Women in Tech: Alice Collins

Project Engineer at Recycling Technologies, Alice Collins, discusses her career as a woman in the tech industry

What does your job involve?

As Technology Development Manager, the main part of my role is to identify the areas that require further Research and Development [R&D], and ensure that this is undertaken either internally, or through partnerships with academia. I then follow up on the findings from that research and see how it affects our business strategy in the long run. In addition to this, I am involved with ensuring the Intellectual Property of the company is safeguarded, as well as any other projects that may fall under my remit without being directly related to R&D. These days, a substantial part of my time is committed managing one of seven global projects with the New Plastics Economy (NPEC), the objective of which is to design a facility that can reprocess >90% of plastics. The NPEC involves companies like Borealis, Unilever, Coca-Cola, as well as academics, philanthropists, policymakers and citizens with the common goal of catalysing a circular economy for the plastics industry.

What’s your favourite part of the role?

I thoroughly enjoy the diversity that this role offers. It’s a very well-rounded role which requires soft skills like people and project management, as well as technical understanding and analytics that rely on knowledge I acquired at university and on the job. In addition to this, I’ve been introduced to other fields of work that I was not familiar with, such as Intellectual Property [IP] and patenting. This constant stimulation means I’m constantly challenged, as I never fall into a routine of repetitive tasks. 

What is the most challenging part of the role?

The work-load is challenging! Working on such a variety of projects is a juggling act. This said, I am lucky to work in a very supportive environment, where hard work is recognised and with careful planning, it is manageable. 

The most frustrating part of my job is getting my hands on the data I need to keep up with the pace of projects. I find myself grappling with gathering information to feed the projects’ ongoing analysis, whilst keeping all parties involved in the projects on track. This requires tenacity and creativity to approach the problems in an alternative way so that they can be solved in the given time-frame.

What education options did you choose to get your role?

Growing up in France and educated through the French schooling system, I opted for the ‘Scientific’ option (‘Baccalauréat Scientifique’) which put greater emphasis on physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics through the curriculum and weighted grading system in the final exams. From there I went on to study Chemical Engineering at the University of Cambridge, where I graduated with a MEng in 2014. With this in hand, having seen an advert in The Chemical Engineer [TCE] Magazine promoting the work that Recycling Technologies does, I contacted them seeking to join the team. 

What inspired you to do what you do?

I want to use my background to make a difference to the world I live in. I strongly believe in the cause that Recycling Technologies is committed to, namely, combating plastic pollution. The figures are alarming, and knowing that if we don’t act now, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish has really spurred on my dedication to help solve the problem of plastic pollution. Having a degree in Chemical Engineering gives me the opportunity to get involved with solving this issue on a very granular level, which I find rewarding. 

When you were considering your options who influenced you?  Were there any barriers to STEM in education?

When I was finishing high school, I wasn’t really sure which path to take. I knew I enjoyed Sciences, but I also liked studying Languages and there wasn’t a clear cut as to which option would be better suited to me in the long run. The only thing I knew for sure is that I wanted to have a varied and meaningful career. My aunt, who is an engineer, suggested I apply to read engineering at University- a decision I have not regretted. The course was challenging and interesting, and graduating with a STEM degree opens up so many doors! I also got to carry on studying languages as an extra to the course, thus fulfilling that interest. I didn’t particularly feel like there were barriers to STEM in education, as my class in high school had an even gender balance and strong commitment to STEM subjects. 

What would you say to girls considering their education options?

Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid of STEM subjects! I would also suggest STEM subjects to those who are unsure of what career path they would like to take further down the line. A STEM degree offers many options in the long run, leading on to an interesting and varied career.

What might put them off a STEM career?  And how can these barriers be overcome?

I think the lack of clarity on the nature and variety of STEM careers acts as a barrier to generating interest from women who have not been exposed to STEM industries. For example, a degree in Chemical Engineering can lead on to technical roles in the fields of oil and gas, medical research, cosmetics, the food industry, to name but a few; but you can also apply the analytical skills in the world of Finance, or study on to become a Patent Lawyer. The opportunities are endless. 

Additionally, lack of self-confidence in their ability to do well at STEM subjects could also be to blame. A study published in the journal Science suggests that by the age of 6, girls are less-confident of their intellectual ability than boys. This finding has been attributed to environmental factors, such as gender stereotypes and a lack of exposure to women in male-dominated careers. I believe we need to promote female role models for young girls in order to normalise fields of work that are currently viewed as unconventional for women. 

What needs to change to retain more women in STEM careers?

Carrying on promoting aspirational women in STEM careers could contribute to retaining more women in this line of work, as this showcases that opportunities do exist and should be taken advantage of.

There should also be more understanding and flexibility from the viewpoint of employers regarding the incorporation of family life into one’s career plan. Flexible working hours and a contribution to child-care could help partners organise their respective work-loads so that one party doesn’t need to step back from their career in order to sustain a family life. 

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