most interested in at the time. I had developed a very strong interest in STEM subjects, particularly mathematics and physics, and I loved the idea of studying what lies out there in space, so astrophysics seemed like a great fit. I thought maybe I could become a lecturer over time, however it really wasn’t a big focus for me to figure out my career path just yet.
What did you enjoy most about studying this degree?
I was most lucky to benefit from a very high amount of contact hours with lecturers. When I first started, 20+ hours of lectures a week seemed like a lot, but I soon realised that a lot of other courses had a fraction of that compared to us which seemed to hinder some students’ progress at times. We had a lot of great academics there to support us, all of whom were fantastic teachers; some of my personal standouts were the likes of David Berman, Karim Malik, Jon Hays and Theo Kreouzis.
My focus is always on the so-called “energy trilemma”, which states we must find sustainable energy sources, whilst addressing energy security and energy equity. It’s a privilege for me to play even a small role in solving this trilemma, and this really drives me in my job.
Can you describe your career path to date and touch on your current role as Project Manager at Vattenfall?
At the time of writing my final year dissertation, I was torn between choosing an academic career path or focusing on entering an industry of my choice. I ended up going for the industry route, but knew before this that I wanted to complete a Master’s programme. Once again, I was then torn between an MSc in Quantum Engineering and an MSc in Sustainable Energy Futures. Eventually, my personal drive to fight the climate crisis in whatever way possible led me to the latter. After completing my MSc and taking on an internship role at Arenko Group, a battery storage start-up, I had an opportunity to join Vattenfall as a Project Engineer through their International Trainee Programme. Their purpose to achieve “fossil free living within one generation” really spoke to me, and I saw how committed they had been to transition away from fossil fuels even before the topic became as popular as it is now. I joined their Networks department in the UK, where I found my niche: power grid systems. My team and manager have been very supportive of my continuous development and soon enough, I was even given the opportunity to become a Project Manager for a very exciting new infrastructure proposal we are planning.
What are some of your daily responsibilities in this role and how does this job allow you to explore your passions?
My daily responsibilities involve a lot of coordination, leadership and follow-up tasks. A project manager must always have a clear overview of their project and they are the best point of contact for everyone working in the project team. I spend a lot of time managing stakeholders involved, and being the interface between senior management members who may not have the technical expertise to understand the specifics of the project, and the engineers and technical staff who in return may not comprehend the risks or financials involved in the project. Most of all, this role is a great opportunity for me to build a positive culture around innovative projects and sustainable solutions in the fight against climate change. The energy industry is so big and complex and at the heart of it lies the infrastructure needed for us to harness various forms of energy into useful applications, from huge power plants right down to the plug that lets you switch your kettle on and off whenever you want. Ultimately my focus is always on the so-called “energy trilemma”, which states we must find sustainable energy sources, whilst addressing energy security and energy equity. It’s a privilege for me to play even a small role in solving this trilemma, and this really drives me in my job.
Which aspects of your degree are relevant to your current role? And how has your degree helped shape your career?
Without a doubt the problem-solving skills I picked up in my degrees have been the most useful and relevant takeaways in my career so far. Problem solving is an essential skill for sciences like physics and engineering, but it’s also much more than that. Being able to see the bigger picture and finding answers to seemingly impossible questions thrown at you, handling and resolving challenges or conflict that comes your way, managing people and stakeholders: these are also crucial aspects of problem solving used in project management. And of course, the fact that I will now always have a technical background to guide me in complex infrastructure projects means I am able to get down to the nitty-gritty aspects of such projects and have a solid understanding of the engineering involved.
Outside of your career, what else are you passionate about and how do you champion these things in your day-to-day life?
I love music and art and I enjoy all sorts of creative activities. I am also always trying to educate myself on the world around me, particularly when it comes to topics I find need to be addressed, such as systemic racism, women’s equality and body autonomy, LGBTQ+ rights, and destigmatizing mental health. I try to champion these things by recognising first and foremost my privilege in the world, then trying to vocalise these issues and bring attention to them whenever possible without taking away others’ voices. I think it’s so important to have uncomfortable conversations around these topics and try to challenge the status quo where we can.
As a member of the Women’s Engineering Society and based on your own experiences throughout your studies and in the workplace, why do think it is important to increase the number and visibility of women studying STEM subjects and working in STEM?
Although my own experience with women’s visibility in STEM subjects has not been so bad (particularly at Queen Mary, I actually felt that our physics cohort was quite balanced considering the norm for STEM subjects at university), I have definitely faced barriers in entering this field even before I went into academia. To this day, women are still discouraged to take on a scientific career for a number of reasons, and throughout their careers many women do not get the support they need in order to thrive while achieving other life goals. This phenomenon is often referred to as “the leaky pipeline” for anyone interested in researching it. It is hard sometimes to sit in meetings where I feel like my voice and inputs may not be taken as seriously as those of a man if I am the only woman in a crowd of 10+ people, but what keeps me going is the support of other women in my life, and the visibility of increasingly more women in leadership roles. Having a role model is so important in feeling that you are being represented in your field; joining the Women’s Engineering Society was a way for me to connect with such women and form a part of this support bubble that I can always lean on.
It is hard sometimes to sit in meetings where I feel like my voice and inputs may not be taken as seriously as those of a man if I am the only woman in a crowd of 10+ people, but what keeps me going is the support of other women in my life, and the visibility of increasingly more women in leadership roles.
And what do you think needs to be done to increase the number of women in STEM?
This is a really tough question that I don’t think I or anyone else has a good answer to. However, in my experience, representation from very early on is key. I find that the most fruitful efforts in increasing the number of women in STEM come from engagement at a young age, particularly when students are choosing their GCSEs/ A-levels. It’s also harder to reap the benefits of such engagement as it takes time to track these young girls and make sure that they are making well-informed choices on their career throughout school and higher education, but ultimately the more women are interested in STEM from an early age, the larger the pool that will likely stay in STEM throughout their career, and the less likely it is that they would drop out of STEM in the first place. Education is so important!
What was special about your time at Queen Mary? Can you give one or two examples of your most memorable moments?
I really appreciate the opportunity to have had a campus experience in my first year by living in Queen Mary’s halls accommodation. Especially talking to other friends who went to different universities in London, it was definitely a privilege to start my first year living in a new country and meeting completely new people by living at the Mile End campus. To this day, most if not all of my best friends are students I met in the first few months of living there, and we have kept a strong connection despite most of us going our separate ways. I also really enjoyed the brilliant initiatives that the Students’ Union led to improve the lives of students during their studies; some of my standouts include the simple yet effective poster sales that would happen on campus, eating at The Curve (or Mucci’s if we felt fancy) or simply those long nights spent at the library studying away, but always in good company.
Lastly, what advice would you give to a prospective student considering studying BSc astrophysics at Queen Mary?
Make the most out of your university experience! It really is a magical time that you will forever cherish. Take advantage of your new found independence, and don’t focus too much on what you should do once your degree comes to an end – Queen Mary has plenty of great resources for that, and the academics within the School of Physics and Astronomy (SPA) can always give you a hand either by giving you advice or offering to be a reference for a job application. I would highly encourage you to get involved in university life, perhaps by becoming a volunteer at the Students’ Union, or getting involved in the School of Physics and Astronomy’s very own PsiStar committee which organises great social opportunities for people in your cohort! If you can become an active member of these bodies and pick up people and organisational skills, all the better – this will help tremendously once you begin your career outside of university and employers will definitely notice.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Maria or engage her in your work, please contact Nicole at firstname.lastname@example.org.