Q&A – Dr Nan Li

Materials World magazine
1 May 2018

Kathryn Allen talks to Dr Nan Li, Lecturer at the Dyson School of Design Engineering, Imperial College London, UK, about her career to date and the importance of mentoring. 

Tell me about your background and career to date. 

I am originally from China and moved to the UK to pursue my PhD studies at Imperial in 2009. Before that, I did my BEng in Mechanical Engineering and MSc in Automotive Engineering at Tongji University, Shanghai. During my MSc studies, I had a two-year internship at the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC Motors), the largest automotive company in China, where my masters project and thesis were conducted. After completing my PhD, I worked as a Research Assistant and subsequently a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the Metal-forming and Materials Modelling Group in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College. I joined the Dyson School of Design Engineering in 2017.

What does your current role involve? 

As a lecturer, my role involves a number of diverse jobs, including undergraduate teaching, research projects and PhD supervision, administration – including health and safety, recruitment, and undergraduate industrial placements – and personal tutoring of students.

What has been your biggest career highlight?  

I think the highlight is my appointment as a lecturer at Imperial – this might be the most difficult step and a fundamental milestone in one’s career in academia. As a post-doctoral researcher, I often found it difficult to freely explore new and interesting research ideas because I spent most of my time working under contract for specific projects. Now, as an independent academic, I’m excited to be able to establish my own research team and pursue new opportunities by applying for grants and recruiting promising PhD and post-doctoral candidates. I’m hoping this will allow me to bring innovative technologies to industry and become a leading expert in my field.

You were named one of The Daily Telegraph’s Top 50 Women in Engineering in June 2017 – what did this mean to you? 

I believe these awards are quite societally impactful, in terms of raising awareness of the skills shortage facing the industry and the huge discrepancy between the numbers of men compared to women in engineering professions. They draw attention to the need to increase diversity in the engineering sector, and stimulate positive actions on education, training, and business and career support for promoting female engineers. 

At Imperial, we have celebrated International Women in Engineering Day in previous years, and endeavour to increase the proportion of female engineers. At my current department, our undergraduate recruitment achieves almost a 1:1 ratio between women and men. The talent that we educate today will contribute to the UK’s industrial competitiveness tomorrow.

You have mentored female students – in what capacity was this and what made you get involved? 

I have mentored a number of female students when I acted as their MEng or MSc final project supervisor. There are not many females working in the metal forming field and I could empathise greatly with them. Accordingly, I tried my best to share experience, provide guidance, and inspire ideas in various aspects such as future career planning and pursuing further studies, in addition to project supervision. Now, as a lecturer, I have nine undergraduates as my personal tutees and five of them are female.

What should a mentee look for in a mentor? 

In my view, the ideal case is that a mentor should be looked upon as a role model, so that the mentee can be inspired and motivated to follow their footpath. In general, I feel there are some core qualities to look for, including generosity of spirit, honesty, empathy, and experience or expertise. For research professions, inspiration and curiosity are also important.

How can a mentee get the most out of their mentor? 

The first thing is trust. I think it is essential for a mentee to be open, honest, and build rapport with their mentor. Another important aspect is that a mentee should know which areas they need support in and can communicate these needs clearly. Also, a mentor is normally motivated to support more if a mentee is proactive and responsive to advice and constructive criticism.

When do you think someone can transfer from a mentee to a mentor role? 

From my personal perspective, as long as a person has the core qualities of generosity of spirit, honesty, and empathy, they can transfer at different stages. The experience or expertise is a relative concept. For example, I am a mentor to students, while as a young lecturer, I am a mentee to my academic mentor. Of course, some training would be helpful before acting in such a capacity. At Imperial, we have compulsory courses on personal tutoring and supervising postgraduate students for all new lecturers.

What do you have planned for the future? 

As a research scientist, I wish to deliver impactful research in the area of lightweight manufacturing and design for vehicles. My immediate plans are to carry on developing new forming technologies that are efficient in terms of energy, time and cost, for manufacturing lightweight structural panels, as well as a new direction in design for manufacturing through advanced materials modelling. In addition, as a lecturer, I wish to contribute to the education and mentoring of an excellent new generation of engineers.