What is it like being a chemical engineer in Parliament? – Interview with Erin Johnson, Ashok Kumar Fellow 2017

On 20 January 2017, we announced that chemical engineering postgraduate student Erin Johnson had been awarded the Ashok Kumar Fellowship 2017.

The annual Fellowship, which is jointly supported by IChemE and the North-East England Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC), provides one chemical engineer with the opportunity to work the UK Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) for three months.

During Erin’s time at POST she researched and spoke to experts from academia, industry, government and the third sector, about the fire safety of building materials. Her research culminated in a briefing note (known as a POSTnote) to support MPs and peers in making evidence-based policy decisions on the subject.

Erin’s POSTnote, The Fire Safety of Construction Products, was published last month. Since then, she has gone on to discuss her findings with Dame Judith Hackitt during a special meeting in London, organised by IChemE. Hackitt led the independent review of the UK’s building regulations and fire safety, following London’s Grenfell tower fire in June 2017. Her report was also published last month.

It’s been a busy few months for Erin, but we were able to catch-up with her earlier this week to talk about her experience. Read more to find out what it’s like being a chemical engineer working in Parliament.

Name: Erin Johnson

Education: Postgraduate chemical engineering student at Imperial College London, UK

Job Title: PhD candidate

 

 

 

In less than 25 words, what is your POSTnote about?

It explains how the fire safety of construction products are regulated and how products are tested and classified for use in residential buildings.

What is it like working with Parliamentarians as an early career chemical engineer?

I had the opportunity to understand some of the challenges parliamentarians face. They are overloaded with information about every kind of topic. The real challenge in POST is to convey complex, technical issues in a way that is accurate and engaging.

How did you apply your experience in chemical engineering to this research?

Previous experience writing Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) contracts at National Grid allowed me to see the similarities in the roles and responsibilities for residential building contracts between the client, contractor and other parties. Working on the design, construction and operation of process plant at National Grid Grain LNG (liquefied natural gas) importation terminal in Rochester, Kent, I learned how to assess and manage risk. As chemical engineers, we are used to managing major hazards in a very analytical and systematic way, from HAZOPs at design stage to risk assessments before executing a permit onsite. I think that the building industries could be improved by embedding risk-based approaches particularly regarding the operating life of the building.

What are your top three takeaways from the Ashok Kumar Fellowship?

1 – I had the pleasure of interviewing experts across academia and industry, who generously gave their time to explain the key concepts and issues outlined in the briefing. There are many knowledgeable and passionate people who are making strides to improve regulations, industry practice and technology.

2 – I have definitely developed my editing skills! As I mentioned, parliamentarians suffer permanent information overload, so it is critical to convey information clearly and briefly, covering only the most salient points accurately and in a balanced way. This was a real challenge for me but has made me a better writer.

3 – I’ve learned that the way fire safety of buildings and building products are regulated is complex. There are endless combinations of products and building designs; the quality of installation and maintenance can vary widely in practice; and it can be difficult for installers to understand if the product they are using is the right specification. I think there are many different challenges that need to be addressed to improve safety across the board, but there probably aren’t any easy fixes.

For her research, Erin Johnson spoke to Professor Guillermo Rein, Professor of Fire Science at Imperial College London

Why do you think experiencing life inside Parliament is valuable?

I learnt a lot about how things work in parliament, and how we, as scientists and engineers, can be part of the conversation and contribute to help policymakers make better evidence-based policy. You can find out more about how academic research is used in parliament here.

You met with Dame Judith Hackitt to discuss each other’s reports on building regulations and fire safety. What’s your view on the fire safety of building materials in UK, following the Grenfell tower fire?

There’s a lot of impetus in industry to make improvements, and Dame Judith Hackitt’s report recommends a radical overhaul to futureproof the system of regulating buildings. I’m optimistic that this overhaul will take place in full in a timely manner and save lives.

Judith Hackitt has highlighted how building regulations can be improved by using risk-based approaches and the need for systems-thinking; two things we take for granted in the process industries. I think chemical engineers could do a lot of good by translating these ways of thinking to work in other industries, such as the residential building industry that also deal with hazards and complex systems.

I’m lucky to have had this chance to meet Judith Hackitt who is a role model for me and a lot of my peers. We discussed how to overcome some of the challenges women in engineering face and how to make an impact. She is a true inspiration – making a real difference and making the world a safer place.

What role can  professional chemical engineers play in ensuring we have safer buildings to live and work in, and preventing tragedies, such as Grenfell and Piper Alpha?

One positive that can be taken away from such awful tragedies is to learn from them and prevent anything similar from happening again.

The Piper Alpha tragedy will be remembered by chemical engineers for generations. I will never forget the lecture I sat in 10 years ago as an undergraduate, where Professor Stephen Richardson accounted the harrowing events that occurred on Piper Alpha and his experiences as an expert witness for the Cullen inquiry. Its influence is still clear in how we approach process safety today.

I think the Grenfell tower tragedy will be remembered similarly as something that can never be allowed to happen again, and as the trigger for major improvements in building safety which will save many more lives in years to come.

We’ve just marked International Women in Engineering Day (INWED18) with this year’s theme #RaisingTheBar. How do you feel female chemical engineers are raising the bar?

I give thanks to the women before me who have fought to be accepted as engineers and challenged the preconception of who an engineer is. The people choosing to become engineers are increasingly diverse, and so we are hearing new perspectives, leading to greater and faster innovation. I’ve seen the effects of encouraging Women in STEM, diversity and inclusion first-hand at Imperial College London’s chemical engineering department where all types of engineers are ‘Raising The Bar’ working together to overcome the challenges of the 21st century – from biomedical advances to clean energy in developing countries.


Find out more on the Ashok Kumar Fellowship online: www.icheme.org/ashok.

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