My Leeds story - Gina Baker. Chemical and Nuclear Engineering MEng. Forever Leeds.

We are extremely proud of the achievements of all our graduating students at Leeds, but especially our Class of 2020, who have completed their studies in such challenging circumstances.

We know that our graduates are keen to make a difference in the world, and each month we will be shining a spotlight on a Leeds alum who graduated in 2020.

In August we spoke to Gina Baker, an engineering masters graduate who made history at Leeds and ended up going viral on Twitter in the process.

My Leeds story
Gina Baker

Gina, start by telling us how you developed a passion for science and engineering and your journey to choosing to study at the University of Leeds?

Growing up, I was always interested in helping others, so I was drawn to pharmacy and the idea of working with medicines. As I grew older, I realised I wanted to be involved in actually making and producing these drugs rather than just dispensing them, which is when I discovered Chemical Engineering. I had also developed an interest in the nuclear field throughout my A-levels, so an MEng in Chemical and Nuclear Engineering seemed like the perfect course for me.

Leeds was one of the few institutions to offer this programme as the combined Bachelor’s and Masters, and the fact that it is a Russel Group University was a big draw. Aside from that, I’d heard from friends already at Leeds about the rich culture and great student experience, so coming to Leeds was an easy choice.

What was your experience of living and studying in Leeds like – tell us about your course and what clubs and societies you were involved in during your time at the University?

My five years at Leeds was a great experience and one that I will never forget. From Freshers at Fruity to my year in industry, and the moment when I completed my BEng, there have been so many important and memorable moments from my time at Leeds. I made valuable friendships and formed a network that has already had a huge impact on my life, and I know will continue to do so in the future.

I was a part of many societies, including the Afro-Carribean Society, the Chemical Engineering Society, the Women in Engineering Society and the Formula 1 society. All these groups played a big part in my wellbeing both academically and socially.

"Leeds is truly for life and I am proud to be an alum.”

Georgina Baker (MEng Chemical and Nuclear Engineering 2020)

Your final year at Leeds wasn’t quite as you would have imagined it, not being on campus for the last term and being unable able to return to campus for your graduation. How was the experience of studying virtually?

I know that the transition for me was easier than for others, as luckily I was already at the stage of my degree when face to face lectures were no longer a part of my timetable. It was at the point where independent learning was the most important aspect of my studies, so having a great relationship with my professor really helped me. We’d had the foresight to draft a plan for the move to virtual meetings before campus closed, and we were already doing bi-weekly catch ups, so this was nothing new.

What have you learnt about yourself after being in lockdown?

I’ve learnt that I can never be unproductive, as I feel that is valuable time being wasted. I have taken this time to improve my skill-set, both academically and through personal interests. I’ve been using YouTube to learn how to code, and I’ve also been working on improving my sound engineering skills.

Although we weren’t able to welcome you to campus for a graduation ceremony – did you do anything with friends or family to celebrate your achievements?

Absolutely! As soon as we were allowed out, I had a picnic with both family and friends (of course socially distanced). I also celebrated with other members of my cohort who did not get to have a proper graduation. We’re in the same boat, so we’re planning to have a huge gathering as soon as the rules will allow it!

After graduating, you tweeted about being the first black woman to complete the Chemical and Nuclear Engineering programme, and it soon went viral – what’s the story there? How did you discover the fact?

I have a great relationship with my professor. Amidst the Black Lives Matter movement, I was bold enough to ask him - there are not a lot of women in my area of study, let alone black women, so I wondered if I was possibly the first.

I got a very thorough response, and I only shared a snippet of it on social media. I never expected that it would go viral. I know my degree of study has so much to offer, and so I think it’s really important to continue to work on changing the narrative to encourage others to enroll. If we can change people’s perceptions of courses like mine, it will help to make STEM subjects more accessible.

What can be done to encourage more black women to choose STEM subjects?

Universities must work more closely with predominantly black communities and schools. If you make black women the target audience and reach out to them, you can raise awareness of the different opportunities in STEM. I was lucky because a lot of opportunities were made known to me through my sixth form. Seeing pupils excel in STEM subjects was really important to my Head of Year, so I was able to learn about the options available to me that would help me to pursue my interest in the nuclear field.

Do you think you can play an ambassadorial role?

Of course! From A-levels, I have continued to contribute to changing the narrative around STEM subjects, and would love to see where it takes me. I am inspired by the people I help to inspire.

As part of your course, you undertook a year in industry – how do you think this year prepared you for entering the world of work?

My year in industry changed my perception massively. This is because I got to see how different the industry is compared to the world of academia. Being able to apply my skillset at placement helped to prepare me for how to navigate the working world, as things continually changed. University has a more predictable routine than the work. My placement year definitely shaped my thinking, and I would urge anyone whose course of study allows a year in industry to do one.

You have already gained a graduate job, which you are set to begin in September – tell us a little bit about the application process, and the role itself.

Applying for and gaining a job has definitely not been easy this year as there is so much uncertainty for the future. I was lucky enough to gain a role in the chemical engineering industry in a packaging, recycling, paper and plastic company. Before getting an offer, I had to apply online, do a telephone interview and an online assessment centre. I felt that the assessment centre was handled extremely well by the company, as they had never hosted a virtual assessment centre before. They provided really clear communications around how the process was going to work, which definitely helped to make me feel more at ease.

The role I successfully applied for is a three year graduate role, where each year will involve projects from supply chain and logistics, operational and engineering functions. I will begin my work in the supply chain department which is exciting, and I’m looking forward to this new chapter.

What advice would you give to other members of the Class of 2020 who haven’t yet found employment?

Keep searching! Some companies took a break from recruitment recently to strategize for the future, but there may be more opportunities ahead. The earlier you start, the better – we're all aware that a recession is imminent. You may need to find a role outside your industry to begin this new chapter in your life, but the skills and knowledge you will gain from employment can still be useful in your course of study's industry. It’s especially important to develop soft skills, which can be transferable to any area of employment.

Gina's best of Leeds

Favourite place to eat in Leeds:

Wok and Go (even before it moved to the Leeds Union)

Best lunch spot on/near campus:

Bakery 164

Best place to study on campus:

Quiet Clusters or in SCAPE we had a quiet room in our buildings.

Favourite lecture theatre:

Chemical Engineering Lecture Theatre A

Your favourite building on campus:

Parkinson (Steps) Building (great meeting spot for any friends on campus regardless of their course of study)

Favourite Yorkshire/Leeds phrase:

UNAY! (at varsity)

Best music venue/bar/club/night in Leeds:

Hifi

Favourite place you visited in Yorkshire:

Harrogate (so peaceful and quiet from the buzzing student led Leeds city)