Siobhan Matthews - Chair of the IOM3s Younger Members Committee

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2006

Entrepreneur, innovator, lecturer, leader, and the first female rugby referee in Ireland (!) – Siobhan Matthews packs a lot in and still manages to stay upbeat. Talking to Materials World in between her busy schedule, she says, ‘I was always fascinated by how things work. When I was young no torch or radio was safe in the house! I always preferred helping my father out with his jobs around the house rather than ironing.

It’s no wonder then that the technically-minded girl who at age 12 accompanied her father (he worked in the medical plastics industry) to a trade show in Dublin, Ireland, is now the director and co-founder of SCF Processing Ltd. Established in February 2002, the company provides a materials processing technology transfer service that utilises supercritical fluid and polymer processing technology to develop viable manufacturing processes. Siobhan’s role as director of her own company is not through chance, but the result of her steadfast commitment to the field of materials processing. Having completed her BSc, MSc and PhD, she held numerous positions that have been crucial to her professional development, including part-time lecturer in polymer technology at the Anthlone Institute, about 100 miles from Dublin, and research fellow and senior project engineer at the Wolfson Centre for Materials Processing.

At Wolfson, she undertook industry-based research for a number of clients, such as Rolls Royce and the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, advising them on analysis and processing of polymers, ceramics, metal components and composites.

But Siobhan is also focused on inspiring others to consider a career in materials. At the Materials Engineering Department in Brunel University based in London, UK, (where Siobhan completed her PhD in Materials Engineering in 1999 – the department has now closed), she organised a schools’ focused ‘Polymer Circus’ event and a secondary schools teachers week in materials engineering. The Polymer Circus is now the London Materials Society Schools Event, now in its fifth year.

The author of numerous papers and presentations, Siobhan insists that ‘you have to be able to talk about your work’ and believes that others should do the same to attract more students to science and engineering. ‘We need a targeted approach from an early age – we need more science and engineering programmes on television. At the moment people take technology for granted – they are either unaware of, or forget, the advances that have been made and the benefits to everyday life’.

Also, I feel that the majority of people involved in materials have a genuine interest as in a large number of cases they are not encouraged into the field by the salary – until pay is improved we cannot compete with other careers’, she adds.

Siobhan’s arguments concerning the direction of science education seem to be drawn from her own experiences. She says, ‘I don’t think that my teachers were very inspiring, they just followed the curriculum. We had one school outing in my final year, which was a great opportunity for the class to meet undergraduates and postgraduates and talk to them about what they were doing’.

Her top tip for young graduates is therefore to interact as much as possible with the industry they want to enter, by completing work experience placements and attending lectures and presentations ‘even if you think they might not be of interest to you. They will. Maybe not straight away but in the future’, she says.

But it’s not all talk, there is a lot of action going on as well. Siobhan is currently chair of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining’s Younger Members’ Committee, and former chair of the London Materials Society. She sees these positions as not only fundamental to engaging with young people but also crucial to her own professional development as she chairs meetings, helps to organise events and speaks at conferences.

But how did Siobhan go on to immerse herself in the world of business? She spotted a market for supercritical fluid technology, while working as a research fellow at Wolfson, in sectors such as aerospace, automotive, biomedical, building materials and energy. ‘I felt that the best way of developing the potential was outside an academic environment. The Irish government were actively encouraging young graduates to start up a business. They provided mentoring advice and other support’, she explains. To develop commercial awareness and business know-how, Siobhan completed a 12-month course on business start-up, focusing on areas such as marketing and finance.

So what’s Siobhan’s advice for budding entrepreneurs? The first is to take advantage of opportunities offered by local and national authorities, and universities often offer chances to spin out an idea and company. But she also stresses the need to research your market area, to pitch your idea well, and also really know yourself and your capabilities. ‘The idea of setting up a business is great, but it is a lot of hard work. You must be strong willed and determined.’ When asked about other career options that she may have considered, Siobhan is adamant, ‘I always knew what I was going to do’. And she draws on her other experiences to help her, including rugby. As a referee, ‘you have to look like you are in control, because if they [the players] sense you do not know what you are doing there would be pandemonium. This was good experience for when I started lecturing!'

Up close

Education – BSc in Polymer Technology, MSc in Polymer Science and PhD in Materials Engineering. Professional Societies – Chair of the Institute’s Young Members Commitee, former Chair of the London Materials Society. Outside interests – sports such as swimming, golf and rugby. Siobhan is the first female rugby referee in Ireland.