Alumni profile - Nada Issa
I am proud to be an engineer. I enjoyed studying engineering and I love working in the industry; I get a real sense of fulfillment from designing buildings that have a positive impact on both people’s lives and on the environment.
Why did you study Mechanical Engineering with Industrial Experience at Queen Mary? Did you have a particular career path in mind?
I had always wanted to be an engineer and I secured my place at Queen Mary via clearing. If I could go back in time, then I would put Queen Mary as my first choice on my UCAS application because I had such a positive and meaningful experience which still stays with me to this day.
What did you enjoy most about studying Mechanical Engineering with Industrial Experience?
The range of modules and the general course structure. Core modules such as fluid dynamics and thermo dynamics were my favourite modules and they have ultimately informed my career journey and the areas that I have chosen to specialise in. As a Building Services Engineer I mainly design heating and cooling ventilation systems, both of which revolve around fluid dynamics and thermal dynamics, and the exchange of heat and the movement of fluids around buildings - all of which I was taught at Queen Mary. I also loved the freedom that I was granted in my third and fourth year to choose which modules I studied as I was able to choose modules which would allow me to pursue my chosen career after graduation.
Were there any academics that had a strong influence on shaping your time and studies here?
Dr. Jens-Dominik Mueller is one academic who springs to mind. He taught fluid dynamics and his style of teaching was so engaging; in my current role, I remember certain elements that he taught so clearly because of how well they were explained at the time. I missed the first week of lectures due to an injury and I remember feeling so lost and nervous, but this changed as soon as I attended one of his lectures. He broke down concepts so that they were easily digestible and so that all students could acquire the same level of knowledge needed to start the course. Another lecturer I really liked and who had a positive impact on my studies was Professor Henri Huijberts. He was so involved in the running of the course and his door was always open if anyone had any issues outside of class. He is one of the lecturers that me and my friends talk about when we recommend Queen Mary to prospective students.
Overall, I found the staff network within SEMS very supportive and the School itself offered lots of opportunities; students could work with facilitators of the course to make it better and they could get involved with a SEMS specific mentoring scheme. I found it really reassuring to speak to students in older years who had studied the same modules as me and I am still in contact with two of my mentors today.
It can be hard to visualise working life with an Engineering degree because the degree itself is quite scientific and theoretic, however, my year in industry at Gatwick Airport helped to put my knowledge into practice in a real-life working environment.
Where did you do the industrial experience portion of your degree? How did this more practical, hands on approach to learning compliment your academic studies?
When I first joined Queen Mary, I was on the 3-year BEng course but after seeking advice from both Careers and the SEMS office, I opted for a year in industry seeing as I had no previous work experience. I managed to get an internship at Gatwick, and I found this experience really enlightening. It can be hard to visualise working life with an Engineering degree because the degree itself is quite scientific and theoretic, however, my year in industry helped to put my knowledge into practice in a real-life working environment. I worked in the department that looks after the buildings and assets that the airport owns. Everyone I worked with was twice my age and I initially found it hard to integrate; it took time for my colleagues to dumb down their explanations to a level that I could understand but I was comforted by the fact that I had a year to learn and develop. It was a steep learning curve, but I really did grow. I had to do a lot of presentations to senior members at the airport and this boosted my confidence and helped me to articulate my knowledge and ideas so that they could be understood by both engineers and non-engineers alike.
When I returned to my studies after my year in industry, I returned with a new focus and drive as I knew what kind of industry I wanted to go into. I managed my time better, and I threw myself into the social side of university in order to meet people outside of my course because my internship had taught me the value of people relations and the value of networks. I volunteered to be the President of the Engineering Society, I volunteered with the Arab society, I got more involved with the SEMS department, and I started presenting to other students about the benefits of taking a year out. I would recommend that students reading this throw themselves into these extracurricular activities in order to gain soft skills, meet new people and to avoid being overwhelmed by their studies.
Can you describe your career path up to date and touch on your current role as a Building Services Engineer at Cundall?
Once I graduated, having worked for the client side of engineering during my internship at Gatwick, I decided to do a U-turn and work for a company that installs engineering systems in buildings. I got accepted onto a graduate scheme for a mechanical and electrical services subcontractor called Imtech. I gained exposure to different departments and I was then placed on a project for six months where I did more of a project engineer role. This helped me to understand the process behind how a design on a piece of paper is transformed into something tangible and functional to the client. I then decided that I needed to bridge the gap in my existing knowledge by working as a designer; I needed to be the person who looks at a building as an empty canvas and designs the systems that suit the purpose of the building. I have been doing this for the past 4.5 years. I now work for Cundall, a multi-disciplinary engineering consultancy which covers the entire life cycle of any building project. I have had the opportunity to work on some massive projects like Battersea Power Station phase 2, residential and smaller commercial properties. It has been interesting to see the different demands different buildings have, and the different aspirations of clients and how we as designers can make these aspirations a reality.
