STEM Mentor: Spurring on ways to find new and engaging ways to talk about science

Girls in STEM Mentor jan Choudhury

by | 13 May, 2021 | Girls in STEM

Jo Coles is a a chartered scientist, working as a flood risk modelling and forecasting senior team leader at the Environment Agency. Connect with here on LinkedIn

I feel really privileged to have been asked to take part in this campaign so thank you for reading and hope this helps you in your career.

I’m a chartered scientist and I work as a flood risk modelling and forecasting senior team leader at the Environment Agency. I absolutely love what I do; using computer models to determine where may be at flood risk as well as developing and improving techniques to forecast and warn the public about flooding. As our climate changes it is more important than ever for us to look at new and innovative ways to adapt to more extreme weather as well as raise awareness of the challenges we may face so we can be better prepared.  

It still surprises me that people may be interested to hear about my career story and what I do.

I personally find my role exciting and interesting and could talk about it for hours, but it’s that in built shyness and slight insecurity that people might be bored that always makes me a bit apprehensive about sharing. So that’s something that spurs me on to find new and engaging ways to talk about science; bringing out the passion, excitement and confidence and to support women and girls to follow their dreams. Yes you can dare to dream and dream big. The world is your oyster if you challenge yourself and as my Dad always says ‘step out of your comfort zone’. 

I was never the top of the class at school but I did always have an interest in the environment and the world around me. I also always had a hard work ethic, both at school and all the Saturday and holiday jobs I did from the age of 15. Even though some of those Saturday jobs didn’t have a direct route into my career, it did give me the experience of applying for jobs, putting myself out there and working hard.  

I studied Geography, Maths and French at ‘A’ Level and I think it was there that I really started to enjoy learning about the weather and the environment. I think I even put in my final year book I wanted to be a weather forecaster. I had also grown up in Canada and Israel and had a natural interest in seeing and experiencing new things. I went on to study Geography (BSc) at the University of Hull and took modules that were more physical science based, learning about hydrology, geomorphology and remote sensing. From there I set my sights on Birmingham University and did MSc Applied Meteorology and Climatology, which involved learning about physics, atmospheric dynamics, maths and practical weather forecasting.  Throughout my university career I’d always looked for opportunities for work experience to gain understanding of a true working environment and trying to see how my learning could be used practically in the outside world. Honestly, it’s not easy and it does take courage to write those emails (letters in the 1990s) and muster up the courage to telephone different people. With a bit of perseverance I secured a 1 week placement at the Environment Agency and a few years later, spent a few weeks during the summer at WSI, a private weather company in Birmingham before I embarked on my MSc. After finishing my MSc I then went travelling to SE Asia and Australia where I worked for a year. 

It was there that my weather forecasting career started. I decided to keep an eye on different opportunities whilst I had a 1 year working visa and also did some voluntary work experience on my days off. A couple of months later the company I had been doing work experience for contacted me to say they had a short term contract to cover for someone. I started my new job as a meteorologist on the other side of the world – where winds go round the other way and I had to quickly learn the geography of Australia. 

On returning to the UK I landed my first job as a meteorologist at the then PA Weather Centre in London. I worked as an operational meteorologist, but after working unsociable hours for 4 years, I decided I wanted to try something new and a more normal 9 til 5 working pattern. Using my hydrology and meteorology background I was lucky enough to secure a job at the Environment Agency as a flood forecaster in 2005 and I’ve been here ever since – doing a variety of jobs in Flood and Coastal Risk Management. I love every aspect of the work, it’s so varied from working on research projects such as analysing historic hydrometric data to operational incident management where I’m monitoring rainfall and river levels in real time during a flood event. Lots of what I learned at University is still relevant to the work I do; which is quite unique really – perhaps by doing work experience it helped me to explore the possible opportunities for a future career. But the most fulfilling part of my job is knowing that the work I do makes a difference. By improving our flood forecasts and warning, we can help people to stay safe during a flood.

The Environment Agency 5 Year Action Plan

The Environment Agency has an ambitious 5 Year Action Plan which underpins everything we do.The scale and pace of the changing climate means we need to think and work in different ways. Not only to minimise our own impact on the planet but also to be better prepared for the inevitable consequences.

