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Q&A Jun 23, 2022

Encouraging the Next Generation of Scientists, Engineers: A Q&A with Sonya Pemberton

Find out what inspired Sonya Pemberton to pursue a career in materials science and how she’s helping the next generation of STEAM professionals.

Q&A with Sonya Pemberton Jacobs Materials Justification, Aging Management Planning Lead

For International Women in Engineering Day 2022 we’re excited to bring you a series of interviews with some incredible #OurJacobs women from around the world. In this article meet Sonya Pemberton and learn how she got to where she is today, why she was attracted to a career in STEAM and what she thinks is the best part of working at Jacobs.  

Let's talk with Sonya:

Tell us what you’re working on these days.

I’m currently seconded to Rolls-Royce Small Modular Reactor (SMR) as their lead for materials justification and ageing management planning. The U.K. government has put nuclear at the center of its strategy to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Rolls-Royce SMR has recently entered the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) process with the intent to complete this by 2024 to allow the first plant to be turned on by 2029, playing a key role in achieving the government’s strategy.

My role involves assisting with materials-related aspects of the safety case and working to demonstrate that SMR materials will be robust against degradation for the life of the plant. I work collaboratively with the engineering design teams for various plant components in the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) design to help develop design requirements relating to materials selection and demonstration of structural integrity. Consideration of materials is important to ensuring a safe and reliable plant, and ultimately producing a highly available green energy source.

What led you to this point on your career path?

I studied Physical Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, specializing in materials science. Before my degree I was unaware of materials science, and I was luckily to be able to study a range of physical sciences as part of the first year of my degree. I found I loved the combination of science and engineering for real world applications in materials science and decided to study the fracture of metallic fiber reinforced ceramic composites for my PhD. I discovered that I enjoyed working as part of a team and so I decided to pursue a career in materials science in industry, initially working for a materials test house testing polymers and pipes for the utilities industry. I learned a lot in this role, particularly relating to quality assurance and combining project and people management with technical work.

However, I knew that I wanted to work in green energy where I felt I could make a positive contribution to society and the challenges we face relating to climate change. Jacobs’ Birchwood laboratories were recommended as a great place to work as a materials scientist in the nuclear industry, so I interviewed for the role of materials project manager. This role involved splitting my time between technical management of stress corrosion cracking research projects on metallic materials and performing independent nuclear assessments relating to the structural integrity of PWR materials.

It introduced me to nuclear safety cases and nuclear material degradation mechanisms, and lead to me becoming technical lead for stress corrosion cracking for a large research and technology project and working as a team leader for a group of corrosion scientists and microscopists. As part of planning for maternity leave, I developed two successors to take over my technical lead and team leader roles. This gave me the opportunity to take on the Rolls-Royce SMR role on my return from maternity leave.

  • Sonya Pemberton and team
Pictured above: Sonya attending ICG-EAC technical meeting in Finland with Jacobs colleagues and standing in front of a mock-up corrosion test rig such as those used in Jacobs laboratories (in this case a Cormet set-up rather than a Jacobs set-up.)

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEAM?

My parents always encouraged me to be interested in the world around me and ask questions. When I was a teenager, I read Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything and found the story of scientific development fascinating. Originally, I was interested in space and pursuing a career in physics since I enjoyed studying math and physics at school. Once at university, I was inspired by two of my professors to study materials science and pursue a scientific career.

Tell us about a memorable project you’ve worked on that has helped build a brighter future.

I’m involved in Jacobs STEAM activities, and one memorable one has been setting up a year in industry placement program in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). MMU is a local university where students studying for a degree in Chemistry tend to come from a diverse range of backgrounds.

We designed a presentation to introduce the students to the work at Jacobs for their Careers Week and worked with academics to develop a suitable job advert. We had a large number of applicants and were able to give them all an opportunity to have their resume and cover letter reviewed and have an online job interview with a member of our team, giving them valuable experience for future job applications.

This led to us placing students in our laboratories and we hope they will continue to have a fruitful career in STEAM and build a bright future as part of the next generation of scientists and engineers. I enjoy working on projects at Jacobs where I can encourage diversity in the industry and help employees or prospective employees develop their technical careers.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

I’ve learnt to never be afraid to ask questions. My experience is that there are no silly questions, and it’s the fastest way to learn information. In a group environment, if you have a question, it’s likely that someone else is thinking the same thing, so having the courage to ask helps the team as a whole.

“I love the approach to flexible working at Jacobs — I can pursue a technical career in science and be involved in interesting nuclear projects that build a brighter future while also having a work life balance and Fridays to spend with my young children.”

Sonya Pemberton

Sonya Pemberton

Jacobs Materials Justification, Aging Management Planning Lead

Proudest career moment?

I was lucky enough to be able attend the International Conference on Environmental Degradation of Materials in Nuclear Power Systems – Water Reactors in the U.S. while heavily pregnant with my first child. It was a great experience to be able to co-chair a session and present in front of international experts, while demonstrating that being pregnant needn’t stop me from doing my job to the best of my ability.

What does the future of engineering look like to you?

The future of engineering looks younger and more diverse, with a growth in both nuclear fission and fusion. It’s an exciting time to be working in the resurgent nuclear industry and in a company that has a growing proportion of female scientists, engineers and leaders.

If you could tell your 18-year-old-self one thing, what would it be?

Have confidence in yourself, don’t be afraid to be interested in things and be inquisitive.

People would be surprised to know that I…

Used to be a referee for mixed and women’s lacrosse. At university I was part of the team who won both the cup and league for mixed lacrosse. Following an ankle injury I decided to learn to referee. After moving to Manchester, I joined the local women’s team and completed my formal referee training for the women’s game. I enjoy playing team sports and mixed lacrosse is a great example of a sport where each team member brings their own different skills to create a team greater than the sum of its parts.

What do you enjoy most about being part of #OurJacobs?

I love the approach to flexible working at Jacobs — I can pursue a technical career in science and be involved in interesting nuclear projects that build a brighter future while also having a work life balance and Fridays to spend with my young children.

About the interviewee

Sonya Pemberton

Sonya Pemberton is currently seconded to Rolls-Royce Small Modular Reactor as their materials justification and aging management plan lead. She previously worked as technical lead for stress corrosion cracking of nuclear metals within Jacobs’ Corrosion and Materials Science Laboratory. Sonya has a PhD in Materials Science from the University of Cambridge and enjoys spending time with her two young children.

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