I was encouraged to have a can-do attitude and to be creative and that is what engineering is about

Dr Rachel Tomlinson is a Mechanical Engineering undergraduate and PhD Alumna and also Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Rachel Tomlinson Wall of Women

Read our interview with Rachel:

What is your background and why did you choose engineering as a career path? 

I suppose you could say it’s in my blood! My dad was a Mechanical Engineer (who studied at the University of Sheffield, although that didn’t influence my decision to come here!) and my grandad had his own engineering business. He sold the business when I was quite young but I remember visiting and he had cats with kittens; I also remember his garage at home where he had a lathe and milling machine; he was very much into creating and inventing things and I suppose that was kind of an influence on me.

My dad was very practical so we never got anybody in to do anything around the house, he serviced the car and when I learnt to drive he wouldn’t let me borrow it until I learnt how to change the wheel. He didn’t tell me how to do it, I had to figure that out for myself. I was just encouraged to do things and make things. When I was a teenager I was heavily involved in dressmaking - which is basically engineering with fabric - so I never made anything with what you would call engineering materials and I was quite into art and creativity and making clothes for myself - I even made my own wedding dress.

Overall, I was encouraged to have a can-do attitude and to be creative and that is what engineering is about - being creative using maths.

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

Sheffield felt like a good place to be. The day I came for my visit I felt unwell, it was February and 1988 and it was wet and horrible. I got a bit lost from the station but when I arrived at the University everyone was friendly and the course was great. It was just the feel of the place. I liked the city; I didn't want to be on a campus university as it felt like it was an isolated place and not within a community. I liked the idea that the university was part of the town and community.

Rachel Tomlinson Wall of Women Mech

Why did you stay on after studying?

There were just so many opportunities at the university for me. Up until four years ago I hadn’t been based outside of the Mappin Building since 1988! First as a student and then staff member for the Department of Mechanical Engineering and although I have been here a long time I have done a lot of different things whilst I've been here.

In the summer after my first degree I got a research job finishing off some work I had been doing in my final year project. My PhD was sponsored by Airbus and the reason why I did it is because I did a final year project in the experimental mechanics labs here and I really got into the research and really liked doing the experiments and got so much out of learning by doing and the very applied engineering - I could see the point of it all and the reason behind the engineering.

I was supervised by Eann Patterson, who was also my undergraduate tutor; he was a big influence on my career because he was the person who told me about Airbus supporting PhD's and he encouraged me to take one on. He nurtured and mentored people. Everything I have done since is very applied and related to a particular company so I don't really feel like I've only worked for the University of Sheffield. I’ve worked for Pilkington and GKN and Rolls Royce. Currently I'm working with Solvay who make composites and I’m now back working with Airbus again.

What is your current role? 

I do both research and teaching. For research, it is in experimental stress analysis, fracture mechanics and strain measurements; so looking at how loads are transmitted through components. From a solid mechanics point of view I look at how  we load the component, how we want it to work, what kind of strain it is put under and looking at whether the material can withstand the strain. Understanding how things break so that we can make sure we have redundancy in the design.

Recently I've been doing some work on the forces that a needle applies to human tissue and we've made a gel that represents the human tissue that is transparent. It has a property called birefringence which, if you load it and look at it in polarised light, then you see lots of coloured fringes which are directly representative of the stresses and strains. So, we've been sticking needles in this new gel we have developed and we can see how the load is transmitted through the needle into the tissue. We've got some really nice results and this is something that I teach to our 4th years too.

For teaching also I teach a 3rd year structural integrity course. It's a compulsory module for our 3rd years in the first semester where we look at fatigue and fracture mechanics and different loads and non destructive testing.

Women in Engineering - what is your experience?

I still work part time and I was the first female lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at Sheffield. I’d done three and a half years of postdoc work and I was pregnant with my daughter when this job came up. Not only were they taking on a woman, they were taking on a woman and all the maternity leave stuff which they'd never had to deal with from an academic before.

Rachel Tomlinson Wall of Women Grad

When I did my A Levels there were only two girls in my maths class; four girls in our physics class; and then when I got to Sheffield only eight girls on our course. I kind of got used to it - the other day I was in a meeting with four female academics and one male academic which I found really weird. I now notice if I'm the only woman in the room as normally I’m not - for years I was the only woman in the room.

I have seen a lot of change over the years. The university and the department has changed its culture and I believe that our department has the highest statistic for female academics for a mechanical engineering department in the country. We have a good culture now but we still need to push it. I've done a lot of pushing in my time and the next thing I’m passionate about is menopausal awareness.

What has been the highlight of your engineering journey so far?

The diversity of the things I've been able to do. I've had a lot of opportunities to travel and give presentations and I was particularly happy when I was invited recently to give a keynote speech at the lsraeli Structural Integrity Group Symposium at Tel Aviv University. It was an opportunity I wouldn't have had if I wasn't in the job I am in.

Another highlight would be when I applied to be a Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and they actually gave me a Fellowship. Normally you have to become a Member first so I was quite pleased with that and they thought I was good enough.

When I got my PhD, Keith Miller was a mentor for me and he once said that I should say yes to things and, whilst I haven't said yes to absolutely everything, this advice has stayed with me and I’ve enjoyed cultivating relationships. There are other little things that have been highlights like when students ‘get it’ but essentially I love what I do.

What’s the best thing about being an engineer?

The diversity of it all. I’ve been fortunate to work in one of the best experimental mechanics labs in the world and I have had the opportunity to work with lots of different people in different industries and I think that's what I enjoy the most. 

One of the best, and most unusual, jobs I was involved with was for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. They were designing a set and wanted to make a chandelier out of beer glasses hanging over a bar in the middle of the stage. They wanted this beer centerpiece but were having trouble drilling and stringing them together so they looked up ‘stresses in glass’ on Google and got me.

I worked with their set designers and explained how the stresses were formed in the glass, how they could test, the best way to drill and where to drill. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if I hadn’t worked for the university.

We interviewed Rachel in 2019.

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