We will protect and enhance the environment as a whole and contribute to sustainable development. Through this we will contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and help protect the nation’s security in the face of emergencies.

The plan sets out 3 long term goals:

  • a nation resilient to climate change
  • healthy air, land and water
  • green growth and a sustainable future

Of particular interest to me is the Environment Agency’s Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy, which feeds into our Action Plan. Our vision is to be a nation ready for and resilient to flood and coastal change – today, tomorrow and to the year 2100. 

There are 3 core ambitions: 

1. Climate resilient places: working with partners to bolster resilience to flooding and coastal change across the nation, both now and in the face of climate change

2. Today’s growth and infrastructure resilient in tomorrow’s climate: Making the right investment and planning decisions to secure sustainable growth and environmental improvements, as well as resilient infrastructure.

3. A nation ready to respond and adapt to flooding and coastal change: Ensuring local people understand their risk to flooding and coastal change, and know their responsibilities and how to take action. 

I feel proud to be able to deliver work that contributes towards these ambitions and ensure we create a better place for people and wildlife. If you think this may interest you too, please see below about the types of career entry opportunities we offer at the Environment Agency.

What I wish I had known at school and university

I feel very fortunate that I have had opportunities, but these haven’t just been given to me, I have had to find these for myself. Looking back I did lack confidence and I wish I had perhaps been able to talk to more people about my career path, as it can be quite daunting and I just didn’t really know where to start. Knowing what I know now, I wish I had taken physics at ‘A’ Level, pushed and challenged myself to take a subject which I would have found difficult but exciting. That’s why I am now a STEM Ambassador to support young people whilst they make important career and education decisions. I wish I had had a mentor to guide me through the decisions you need to make about different subjects. I was the first person to go to University in my family, so it was difficult for my parents to provide any in depth advice or guidance. 

I also wish I had had more confidence to ask questions and get support if I didn’t understand something. I think I was always too shy or nervous. Don’t be! If you have something to say or have a question to ask, say it or ask it. Have the confidence to speak out. You are worth it and people want to help. You are never wasting their time. If someone asks me for advice now, I feel privileged that they have asked me and I naturally want to help.   

There are lots of resources and support now available and it can be quite daunting so it’s really great that there are STEM initiatives to guide young people through. But there is always more to do. I’m passionate about supporting girls in science and exploring the opportunities that may be out there. It’s also really important to know that STEM careers can be a mix of science and arts and you can be creative – there are lots of different roles that require a broad range of skills. Everyone is different and unique and it’s important that teams and companies have a diverse range of people who can work together to deliver success. 

So what advice would I give? Ask questions, persevere and look for opportunities, you never know what they may lead to. 

Flood and Coastal Management Career Entry Opportunities across the Environment Agency

Think Big.  Think Environment Agency. 

Be part of the solution

We have an ambition for England to build a world-leading capability in climate adaptation, environmental protection and flood and coastal risk management.  It is important therefore that within the Environment Agency, we expand our skills and recruit talented, diverse and bright people into our business.

We aim to effectively communicate and market our careers and training opportunities nationally, through the most effective channels of communication to reach and engage with our target audience of young 16 – 25-year-olds.

Academic Internships 

An internship is a period of work-based experience, usually lasting 10-15 weeks, specifically aimed at undergraduates and new or recent graduates who have graduated in the past two years from a university/college with at least a degree or foundation degree. 

Recent internship opportunities: 

  • Engineering
  • Science and the environment
  • Business and communication 

Academic Industry Placements 

A 12 month/54 week work placement or sandwich year in industry that counts towards a degree course. 

We aim to run an annual academic internship and industry placement campaign each year between November to January, where we will advertise opportunities across a wide variety of disciplines and areas. There will also be ad hoc opportunities on offer throughout the year.  

 Recent internship opportunities: 

  • Engineering
  • Science and the environment
  • Business and communication 

Quest Scholarship

We are looking for students starting an ICE accredited civil engineering degree in the autumn.

