A glimpse into the life of a female energy innovator – with Catriona McGill, Desolenator
Energy Jobline interviews with Catriona McGill, Technical Development Manager at sea water desalination innovator, Desolenator, on what it’s really like to be a female in the energy industry.
McGill outlines a more positive view on being the only woman in the room, as well as advice for young women approaching the energy sector.
With experience in the oil and gas, clean-tech and water industries, McGill’s story resonates with many aspiring female professionals across energy and engineering.
1. Can you tell us more about your experience up until this point?
As a teenager, I wanted to be a lawyer. After a week of work experience at a law firm, however, I quickly realised sitting at a desk for 12 hours a day wasn’t for me.
I was always pretty good at Maths and Science and I went to an all-girls school, so there was less unconscious bias towards subjects like Engineering. I mean, if girls didn’t choose those subjects, who else would?
I then studied Engineering, what I considered to be the application of Science and Maths to real-world problems, at the University of Cambridge.
After two years of studying General Engineering, I decided to specialise in Manufacturing Engineering, which I absolutely loved. We did a bunch of technical modules, including a project in the Jaguar Land Rover factory in Solihull, as well as a two-month project in a Hungarian factory. The factory-made shafts and spindles, and my project was conducted to improve the efficiency of the grinding section. It was fascinating.
We also completed several non-technical modules, which consisted of growing a company and bringing a product to market, as well as innovation and product design.
I then left Uni and got a job with a consulting firm as a Strategy Consultant in the energy sector. The company was mainly focused on oil and gas, and I joined just as the oil price tumbled from $110 a barrel to $30, making it a pretty miserable industry to be in at the time.
I eventually saw the company I work for now, Desolenator, advertising a Business Development role. Despite quickly realising in the interview that I wasn’t remotely qualified for business development (laughs), the company liked me, and I loved the work they were doing. They offered me an internship two years ago, and I haven’t looked back since.
As the Technical Development Manager at Desolenator, my role now involves everything from reviewing maths calculations, presenting to senior government officials, sitting in on investor meetings, to carrying solar panels around on our test sites. I love the level of variety.
2. Can you tell me more about Desolenator?
Desalination is the process of turning seawater in clean, drinking water. Its something we have been doing industrially for decades and as humans, we have been doing it for hundreds of years. Desalination is incredibly energy intensive, so to do it with solar is tricky, because you need a large solar array.
At Desolenator, we’re trying to make solar-desalination as efficient as possible. We use both the heat and the electric output from one PV solar panel. The average PV panel is 15% efficient at turning sunshine into electricity and the rest of that energy is wasted as heat. We use that waste heat to pre-heat the water and we pump it into a boiler, which is powered by the electricity that is produced by the PV panel. The boiler produces steam and we collect this and condense it to produce clean water.
3. What motivated you most to work in the energy/engineering industry?
I wanted to study engineering because I really enjoyed maths and physics at school, but not in an abstract way. I wanted to use them to solve real-world problems, which is what my definition of an engineer is: someone that creatively solves problems.
I went into energy and water because providing enough drinking water for everyone on our planet - one of the biggest technical challenges the world faces - is an incredibly exciting and important thing to be involved in.
4. Have you personally ever experienced any significant challenges working in a male-dominated environment?
My perception of industries such as sustainability, clean-tech, and life biology was that these were the “girliest” of the science and engineering sectors. But in my experience, the numbers are equally depressing.
As a young female, a significant challenge is having your voice heard. One memorable example of this, was when I was sitting in a partnership meeting between four different oil and gas majors. At one point in the day, there were 27 people in the room (I counted!) and I was still the only woman, as well as being at least ten years younger than the person sitting next to me. By the end of the session, there were 10 people left, and a senior manager stood up to leave and he shook everyone’s hand in the room, except for mine. It was completely unconscious, as he didn’t even realise he missed me in the rounds. He even sent me an email afterward thanking me for my contributions. It was very unintentional but the message it sent was I was less valued than other people in the room.
The flip side is that being the only woman in the room means you become more noticed because you don’t look and think the same as everyone else.
The second challenge I’ve faced is never having had the opportunity to work for a female boss, or with any women in senior positions, to look up to and learn from. Visibility is important in that sense, I think.
5. What advice would you give to young women intrigued by the prospect of a career in energy?
My advice would be to crack on and go for it. Providing reliable and sustainable energy to everyone on our planet is one of the biggest technical challenges we are facing. There are so many exciting new technologies and opportunities that are just being born and its such an exciting time to just get stuck in. You can travel, meet lots of different people and the work can be fantastically varied and interesting.
I travel to Europe a lot, and often the Middle East where desalination is very important. Additionally, we have future pilot projects in Africa and South East Asia.
6. Can you tell me more about your current company and why you feel passionate about its cause?
When you begin to investigate the global water crisis, the statistics are terrifying. The world economic forum says that the water crisis is the biggest resource challenge our planet is facing. The UN predicts that by 2030, half of the world’s population will not have reliable access to clean drinking water.
Less than one percent of the water on our planet is what we call “sweet water” (water we can drink) and desalination has an important part to play in providing everyone with clean drinking water. However, the industry is currently incredibly fossil fuel-intensive. So, being able to desalinate sustainably is a huge technical challenge right now.
It’s very important to me that we change the perception of the water crisis from thirsty children in Africa to a genuine global resource problem that will affect laws, migration, economics and politics.
7. What do you think will prove most effective in encouraging more women to enter the energy industry?
Tricky, because what attracts anyone to a sector? I guess its general reputation and role models in the media and news. Speaking in broad terms, it’s a branding issue and if we can work to showcase how exciting and varied work is in the energy industry, then maybe we can entice some more people into it.
I’m a STEM Ambassador, so I regularly give presentations to schools about engineering, but there’s more to it than just talking to kids. It’s also about educating parents and teachers, which I think is a step we’re missing.
Want to find out more about Catriona and the Desolenator team’s work to combat the global water crisis? Click here to visit the Desolenator website.