Q&A – Laura Jones

Materials World magazine
1 Sep 2018

Kathryn Allen talks to Laura Jones CEng CEnv FIMMM about her career and chartership.

Tell me about your educational background and career. 

I was educated through the state school system, taking A-levels in pure and applied mathematics, chemistry, and physics. I always wanted to work in science or engineering and was planning to study chemistry, but really wanted to pursue a topic that included my enjoyment of physics and engineering too. 

I studied a Bachelor of Engineering sandwich course in Materials Technology at the University of Surrey, UK. For me, an important part of my degree was a year’s industrial experience, during which I worked for Kobe Steel Europe Ltd, focusing on the growth and characterisation of synthetic diamond. After graduating with a 2:1 honours degree, I knew I wanted to work in industrial R&D. 

I worked for GEC-Marconi Materials Technology, UK, developing technologies such as acoustic transducers for 3D medical ultrasound, microelectromechanical systems for devices such as accelerometers and gyroscopes, and synthetic diamond coatings for wear-resistant and electronic applications. 

I then joined the UK’s Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, which became QinetiQ. My work there was extremely varied, covering many aspects of smart and functional materials and their uses in both defence and civilian applications. In 2005, while at QinetiQ, I qualified as a Chartered Engineer (CEng) – at the time, an accredited Bachelor’s degree was a sufficient minimum qualification to apply for chartership via the standard route. 

After taking redundancy from QinetiQ I worked as a contractor for IOM3, supporting the Knowledge Transfer Network. I then joined the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) – an agency of the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) – in 2008, working on research programmes supporting defence and security applications. I returned to university to undertake a part-time Master of Philosophy degree at the University of Southampton, UK, on the high-strain rate properties of functional materials. At the time, I was working full time and had two small children – I look back now and wonder how I managed it.

What does your day-to-day job currently involve?

I am currently an advisor for a UK government-funded materials research programme. My role is to ensure that the innovative research funded by the taxpayer is directly relevant to the user need, is exploitable, and supports the UK prosperity agenda. No two days are the same. I could be writing competition documents, talking to our military customers about their needs and translating that into scientific requirements, reviewing proposals, visiting suppliers to help steer R&D, or representing the UK in international collaborative research. 

From an engineering perspective, I’m interested in how we can drive innovation from concept to representative prototypes for evaluation, and how we enable technologies to be retrofitted in future. From an environmental perspective, my focus is on how we can drive down the use of environmentally harmful substances and reduce our reliance on finite resources. 

What has been the highlight of your career? 

It’s hard to pick a single highlight. The aspect that gives me the biggest buzz is when I’ve started with a challenge and been able to turn that into R&D activity that has delivered something important. This could involve standing up new teams, bringing disparate disciplines together, and establishing new approaches to solve the problem. When working in industry, my CEng case study was focused on this aspect, to support the development of a tactile feedback aid for the visually impaired. A year or two later, I was involved in developing the prototype devices, I came across a gentleman using the device while shopping. He was delighted at the freedom it gave him, and talking to him helped bring the impact of that early prototyping activity home. 

You are a CEng and Chartered Environmentalist (CEnv). Why did you decide to become chartered in both qualifications?  

I was lucky that staff at my university were committed to professional development and qualifications, so I graduated knowing that chartership would be an important next step. Being chartered demonstrates that, in addition to technical skills and knowledge, you also have and use a wider range of competencies. I found being chartered gives additional credence to my advice. 

As a peer-reviewed qualification, it is respected and recognised in a way that just having a degree doesn’t provide. The pathway to chartership is also a useful development tool – by understanding the competencies needed, I was able to address gaps in my development and undertake activities to become a well-rounded engineer. 

There was a big gap between being successful in my CEng and applying for my CEnv. Until 2008, I hadn’t been involved in R&D with a strong environmental focus. However, on joining Dstl, I became involved with the qualification of materials for defence applications. The majority of this work was caused by the obsolescence of materials, driven either through changes in legislation or through the withdrawal of key suppliers from the market.

In 2009, the availability of rare earth products was highlighted in the media, demonstrating a geopolitical risk to the availability of materials that are strategically important for defence applications. I led new research on critical and environmentally compliant materials to replace those being phased out. 

The main aspect we’re looking at currently is chromate-free solutions for corrosion protection for vehicles and air platforms. My work included doctrine and methods to help better embed materials stewardship and hazardous materials management within the MoD. Within Dstl, we have also studied ways of reducing defence reliance on fossil fuels.  

I decided to apply for my CEnv qualification for two reasons. Firstly – the same reason I applied for my CEng – it lends strength to the advice you provide. Secondly, there are relatively few CEnv qualified individuals in my organisation and the Institute. By achieving and maintaining this qualification, I am able to support others.

