As part of the YSJ’s ‘Women in STEM’ series, I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to interview a Wind Tunnel Technician for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team, Dr Kathryn Richards. Not only is her field a very intriguing and technologically orientated one, but she is also an ambassador for ‘Dare to Be Different’, an organisation dedicated to inspiring girls and women to get involved in the motorsport industry as well as other traditionally male-dominated fields.
What attracted you to motorsport engineering and Formula 1?
I went to my first Grand Prix in the late 80’s and while I enjoyed it, I did not really start to follow it closely until Michael Schumacher arrived on the scene in 1991. From then on, I never missed a race. At the time I wanted to be an Airline Pilot and was just going into college to study for an HND in Aerospace Engineering. It was there I discovered wind tunnels and more importantly that you could put a F1 car in a wind tunnel. My fate was sealed and from that point on I wanted to work in a wind tunnel in F1.
What is the most interesting thing about aerodynamics that most people do not consider?
This is an interesting question. F1 aerodynamics is a bit of a black art and not straight forward. I fielded this question to a couple of our aerodynamicists, and they agreed with me. It’s all about unlocking performance pockets from such a complex flow field. It can be both frustrating and exciting all at the same time. I think the biggest thrill is knowing that what we do in the wind tunnel can and does make a difference to winning and losing on the track.
Tell me about your PhD. What did this involve and what made you decide to concentrate on aerodynamics?
My PhD was looking at the computational modelling of pollution dispersion behind a road vehicle. I must admit I stumbled on the advertisement for the PhD by chance. I had already been applying for a job in F1 but had been advised politely to get more experience. The opportunity seemed perfect and the subject matter seemed ideal as it dealt with both wind tunnel testing and computational modelling. However, I quickly realised that wind tunnel testing as opposed to computer-based modelling was what confirmed that I wanted to work in wind tunnels in F1.
What does a day in your life as a wind tunnel test technician look like?
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you exactly what a day in the life of a tunnel technician looks like due to confidentiality but what I can tell you is that no day is the same. My primary role is to run the wind tunnel and make sure it is working properly so that the aerodynamicists can put performance on the race car. When the tunnel is not running my duties also include data analysis from the tunnel systems, routine maintenance and procedure writing.
You’re an ambassador for ‘Dare to Be Different’. What does your position involve and what would your advice be to inspire young women to get into the motorsport industry?
‘Dare to be Different’ has now united with the FIA ‘Girls on Track’ programme but as an ambassador for ‘Dare to be Different’, I had the opportunity to go into some schools and talk about my journey and experiences in F1. I was also able to have a few young ladies with me on work experience who have since gone on to University, to become a racing driver and a motorsport mechanic to mention just a few.
Motorsport engineering is something that relies heavily on advances in technology. How do you think the industry will be different in 20 years’ time with regards to not only technological advances, but also with women in STEM?
In this industry, 20 years is a very long time. The advances that I have seen in my 15 years have been incredible. It would be impossible for me to comment on where I think the technological advances will be, but I would certainly hope to see more women in engineering roles. There are more women working in engineering and manufacturing roles than when I first started working here but to my knowledge, I am still the only female wind tunnel test technician in F1. I am seeing, through the FIA Girls on Track Community network, there are a lot of young ladies aiming at engineering and technology roles in F1 so hopefully the future is bright for women in engineering.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Never let anyone tell you that you can’t. Everything is possible and dreams can come true if you know that right path to take. Never be afraid to ask for advice.
I would like to thank Dr Richards for her time and extremely insightful and inspiring answers. Personally, I have learnt a lot from Dr Richards’ words, and I hope that this will help to motivate the next generation of women engineers – or anyone reading this article – to pursue their dreams.
An Interview with Dr Kathryn Richards