Dr Maryam Gharebaghi – For the love of maths

Dr Maryam Gharebaghi – For the love of maths

Mathematics makes the world go round. In a way, it is a language that helps us describe and explain natural phenomena, man-made constructions and much more. If you are into maths, there are plenty of career paths to choose from. Engineering is one of them.

I met up with Maryam, an experienced engineer in the oil and gas industry. Originally from Iran, she has studied internationally before settling down in Scotland. During our chat she struck me as a confident and very organised person.

How did you get into engineering?

I loved maths at school. You always have several ways to solve a question in mathematics. I have never sensed that same freedom in other sciences like chemistry or physics.

My mum was an architect, and I was interested in the mathematical aspects of her job. I considered studying architecture, but it was a highly selective and competitive course. So, I settled for chemical engineering for my first degree. Now, I am glad. You need to have a certain mindset for architecture and great imagination. I don’t think I could excel in it. I feel much more competent in engineering.

When I didn’t get the university placement I wanted for my second degree, I decided to find a job instead. I started as a piping engineer in an Iranian company. Based on my education, I should have gone for a process engineer position, but I couldn’t get one at the time. However, I enjoyed my job and stayed in it for almost 4 years. I learnt a lot.

Has this practical experience helped you in your future studies?

Absolutely. When you are at university, you learn all the formulas but don’t really know what to do with them. Funnily, there was a time I was working with a senior engineer who was perfectly capable of doing his job, but he kept asking me about formulas and text book references because I had come fresh from university and still remembered. So, it gave me a really good grounding in the application of the theory.

You have stayed on the engineering career path since your early studies. What keeps you interested?

I enjoy challenges that I know I can manage. There is always something to tackle in engineering, and I know that I can do it. Actually, the profession got more interesting for me, the more I knew about it. In my first job, I was still learning and got joy out of that. Now, as an experienced engineer, I feel that I am achieving a lot which is like pay-back for all the learning.

Tell me a bit about your MSc studies at the Eastern Mediterranean University in North Cyprus.

I left Iran in 2005 to study in the Turkish part of Cyprus. It was not too much of a shock because the countries are neighbours and share a lot of aspects of culture and life style. I was living with my younger brother for a while. This made the transition to living abroad smoother as well. I think it was easier for me compared to friends who moved directly from Iran to Europe, the US or Australia.

I love Farsi, my native language, but it is not international. So, you have to learn another language anyway. I spoke mostly English at the Eastern Mediterranean University which was great because I could improve the text book English I had learnt in Iran to conversational English. I also picked up enough Turkish to get by.

The other major transition I went through was going back to university after having worked in industry for four years. I needed to change my state of mind and get used to university life again.

Thereafter you went straight on to do a PhD at the University of Leeds in England.

PhD graduation

Yes. Cyprus is amazing if you want to have a fun life. It’s summer almost all year round. There is loads to do. I could maybe have gotten an academic positon in Cyprus, but there were no engineering jobs around. Also, by that time my husband was living in Edinburgh. So, I had been to Scotland a few times, and I eventually started looking for PhD positions in the UK.

The PhD advert in Leeds fit my background very well. I actually went over to visit them so we can get to know each other face to face rather than just over the phone. I believe this really helped them understand better who I am. I even received a very prestigious Dorothy Hodgkin scholarship. That was not only an honour, but also a blessing because fees are very high for international students. I’m not sure I would have taken the position otherwise.

Right at the start my PhD was a bit daunting. There were no classes, rota or real deadlines. However, I adapted quickly to that.

I usually made a point of coming into the institute to work, even though I could have completed a lot on my computer at home. Going to university gave my day some routine, I met others in the computer room, and it helped me focus. I think working from home can divert you from your plans for the day because there are more distractions. I plan almost everything. I briefly review the day in my head and think about the next one every day before bedtime.

What were the main lessons you took away from your PhD studies?

The first one is time management. You have to complete a project successfully within 3 to 4 years; as many iterations as you want along the way, but you have to get it right on time. In job interviews afterwards I acknowledged that my study subject was not very useful to the company, but I guaranteed that I get projects done within schedule. I think I have managed to prove that so far.

The second lesson was that public speaking does not need to be scary. My PhD supervisor always encouraged us to present. His philosophy was that knowledge cannot grow unless it is shared. I found that when I present on my own work, I can speak with confidence and won’t be worried about audience questions.

You went back and forth between university and industry a bit. Why was that?

I went back to university after my first job because I love the academic environment. However, ultimately it has never been fulfilling. I have always had the feeling that there is more outside. At university you look at things very deeply, but you have a very narrow focus. It is the exact opposite in industry. You don’t go very deeply; your scope is broad. That’s what I love in industry.

I also think that education is important. I think people who discredit academic education have either had bad experiences or were not able to figure out what to get out of it. You don’t need straight A grades as long as you learn something. No education is wasted. You will always make use of it somehow.

I didn’t just choose Leeds for the academic education. I also wanted to learn from immersing myself in a foreign culture and life style. My motto is that you have to try before saying no. Obviously, there are exceptions to this. If things don’t work out, you reflect on what went wrong, but still never generalise from just one experience.

What is your take on the ongoing discussion about women in STEM?

Both men and women can be engineers because the job doesn’t require any gender-specific attributes. In my experience, women can progress just as well in both the UK and Iran. There is a broader effort to equalise pay nowadays. I know a company with an almost 50/50 ratio of male and female engineers; which is a step in the right direction.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights, Maryam.

Interview conducted by Dr Christiane Wirrig