BSc Physics, 1989
Quality Systems Manager, DS Smith
I work in quality management in a recycled paper mill. This involves overseeing a range of activities to ensure adherence to various management standards, such as food contact, quality and sustainability, data analysis of quality data and process data. However I am now also site photographer, historian, interior designer and responsible for the site Visitors' Centre, so a great deal more than when I started!
What is the best thing about what you’re doing now?
No day is the same and there’s no chance of getting bored. The process of milling paper is, on the face of it, simple – mix up with water, then remove the water, however using recycled fibre and lots of recirculating of water or chemical flows and lots of wearing and tearing components, makes for a very dynamic environment. For example, I have recently been involved in releasing a photobook celebration the development of the mill since 1923 and am now involved in writing another about the people/culture in preparation for the 100th anniversary. During the COVID-19 lockdowns I also worked with a group of volunteers to create bespoke masks for our employees as the environment can be hot and humid. Then my routine role ensures that the Quality Control Laboratory operates correctly, checking on the Visitors Centre, topping up supplies and ensuring hi-tech equipment was all functioning correctly. Then back to the mill for adding data analysis of strength versus speed, however this is not simple as there are many interactions to consider that could make extracting a true cause and effect of variations difficult.
How has your career developed since graduating from the University of Birmingham?
I went straight into research and development in the paper industry. This was followed by a few years selling chemicals to the industry, involving running a lot of trials, looking after engineering equipment and writing reports. Oh, by the way wearing glamours boiler suits, steel toe capped boots and ear defenders – safety first in such heavy industry! I was then poached by a customer and started as a Mill Chemist and developed to become the Quality Development Manager/Technical Customer Services Manager. Mid-life crisis then hit, or rather the mill closure announcement, but I went off to work in commissioning in the NHS and did data analytics on urgent care, i.e. mapping ambulance data, to A&E and hospital outcomes. This was whilst my children were young (being on-call is tough with children). Then the paper industry called me back and I have been working in Quality Management ever since. So you could say that a physics degree has enabled me to take on new challenges and knowledge throughout my career.
What motivates you?
Not being bored, feeling that I am making a positive contribution.
Why did you originally apply to Birmingham?
Truly, my dad's bank manager had a lot to do with it. He recommended that I took physics as I was good at it, and that if I wanted to go into banking (my original idea) then this would still be possible, but I would have more options too. I can't remember why I choose to apply to Birmingham, but I clearly remember why I decided to go to Birmingham: it was the feel of the place, how friendly everyone was and the interviewer. I was from a disadvantaged background, a female – all things that at the time may have worked against someone trying to do physics. They made me feel that I would fit in and do well.
What are your fondest memories of the University?
Some of these are not for public consumption(!) - but I had a lot of fun and made loads of friends. I was in Mason Hall and it was a great place to make friends.
Did you get involved in any extracurricular activities as a student?
Yes, I was involved with the climbing club, the Stoats.
How did your time at University help you start your career?
It gave me confidence in my abilities. Later on, a recruiter (when I returned to the paper industry) said that my Birmingham degree was a significant advantage. So maybe it helped me get all my jobs.
What advice would you give to current physics students?
Note that your first interviews are likely to be with HR managers that definitely did not study sciences, so you may need to seem less scientific in your interview as they may be unfamiliar with the scientific language – this how you would understand language specific to a different discipline. Or at least that’s how it was for me. Having studied a subject that focuses on detail, errors etc. just bear in mind that any future boss will not have time for lots of detail, so learn to structure your writing for a range of people with different interests.
And finally, the paper industry is a great place for physicists, but to really open up your opportunities nowadays having a language is a great asset to open up doors across the world.
“You do not have to limit yourself to applying for jobs traditionally related to physics. I have never used any of my degree directly apart from a bit of calculus when I was in research. However, what is very valuable was the ability to be comfortable challenging current theory, thinking logically and keep going until you do find the answer. Engineers tend to stick to the rules, so physicists are actually surprisingly creative!”