How did your degree prepare you for your current job role?
I use the knowledge that I gained from my modules in fluid and thermal dynamics every day. Typically, some of the things that I didn’t pay as close attention to in lectures, such as pump curves, are what I encounter in almost every project that I do now! One of the biggest soft skills that my degree has given me is teamwork. I found it daunting when we were assigned to random groups to work on projects throughout my degree, but I continuously encounter teamwork in my current role, and this has also been the case at previous workplaces. My degree has allowed me to appreciate the value and importance of forging working relationships with people in order to achieve a common goal.
I have had the opportunity to work on some massive projects like Battersea Power Station phase 2, residential and smaller commercial properties. It has been interesting to see the different demands different buildings have, and the different aspirations of clients and how we as designers can make these aspirations a reality.
Huge congratulations on being recognised in the Top 50 Women in Engineering under-35 list in 2017. Why would you encourage more women to study engineering at university and to pursue a career in the engineering industry?
On a personal level I am proud to be an engineer. I enjoyed studying engineering and I love working in the industry; I get a real sense of fulfillment from designing buildings that have a positive impact on both people’s lives and on the environment. Engineering is a field that is always evolving as there are always different uses for the same materials and this in turn allows you to constantly grow as a person and to expand on your existing knowledge.
I would recommend engineering as a field that is female friendly even though it might not appear this way from the outside. The percentage of females within the Engineering sector is probably around 15%, which is very low. This makes it even harder for women to get into executive roles because there is not many of us to start off with. We need more role models at top company levels and unless we increase the intake of females studying engineering or pursuing a career in the industry, then we are never going to see the positive change that the industry needs. We need more women because diversity of thought, perspective and life experiences opens up new ways of working and development. If the industry remains male dominated then we will continue to see reoccurring designs and ways of working, whereas if we have men and women collaborating and bouncing off one another, it will lead to innovation. This diversity is especially important seeing as the products and the designs that engineers produce are ultimately meant for a range of different people from different backgrounds. The industry currently suffers from skills shortages and these spaces need to be filled by both female and male engineers. If there is greater gender equality, this will then change the perception of how engineering is seen on the outskirts.
It is worth saying that although women are a minority in the engineering industry, over the years I have had the privilege of meeting female engineers who are in higher positions than I am and who have been working in the industry for longer. These women have always been supportive and open when I have been considering changing specialisms or companies, or if I have experienced any difficulties. A lot of the time I have been told something I wasn’t aware of or these women have helped me view a difficulty as an opportunity instead.
Given this gender disparity, have you faced any discrimination based on your gender in the workplace? Or any other challenges in the workplace?
I’ve never faced any gender-based discrimination whilst working in the engineering industry and this has been the case in office-based environments and on site. The males that I have worked with have always been very respectful of my physical capabilities and have given me plenty of opportunities to try new things. Based on my own experiences, I would say that there is certainly scope for women to achieve what they want and to excel in the sector, just like in any other sector.
In terms of other challenges, one challenge that I face occasionally is a lack of a permanent prayer space in offices and sites. In terms of resolving this challenge, I usually have an honest and open conversation with the site manager who then looks to find a suitable solution. I have found that whenever I have had an issue in the workplace, it always helps to talk to someone.
What are your future aspirations in terms of your career?
I want to do so many different things which is a testament to the vast opportunities that the industry offers. Primarily, I either want to build on my existing experience in project management and be more of a project lead in a client facing role, or I want to dive deeper into research and development and design custom made systems which are then tested and rolled out to market.
If the industry remains male dominated then we will continue to see reoccurring designs and ways of working, whereas if we have men and women collaborating and bouncing off one another, it will lead to innovation. This diversity is especially important seeing as the products and the designs that engineers produce are ultimately meant for a range of different people from different backgrounds.
Lastly, what was special about your time at Queen Mary?
One thing I really liked was being given the opportunity to become a STEM ambassador; I enjoyed being involved in the summer school that SEMS used to run where we’d get students from secondary schools to come in and we’d perform different experiments. It felt good to spark their passion and enthusiasm for engineering and to potentially influence their decision to study engineering at university level.
I also really enjoyed the Industrial Liaison Forum which allowed SEMS students to meet professionals from external companies. For my fourth-year project, my group and I built a solar-powered quadcopter and we managed to get it to fly – for one time only!! - at this forum. It was a life defining moment for me and my colleagues and I still remember how happy we were that day.
Overall, the five years that I spent at Queen Mary have greatly influenced and shaped the person that I am today. I will always reflect on my time at Queen Mary with fondness.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Nada or engage her in your work, please contact Nicole at firstname.lastname@example.org.