Helen Popland
23 Jun 2023
- Emily Keelan and Dora Abbi



Helen Popland has been an engineer at ISIS since September 2020. For an international woman in engineering special, we spoke with Helen to get to know her better and learn about her experiences at ISIS. 




IMG_3568.JPGA brief overview of her career 

Whilst completing her masters in mechanical engineering at Loughborough University, Helen did a year in industry at DePuy Synthes​ at Johnson & Johnson, working on mechanical hip joint replacements. During her degree, she went on a three-month summer placement at a video streaming company, where she designed calibration rigs. After joining the ISIS graduate scheme in September 2020 ​Helen joined the New Beamline Team. She officially joined this team in October 2023 and now works on procurement and design of detector bench components for the FREIA project. This is a neutron reflectometry beamline in development for the European Spallation Source, which will enable scientists to investigate the properties of substances more accurately 

Why engineering?  

Initially she thought about going into hairdressing or graphics since they seemed interesting, she also looked into a scientific career. However, whilst it was not always a clear path forward, Helen considered the field of engineering briefly at GCSE level and then again before applying to university. Helen, having always loved problem solving and maths problems, enjoys turning ideas into physical objects. Engineering and design provides a “bridge between the science-ing and the product coming to life”. This has allowed her to watch her designs drawn on paper, arrive as physical components that can then be added to a larger project or machine. In addition, she enjoys the versatility of her area of engineering - starting off with hip joints and calibration rigs then moving on to particle accelerators.  


Inspirational people 

A very well-known and inspirational person she looks up to is Alan Turing. He was a significant figure in history, mainly for his massive contributions to breaking the enigma code during World War II. To Helen, he is a great man to look up to because he was able to apply maths to many things and used problem solving – something Helen has always found it a fun pastime (alongside her crafty activities such as sewing and knitting).

  21EC1187 Helen Popland.jpgExperience with being a woman in STEM  

As the field of science, technology and engineering becomes more inclusive, we have seen women take a more prominent role. The experience of being a woman, or any minority in STEM varies from person to person depending on their team. From being the only girl in her physics and further maths A-level class, to being the only woman in some teams, the experience has been a “mixed bag”. At the beginning of her career, she felt a difference between her and others in a team, whether from being new to the field or from being a woman. However, as she progressed and gained more experience, she gained confidence as her expertise grew, as well as meeting more women in the workplace. After being the “only woman in the room for about ten years” she hopes that in the future the field becomes more diverse and inclusive for everyone without any barriers between them and a career they wish to pursue. 

She feels the societies and workshops for women in engineering at university and during her jobs have made her feel ‘a lot less alone in the room’ as it reminded her that ‘there are many women in other rooms’ as well. Recently Helen has enjoyed seeing more women joining the engineering field and loves making the effort to attend career fairs to inspire other young girls and ensure they don’t feel ostracised in engineering fields. 


Tips for young women  

Her biggest piece of advice is to try the things you don’t know if you’ll like, whether that be a project or a module. Stepping out of your comfort zone could help grow your experience and mindset and whilst finding out you don't like something may not be as conclusive or resolute as finding out you do like something - it is still a useful bit of information. 

To do this, don't worry too much, try go with the flow and see how everything goes. Spend time looking into things you think you'd enjoy and even try out things you're less familiar with!”  

The third piece of advice is that it’s ok to try again, redoing something that didn't quite work or approach a situation differently and use it as a learning opportunity. 


Quick Fire Questions: 

What animal would you like to be? A domestic cat  

What planet would you like to go to? (if you could survive) Saturn  

Who’s your favourite musician? Matt Maeson 

Do you think AI will take over jobs? No. We will always need humans in order to use these machines. And we shouldn't need to panic about the domination of robots or AI. 

Contact: Burke, Katie (STFC,RAL,ISIS)