Q&A with Dr Rachael Ambury from Element Six

Materials World magazine
29 Aug 2019

Senior Scientist and Project Lead at Element Six, Dr Rachael Ambury CEng CSci FIMMM, winner of the IOM3 Robert Perrin Award for commitment to outreach activities, talks to Idha Valeur about the importance of outreach work.

What does your daily job look like?

I am Senior Scientist and Project Lead at Element Six (E6), part of the DeBeers Group based at the Global Innovation Centre (GIC) in Harwell, UK. E6 is a synthetic diamond and supermaterials manufacturer. I currently work in the field of synthetic diamond, cubic boron nitride and other superhard materials where I assist with the development of new products and processes for a variety of industrial and technological applications. I studied biomedical materials science and engineering with industrial experience as my first degree at the University of Manchester and went on to do my PhD there. After graduation, I joined Morgan Technical Ceramics, where I provided  technical and engineering support and solutions to production issues for a range of bespoke ceramic-based products, for several blue chip multinational clients, before joining E6 in 2013.

And your work in STEM outreach?

I am primarily involved with the outreach programme at E6, which continues to develop and evolve. I also have been involved in organising and assisting with the delivery of outreach events for secondary school and further education students, in conjunction with IOM3.

Tell me about the programme at E6

The programme started in 2014, alongside my colleague Dr Matthew Markham, with us conducting talks in local schools and to groups such as Beavers. Since then, the programme has grown to include school and university course visits to the E6 site and work experience opportunities for students. This has provided students with the opportunity to view the facilities, take part in hands on experiments and expand their knowledge of material science. The programme has resulted in engaging with Science Oxford as part of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Ingenious project, and in 2017 and 2018, saw E6 play host to Year 9 students from Matthew Arnold School in Oxford, to undertake projects and learn about diamond science first-hand.

Last year E6 took part in the IF Science Festival in Oxford for the first time, where we had a stand in the Explorazone, which provided practical demonstrations of diamond’s unique properties and diverse applications for the general public, many of whom were school-aged students. We now have demonstrations and resources that can be borrowed by any member of staff at the GIC wishing to run their own outreach activities, and provide mentoring and support for those embarking on outreach events for the first time. Our main goal of the outreach programme is to provide role models and demonstrate to young people that they can enter STEM professions and have successful careers.

How did you start outreach work?

I started mentoring other students as an undergraduate at university and participated in open days for the department. This progressed into wanting to inspire more young people to consider STEM roles as future careers. I helped out and then organised numerous events as part of the IOM3 Younger Members’ Committee (YMC) from 2010– 2017, during which time I started working with other outreach enthusiasts – both within IOM3 and in my daily job.

Do you have any tips to others who want to get involved?

Employers of any size should not underestimate the power that workplace visits, work experience or meeting individuals in STEM jobs can have on students. If you are an individual looking to get involved, then STEM Ambassadors can be a great place to start, as they have a huge range of resources to support you. Alternatively, you can volunteer to be a Schools Affiliate Scheme Speaker with IOM3, where you can commit as little or as much time as you want.

Why is outreach work important?

There is a STEM skills shortage in the UK. According to Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), in 2018 there were more than 900,000 women in STEM occupations and women now make up 43% of science professionals. However, there are still huge gaps in representation. Just 12% of engineering professionals are female, 8.5% of senior leaders in technology are from a minority background and only 15% of scientists are from working class households. Outreach work exposes students to innovation, science and engineering at an early age, and is critically important in inspiring the next generation of STEM professionals. I passionately believe that science and engineering focused engagement activities need to be applied consistently throughout school and university careers, to ensure the next generation believe that a successful STEM career is something that is a worthwhile and accessible endeavour.

Can you discuss the events you run under the IOM3 Schools Affiliate Scheme?

I have been involved with numerous IOM3 Schools Affiliate Scheme events over the years, including Materials Matter and Magic of Materials Summer Schools, to provide those attending an opportunity to explore the material world. The Magic of Materials event is run in conjunction between IOM3 Schools Affiliate and St Paul’s School, Hammersmith. I have been part of the Magic of Materials Summer School for the last five years. I started as a group mentor to the Year 10 students, and for the last two years have lectured the ceramics component of the course, along with diamond science. It is always a lovely and fun event to be involved in and I look forward to next year.

How do you balance your daily job with other engagements?

E6 allows me to volunteer 10% of my time towards outreach work, as part of our Innovation Cradle Programme. We try to plan the larger events we want to participate in at the start of each year, utilising Microsoft Teams to co-ordinate key documentation and volunteers. In the build up to an event we will run training sessions for our volunteers, to ensure best practice is shared. Ideally we try to run at least one event a quarter, but we remain flexible to requests.

Tell me about your favourite moment from your outreach work?

I have many wonderful memories from my outreach work, many from brilliant colleagues who work alongside me. One of my favourite moments was at a previous Magic of Materials event, where a brilliant chemist, Andres Tretiakov, and I decided to launch a wheelie bin 9m into the air using a pop bottle and some liquid nitrogen, to demonstrate the power of thermodynamics to the students. The look of wonder and shock on their faces was definitely worthwhile.

What is next for you?

The next big outreach event I am helping to organise is E6’s participation in the IF Oxford Science and Ideas Festival, which takes place in October 2019. E6 will back the Explorazone on 20 October at the Oxford Town Hall, where members of the public can come and meet our staff, and get hands on to learn about the amazing properties and applications of diamond. It is much more than just a gemstone.