The best thing about engineering is getting to discover & apply knowledge, and collaborating with others, to solve global problems that really matter

Amber Keegan2
Amber Keegan
Postgraduate Researcher in Chemical & Biological Engineering
Graduate Teaching Assistant
Amber Keegan is both a Postgraduate Researcher in the Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering & a Graduate Teaching Assistant and she juggles her engineering studies with a very successful swimming career.

Read: Our interview with Amber

Amber Keegan

Why did you want to be an engineer?

There wasn’t a particular person that influenced me, although I later realised that I had made my Granddad very proud, as he was an RAF Engineer! I did some engineering work experience when at school, and I didn’t really enjoy it actually. I’m glad I didn’t let that put me off! I decided on engineering when looking around different universities and courses and I loved the knowledge and problem solving of the sciences but liked the idea of applying them to solve larger scale real world problems.

Why did you choose to study at the University of Sheffield?

I came to Sheffield because it is a world-renowned university and also the home of the best swimming distance programme for me in the country. It allowed me to chase my sporting and academic dreams simultaneously. Sheffield instantly felt like home - people are friendly, the city is vibrant, busy and beautiful! There are so many parks and woodlands within the city limits, and the Peak District on our doorstep yet it also has all the amenities and events of a city its size.

Can you tell us a little bit about your PhD?

I’m researching in the Green Nanomaterials Research Group under Professor Siddharth Patwardhan. I’m investigating what the formation pathway of bio-inspired silica is. Silica is the world’s most mass-produced nanomaterial and it’s used in everything from tyre filler to pollutant removal. The bio-inspired process silica is a much more sustainable way of producing silica than the current routes. However, we don’t really know what’s going on at these early stages. If I can work out this pathway then it reduces the cost of producing high value silica (both in money and to the planet), and allows us to control its properties for different applications.

You are involved in a lot of extra-curricular activities, most notably swimming for Great Britain, can you tell us a little bit more about that and how important that is to you?

Swimming is a pretty big part of my life. I’ve done a few internationals, most notable of those is probably my European Junior silver medal in the 400 Individual Medley.

I love swimming, it’s what I do for fun, it’s my outlet and my closest teammates are like family and it’s taken me all over the world! But also, I take it seriously. My ambitions are to swim at a World/Olympic/Commonwealth Games and balancing that around engineering is just about being organised and it demands a lot of the same skills as engineering really – organisation, time management and problem solving!

Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement with This Girl Can and your STEM outreach activities?

There’s a lot of overlap between my STEM and This Girl Can outreach – both revolve around removing barriers to involvement, particularly for women and girls.

Sport is such a powerful force, it’s fun, it’s an escape, it can offer a sense of community. Sadly, the truth is that a lot of girls don’t have a positive school P.E. experience. University offers an amazing chance to find what you do enjoy, with actual showers afterwards, no uncomfortable P.E. kits or fear of judgement! The University’s Sports Committee work so hard to make it a more inclusive place and organising important events like This Girl Can events so it’s been an honour to speak at them.

My STEM outreach activities are some of the most rewarding work I’ve done. My favourite events are the Girls in Engineering Outreach events. I love showing girls that you don’t have to be a white, male, and that we don’t have dull jobs – we capture carbon, create new processes, make fuel, biscuits, make-up, medicines and more! It’s so fulfilling when you get kids at the beginning of the day adamant that university and engineering aren’t for them, but by the end they’re considering it. I think it’s SO important that people aren’t put off by preconceptions they have about what they think an engineer/student looks like.

Amber Keegan Credit Picture GB Swimstars
Picture credit: GB Swimstars

What’s been the highlight of your engineering journey so far?

Wow, this is a difficult one! The people I’ve met have got to be part of it – I’ve found so many wonderful friends and inspiring colleagues! Graduation, and celebrating with my friends at the end of our degrees, was a definite highlight. Professionally, being able to use the skills I’ve picked up in my degree on to real world issues is still astoundingly cool to me. From working at Npower, where I helped to set up the Npower foundation charity, to understanding the brewing process to my current research.

What are your ambitions for the future?

I’m still trying to nail this one down a little, actually! My sporting dreams are easy – I had hoped to swim at the Olympics (but we’ll see… covid limitations have been felt disproportionally amongst different clubs) but next year will be the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, so that’s something to aim for! As for my engineering career, I just want to continue to do work that I am passionate about and feel like I’m making difference in the world. I enjoy academia but would like to spend more time working in industry too. Whichever path I choose, I want to carry on doing outreach in my spare time because I think it is so important!

What’s the best thing about being an engineer?

For me, it’s getting to discover and apply knowledge, and collaborating with others, to solve global problems that really matter!

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