The transition from farmer’s daughter in Mexico to lead consultant in the UK nuclear sector may not be an obvious career path, but for Alma Eslava de Benzing there’s a definite link between her early years and current job.
Alma explains: “My father passed away when I was very young, leaving my mother to run our farming business, including all the staff and machinery. From an early age, I started working on the farm equipment and fixing it, which gave me confidence to tackle technical things. “My aunts were involved with a new hospital as clinical leads on the project when I was in my teens. I was considering studying medicine at the time as I loved chemistry and was very good at it, but I soon realised that I was more interested in engineering than medicine. I was therefore delighted when I discovered chemical engineering as a career as it combined every subject I loved – chemistry, engineering and mathematics.
Having completed her degree, finding a job in chemical engineering as a woman in Mexico was difficult, with few opportunities available at that time. So, after completing an MSc in Nuclear Science, she decided to do a PhD in Nuclear Science in the UK at Imperial College. After a brief period working as a chemist after returning to Mexico following her studies, Alma chose to pursue her passion in engineering and settled permanently in the UK with her husband, where she secured a job with British Energy in nuclear power station operations.
“I never thought of myself as a woman, I was just another colleague. There were still the perceptions from some people who would see you differently, but I didn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing,” continues Alma. “The great thing about my first role with British Energy was the variety. I got to work across so many different projects where I was chosen not because I was female but because I was a good match and had the right skills and experience.” After progressing through a diverse career that included analysing samples from sites undergoing decommissioning and a principal radiation scientist at the Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards for Public Health England, Alma decided to take a career break to enjoy some time with her young family.
“Returning to work is never easy, especially in the nuclear sector because of the special security clearances needed,” she explains, “so I decided to come back as a contractor rather than a permanent employee because it offered more flexibility and an opportunity to try a wider variety of roles. I’d come across Morson when I was at British Energy because we had used them to provide contractors, so I got in touch with them and I’ve never looked back. “The team at Morson really listened to what I wanted from a role and ensured that I found something that uses my experience and allows me to use my technical skills.”
Alma’s current role is as a Radiological Protection Engineer for the Hinkley Point C project. She is involved in waste characterisation, contaminated land and radiation protection, supporting the engineers during the design stage of the buildings surrounding the reactor.“For example,” she says, “it’s my job to consider the airflow in a room where there will be radioactive material and advise on how equipment should be stored to avoid contamination and minimise radiation exposure to the workforce.”
Alma is delighted that contracting has given her a career opportunity that will not only provide her with a challenging role day to day but will also enable her to make a difference to the nuclear sector in the UK. Alma concludes: “I love my job and would encourage any young woman to pursue a career in engineering if she finds it interesting. I firmly believe that if you love your chosen field you’ll study harder, work harder and achieve more. If you set gender aside and pursue your full potential as an individual, it’s amazing what you can achieve, regardless of any obstacles others may try to put in your way”.
“There’s definitely been a shift with far more young women now entering the profession than when I first started. I think the younger generation don’t see gender as a barrier from entering a technical career and a better gender balance brings fresh talent and insights, which is really positive for the sector overall.”
For more information on roles in the nuclear sector, click here.