INWED18 – Presenting Professor Patricia Thornley

22 Jun 2018

To celebrate International Women in Engineering Day, which falls on June 23rd, we invited Professor Patricia Thornley to answer some questions about her research and career.

Patricia is a Professor of Sustainable Energy Systems at the Tyndall Research Centre, based at the University of Manchester. She is the Director of the EPSRC UK SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub and is a member of our Networking Fund Advisory Board.

We also invited Ioanna Ketsopoulou to answer similar questions about her career – read her responses here.

What inspired you get in to engineering?

I never intentionally made a decision to work in “energy” or “engineering”. My first degree was in physics because I absolutely loved the subject, but after 3 years of theory I wanted to do something more “useful”, so ended up working on a European clean energy project. After that I looked for a “proper job” near to where my husband (then boyfriend) was based and ended up in the power generation industry. I became frustrated at the problems many of the early biomass and waste plants seemed to encounter, and it seemed that academics knew more about the fuel and combustion aspects than was being shared with industry, so I moved into academia to try to bridge that gap.

Fast forward 12 years and I am still actively working at that industry/academic/policy interface, but have progressed from being a researcher on the Supergen bioenergy consortium, to being a work package leader and then becoming overall director of the Supergen bioenergy hub 5 years ago. This would not have happened without the support, encouragement and loyalty of many colleagues along the way. So that myriad of individuals (mostly in the industrial power sector) have been my inspiration and led me to my current role.

Tell us about a current project that you are particularly interested in?

The R2B (rice straw to biogas) project is taking rice straw in the Philippines and anaerobically digesting it with duck manure to deliver biogas as a clean energy source for rural farmers. It is funded by Innovate UK with UK commercial and academic partners and builds on our previous DFID/EPSRC funded research. I love that we are applying UK knowledge and making a difference to the lives of real people, through a project which has huge potential – diverting straw from burning (which causes environmental and human health problems) to a useful product that can enable development.

What is the most valuable piece of advice you have received that has helped you in your career?

Someone once told me to be loyal to individuals not institutions – institutions cannot repay loyalty.  I interpret this as a mandate to respect the individuals I work with. Over the years, this has encompassed a vast array of people from different backgrounds and disciplines with widely diverging views on our energy systems and surrounding policy issues.  I think it is really important not to gravitate to the views that are “most like mine”, but rather to take time trying to understand why views diverge and constantly question the evidence and basis for what we ultimately think.

What could the industry do to increase the number of women in the sector?

The industry could make headway by focusing more on the impact of engineering rather than the process of engineering. Every individual is different, but my experience is that on balance, women are more likely than men to be inspired by the power of their science or invention to make a difference to the lives of real people. Conversely I think a greater proportion of men are inspired by the technology or device itself.  But I have absolutely no evidence base to back this up!

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Addressing climate change requires a range of low carbon energy technologies and bioenergy is one that can span heat, transport and productive uses.  In recent times there has been a big focus on detailed calculations that “prove” the carbon impacts of bioenergy systems.  This is important, but while we obsess with the efficiency and performance of modern conversion systems, huge quantities of biomass are being burned incredibly inefficiently to provide cooking and heating fuels in the global south. I suspect that using academic expertise to address this (very interdisciplinary) problem would deliver greater climate benefits than optimizing the performance of advanced bioenergy conversion systems. So in 5 years I would like to see many more practical demonstration projects (like R2B) applying UK science and engineering knowledge to address real problems in the developing world.