Kirsty Mitchell - Heriot Watt University
"Chemistry is all around us and chemical engineers do a lot of things. Just this week we’ve discovered water on the moon. Discoveries like that get me excited and proud to be an engineer because that wouldn’t have been achieved without engineers," says Kirsty Mitchell, fourth year chemical engineering student at Heriot-Watt University.
Kirsty’s love of both science and space started while still in school. Her favourite science has always been chemistry and after taking part in a few school science events she realised, "I could take my chemistry and apply it in real world situations – that sounded like something I’d really enjoy."
It was attending one such science event, a week-long space school for fifth years run by Strathclyde University, that Kirsty got her first real exposure into the space industry. While there, she was one of just 10 lucky students selected to spend a week in Houston, USA, to visit mission control.
In Houston Kirsty met and heard from all kinds of inspiring people, including astronauts, but the person who stood out for Kirsty was a female engineer. "At the time she was working on space suit design, but she’d had five different engineering roles at NASA. She was just so interesting, so inspiring."
That trip ignited Kirsty’s passion for both engineering and space. "If someone asked me: ‘Do you want to come and work at NASA?’ Without hesitation I’d say yes and move to America to do it."
But Kirsty knows securing a career in the space industry is a long shot. "The great thing about chemical engineering is there is such a wide range of things I can do with my degree."
With graduation not until the summer of 2022, Kirsty’s not closed off any career avenues and continues to be fascinated as she learns more about the breadth of chemical engineering applications.
She talks excitedly about her interest in renewables and of being surprised by how much she’s enjoyed this year’s university design project... producing hair conditioner. "That’s been way more interesting than I initially thought it would be and I can absolutely see how a chemical engineer would fit into that type of role," says Kirsty.
Whatever direction Kirsty’s career eventually takes, the one thing she knows to be true is that she’s going to need more than the technical skills she’s learning at university to secure a job she loves.
"This year I start applying for internships, meeting employers and having interviews. Presenting myself to industry professionals, being able to put my point across in an impactful way, and feeling calm and confident while doing it, are critical skills. Skills that beyond a superficial nod to ‘smile and make eye contact’ just aren’t taught in the classroom."
That’s why Kirsty was keen to attend the Make Your Mark with Susan Room® student summer school.
"The President of our Watt-Women in STEM society, Emily Mason, told us about how she’d done Susan’s programme as part of her internship with Baillie Gifford. She found it so valuable that she set up a fundraiser for three more Watt-Women to attend Susan’s student summer school. I was one of them."
Despite Emily’s glowing recommendation and being keen to master the skills needed to transition into her career, Kirsty admits she still felt nervous about joining the programme. But, having now done it, she says, "I loved it". So much so, she’s become a Make Your Mark Ambassador to help spread the word.
"Having the skills and mechanisms to make you as effective as possible is so important - there are so many students who would benefit from this learning. Every time a session with Susan finished, I’d be bursting to share what I’d learned with my flat mates, my friends, really anybody who wanted to listen."
Kirsty believes Susan’s programme is invaluable wherever you are in your career.
The timing is exceptionally helpful for students though, who face a lot of different stresses and are giving their first, yet career-defining, interviews and presentations.
"I was a bad public speaker before doing Susan’s programme. I was scared, I would get nervous, and rush through what I had to say. But now I feel I have the confidence to do it properly. I have a presentation coming up. It’s a big deal, I’ll present to my lecturer and a few industry professionals. And, for the first time, I’m not dreading it. It sounds odd but I can’t wait to give it. Knowing that I’ll be calm and confident, that I have a toolkit to help me, I’m excited by the opportunity to use these new skills."
What made the programme so valuable to Kirsty was how Susan structured each session. "There were about 10 of us in the group and we’d learn something and then share our reflections on it. It was that back and forth, the discussion, that was the programme’s most important element for me. Hearing from the group helped me realise that others have the same problems as me, it’s comforting to hear that. Then, their sharing how they deal with them, that’s also incredibly valuable learning."
Kirsty offers the following by way of example. "I’m a high achiever so I’ve battled my inner critic for a while, even though I had absolutely no idea what it was before attending Susan’s programme. For years mine’s done two things to cause me stress. It’s kept me future thinking by telling me I must get the best grades, the best university place, the best job. At the same time, it also rakes through my past, telling me I’m not doing as much as I was - that I should be doing more. I was constantly thinking about what’s next or what’s been, rather than focusing on what’s now. It’s an enormous relief just to know it’s a thing, to hear from others that they too experience it, that it’s even got a name! We shared and learned tools to handle it and I have already put them into practice. Now I realise I don’t need to do 101 things at once."
Sharing these types of tools and learning with as many students as possible can’t come soon enough for Kirsty.
"Coronavirus has made this a particularly weird and stressful time to be at university and graduating into the workplace. My inner critic has been going wild so I can’t imagine how I’d be feeling right now if I didn’t have these coping mechanisms. This programme has so much to offer students. I want others to experience its benefits too because I certainly feel much calmer and more prepared since meeting Susan."
Kirsty Mitchell is in her fourth of a five-year masters studying chemical engineering at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. She attended the Make Your Mark with Susan Room® for students summer school in 2020. On the back of her fantastic experiences, she’s become an ambassador to help spread awareness about the programme and pass on her learning.