Why do you think there are relatively few Chartered Environmentalists in the Institute? 

It’s a fairly new qualification compared with CEng and CSci, and it might be difficult for people to understand how their work is relevant. If you’re working in environmental compliance, it’s quite obvious, but when I started thinking about it, I wasn’t sure if my work fitted the requirements of a Chartered Environmentalist. It was by attending IOM3 workshops and speaking with others holding the qualification that I realised it did.  

What requirements did you have to fulfil to become a chartered environmentalist? 

When I did my CEng, I opted for the professional review report format in conjunction with the case study and continuing professional development (CPD) log. The professional review report is like an extended CV, where you describe your work against the chartership competencies. For my CEnv, as I had a substantial career behind me, I found it more straightforward to use the work experience and training log sheet system, with an accompanying case study and online CPD log. 

How did you prepare for the application process? 

I found it invaluable having a mentor who knew enough about my work but was still sufficiently detached from my line management to be objective and impartial when helping me understand my development needs. 

The biggest issue for me wasn’t identifying these, but dedicating sufficient time to writing a good quality application. If there is one thing I would recommend to candidates, it is to ensure you read the guidance well and spend a reasonable amount of time on a good quality draft that you can discuss with colleagues or mentors. 

For my CEnv, I attended a workshop at the Institute and discussed my work with other Chartered Environmentalists to ensure my evidence fitted against the required competencies. Much of my work on environmental issues involves communication to non-specialists, and learning how to do this was hugely beneficial to my work and application.

I am a trained mentor, assessor, and scrutineer for chartership on behalf of the Institute. I hope the experience of going back to being a candidate has helped me undertake these roles more effectively.

How have you used this qualification in your career? 

In my organisation, we have a fluid grading structure, with a profile against each grade. I’ve been able to use my chartership qualifications as evidence that has supported me through two promotion boards. The need for CPD to maintain the qualification keeps me focused on ensuring my professional development provides learning outcomes appropriate to my work. 

Has your status as a Chartered Environmentalist changed people’s perception of you in the professional environment? 

It does lend credibility. I’m starting to establish a track record in the field and I’m now receiving a lot more cold-call approaches from individuals looking for advice. It’s definitely assisted from that perspective, but that’s building on the track record I’ve already established.

Was it difficult providing evidence when a lot of it is classified? 

I’ve been involved with the Institute for a long time and mentored candidates through the chartership process, helping them communicate their work at a declassified level. I didn’t feel it was an issue for my work as much of what I do is at an unclassified level, but I know quite a few people struggle with that within the MoD and other government departments. 

It’s a rare occurrence when you can’t communicate some of your work externally, and communication is part of the competencies. Where classification is an issue, the Institute has trained individuals who are security cleared and can undertake reviews and interviews in suitable environments. Commercial sensitivities can also cause concern, but the protection of data is extremely important to the Institute. If there are any concerns, the membership department is a great place for advice.

Would you recommend becoming chartered to others?  

Absolutely. Preparing for chartership is a really useful step in personal development, helping you identify development needs and opportunities. Chartership is also a recognised professional qualification that is attractive to employers. In my organisation, professional membership is linked to our career framework, so having the qualification is evidence of having achieved a high professional standard.

Do you have any advice for others looking to become chartered? 

I’m not sure how many people are aware, but the rules changed a few years ago. When I studied my Bachelor’s degree, it was sufficient to apply for chartership, but now you need a Master’s degree or to demonstrate Master’s equivalency, which is a much more involved application process. One of the conversations I’ve had with students before they selected their university courses is if they want to consider applying for chartership in future, they should consider a Master’s degree from the outset. I’m not sure how good we are at articulating this to sixth-form students. 

Also, a good mentor is invaluable. Use your peers and check the guidance early. Some candidates leave finding referees until late in the day, but these individuals have to have known you for at least two years prior to application, so it is vital to have them on board early. If you can’t find anyone with the recommended qualifications, speak to the Institute. Not having a Master’s degree is also not a barrier – there are different routes dependent on your background. Talk to the membership team, they are there to help. 

What have you got planned for your professional future? 

We’re in quite an exciting time for materials research, starting a relatively new programme – Materials for Strategic Advantage. The driver for the programme is to exploit global developments in materials science, across the academic and industrial sectors, in order for UK defence and security to maintain a technological advantage, and to realise efficiencies in through-life management. The remit is broad, including materials and structures for light weighting, energy absorption, physical protection, and platform sustainment such as corrosion protection. The work focuses on the niche defence requirements that won’t be addressed in other research. 

For information on membership and registration visit, www.iom3.org/benefits-membership