Ella Podmore is a materials engineer at luxury automotive, motorsports and technology company, McLaren, leading material science research and development on their products. Ella is also an avid STEM ambassador and committee member of McLaren’s women’s society. This year, she has been shortlisted for the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s Young Woman Engineer of the Year award.
“Working in an automotive company has definitely opened my eyes to the importance of having a diverse workforce.”
A passion for supercars
I have always been interested in science and this developed early on in school. I studied maths, chemistry, physics A-level with computing AS-level … but my real passion was chemistry. I loved learning about atoms, nanotechnology and small things I could see under a microscope. So, when it came to choosing a degree path, I wanted to solve problems but also remain close to chemistry. Therefore, I decided on materials engineering.
I studied a master’s of materials engineering (MEng) at the University of Manchester, where I was blown away by graphene and all the amazing material innovations discovered there.
As part of my degree, I had the opportunity to do an industrial placement year in my third year (a year you can work at a company and return to finish your masters afterwards) and I wanted to go to a company I was excited by.
McLaren was a company I always respected as a young girl (I grew up around cars and consistently told my brothers that the [McLaren] P1 was my favourite car ever!), but at the time McLaren did not employ placement engineers other than automotive or mechanical. Therefore, I wrote them a letter detailing my knowledge of materials and a passion for supercars.
They invited me for an interview and the rest is history; I spent 12 months there solving material-related problems after convincing them of the importance of materials knowledge, and I inherited an exciting thesis topic to take back to Manchester University.
After completing my master’s, McLaren offered to create a materials engineering department where I was invited back as a materials engineer. I have now spent two and a half years at the company.
A ‘hands-on’ job
Nowadays I am responsible for all material-related investigations within the business. I spend my day either in the lab working on experiments testing material performance or investigating a part from the development track, conducting technical reviews for other engineers based on my lab results and, sometimes, I will accompany another engineer in a car test-run (which we call a ‘shakedown’). This is really a great perk of the job!
I really do think my job involves a great balance of practical ‘hands-on’ investigating where I get to work on microscopes, scanning electron microscopes, and other laboratory goodies, as well as receive exposure within the business when I get to present my work to engineers or even executives.
Normally, the work I receive is on upcoming models that are being developed, but the work can range from material specification requests from the studio right through the product development phase to even customisation requests from customers in the field. Being the luxury car company we are, we have some amazing custom requests from 24k gold to cashmere!
180-degree turn on my work focus
During the initial stages of the pandemic, in our first lockdown, I believe all engineers struggled. Not being near the product or other team members meant quite a few of us lost touch and morale definitely struggled.
As I mentioned earlier, quite a large portion of my role is practical, so not being allowed into the laboratory restricted my work enormously and my focus shifted to what I could remotely – which was more technical specifications, documents, etc.
As lockdown eased and manufacturing companies were given the go-ahead to go back into the office, a sense of normality returned and now laboratory projects have resumed.
I am currently spending three days a week in the office completing practical experiments and car testing when I am on-site; then the remaining two days I spend writing reports and attending meetings.
This shift to working from home (previously I would spend five days a week at the technology centre) has allowed me to focus my days better, and now I am finding I am more efficient in getting things done when I am on-site and vice versa when working from home (I can get my head down and type when no one is asking questions!)
I hope this flexible working is something companies recognise for good employee wellbeing and is carried forward.
Shanghai to Switzerland and Australia
I have been incredibly lucky with the opportunity I have developed for myself at McLaren – I am one of the only people with my technical [materials] skill set in the business and because of this I am asked to attend a huge variety of different things.
Travelling has been a wonderful perk; everything from visiting suppliers in Shanghai, public speaking in Australia and material developments in Switzerland. I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring and representing the company in these different countries, this was something I wasn’t necessarily expecting as a materials engineer.
Of course, it goes without saying that being around these beautiful cars every day is a wonderful part of the job – I am fortunate to work for a company that can defy the laws of physics to create a stunning feat of engineering – every time I look at a new model I genuinely think: “Wow, now how did we manage that?”
This is cemented even further when I get to take a trip out in a car especially when things are getting stressful. If you are overwhelmed with a particular problem, having a drive in these machines makes you suddenly realise what it is about (I appreciate engineers in the aerospace industry probably cannot indulge in this!)
Diverse talent is crucial
I genuinely believe that men and women think differently and can take different approaches when solving an issue; which is a brilliant thing.
Working in an automotive company has definitely opened my eyes to the importance of having a diverse workforce. It is no secret that the industry has a male stigma association – especially with supercars – but these different problem-solving methods introduced by having a good balance of female to male employees are vital to creating a product that appeals to a variety of customers.
In a company like McLaren, we are always wanting to explore and lead the industry with technology advancements and to be world-leading in this I genuinely believe that employee diversity is so crucial.
Shredding stereotypes – the future is bright
I am a STEM ambassador for McLaren so I am constantly involved with discussions on how we can inspire students to study STEM subjects and to eventually work in a company such as McLaren.
Therefore, when the team mentioned they were launching a competition with Blue Peter, it seemed like a fantastic opportunity to broadcast what opportunities McLaren can offer a STEM student and to shred the stereotype that engineers cannot be creative!
The competition was broadcast to all Blue Peter viewers who were encouraged to design what they believe supercars of the future would look like. We were after a simple drawing and a few sentences describing what their design was about.
We had some incredible submissions with some really out-the-box thinking; everything from photosynthesis-powered to subscription service supercars, it was so inspiring to see how the future generation perceived supercars and what they want to see in 10, 20, 50 or even 100 years’ time.
In a time where the automotive industry is consumed with the push for electric technology and Brexit, it was really refreshing to see innovative thinking. The future is bright!
Girls can do anything!
Being shortlisted for the IET’s Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award honestly means the world to me, I feel honoured to represent so many fantastic women in the automotive industry and really hope to use this platform to highlight that young girls (and boys) can do anything!
I want to use my story to demonstrate you do not need to wait for someone who looks like you to occupy your dream job in order for you to relate. If this was the case I would not be at McLaren today… Whatever your passion is you must go for it! Shred the stereotypes! I would love to use this opportunity with The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) to share that.
Being shortlisted has been the highlight of my professional career so far, I definitely still feel on cloud nine!
Bring. It. On.
I am hugely excited for this next chapter with McLaren – recently we have launched a new series of car ‘High-Performance Hybrids’ and I believe this will be the energy and motive to carry the company forward from this pandemic and into 2021. New challenge, new tech. Bring. It. On.
But personally for me this next year, I want to focus on developing myself as well as my role at McLaren. Becoming an IET finalist has made me realise it is so important to celebrate our successes and to invest back into ourselves, not only does this enhance individuality but it also puts your message out there and can help people like you achieve their goals too!
Along with my technical accreditation as an engineer (I am hoping to obtain iCorr in 2021), I will be participating in many virtual and in-person (COVID permitting!) events in 2021, so please catch me on Instagram or Twitter to find out where!
The IET’s Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award showcases some of the best female engineering talent in the UK, hopefully encouraging the next generation to get excited about the possibilities of an engineering career. There is an event on 3rd December to meet this year’s finalists, including Ella. The winners will be announced on 3rd March next year, so look out for that!