A QUEST undergraduate scholar could receive:

  • £8,000 over the course of your study
  • Paid work placements every summer
  • Potential for a full-time job with a leading civil engineering or construction company on graduation
  • Experience, knowledge and the badge of an ICE QUEST scholar, good for your CV and your career – especially if you want to become an Incorporated or Chartered Engineer

QUEST: We are looking for students starting university in autumn

To be eligible, students will need to be starting a full time accredited civil engineering undergraduate degree at a UK university in September/October each year and have predicted A level grades of ABB or higher.

Preferable subjects are maths and science or design based subjects. Students can check that their course is accredited, visit the JBM website.

Civil engineers are a force for change and transform the way we live. We need a diverse workforce, free from harassment and discrimination. QUEST welcomes applications from anyone who is suitably qualified and meets the QUEST requirements listed below – regardless of race, sex, gender identity, disability, religion/belief, sexual orientation or age.

The QUEST application: what we’re looking for

All applications go through the QUEST Committee – academics and industry representatives who need you to demonstrate:

  • Passion and dedication to civil engineering
  • Academic ability
  • Understanding the value of civil engineering and the disciplines involved
  • Understanding current challenges and in the future
  • Leadership qualities and potential
  • Determination and ambition
  • Strength of character
  • Initiative
  • Examples of successful team working
  • Evidence of any relevant work experience

Additional information 

For more information or to apply for the EA Quest Scholarship Click Here

British Hydrological Society (BHS) Studentship Award Scheme 

Working with the BHS and JBA Trust to support talented hydrology students

What is it?

  • The sponsored Studentship Award Scheme (typically between £1500 – £2500) supports talented MSc students wishing to pursue development of their academic experience and qualifications in hydrology and catchment management.
  • Joint funded by BHS, JBA Trust and the Environment Agency

Why?

  • Build a pipeline of talented, engaged students 
  • Encourage greater diversity in the sector
  • Encourage the development of academic expertise in hydrology
  • Improve collaboration with BHS on issues within hydrology

For further information or to apply for the scheme visit: https://www.jbatrust.org/how-we-help/bursaries-and-scholarships/studentship-award-scheme/

Graduate Engineer Training Programme

Engineering with the Environment Agency 

Our four to five-year national engineering graduate programme focuses on four vital areas: technical, commercial, professional and management. It’s a structured, well-supported programme and one that will see you take on a mix of internal and external assignments, building up skills in everything from asset management to project feasibility, planning and design to project management and site supervision. Typically, students spend three months to a year on each assignment, giving them plenty of time to get to grips with the real issues, gain the necessary experience, making each project their own. 

We’ll provide full training under agreement with the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). Once they’ve gained the full range of relevant skills, attributes and capabilities, the student can complete their chartered professional review. Pass and they’ll be a flood and coastal risk engineer with Chartered Engineer (CEng) status. From there they can apply for a wide range of suitable professionally qualified roles within the Environment Agency. 


What we’re looking for
We are looking for graduates with a MEng degree in Civil Engineering (or equivalent). It’s also essential that their degree is accredited by the Joint Board of Moderators (JBM) as satisfying the academic requirements of becoming a Chartered Engineer. 

Keen to learn, they will be ready to make the most of all the assignments and opportunities that will come their way. Of course, you’ll have our full support throughout, as well as being supported by your team leader and a supervising civil engineer who’ll oversee your work, you’ll have a delegated engineer to help you on a day-to-day basis. These people will share their extensive knowledge and experience, giving you every opportunity to become the best flood and coastal risk engineer you can be. 

We offer a competitive package with a range of benefits and the opportunity to make a real difference to the environment. In addition, we offer flex-time, helping you achieve a positive work-life balance. We’re fully committed to having an inclusive workforce that reflects the communities we serve and welcome applications from candidates seeking flexible working patterns, including job share.  

We will advertise these opportunities each year between February and March with an aim for graduates to begin work in September of the same year.

If you have any questions about the scheme, please feel free to email gradengineers@environment-agency.gov.uk

Sign up for job alerts at https://environmentagencyjobs.tal.net/vx/appcentre-1/candidate/ 

Flood and Coastal Engineering Foundation Degree 

We are inviting candidates to apply for the Flood and Coastal Engineering Foundation Degree. 

Overview:

A FaCE sponsored student could receive:

  • Your tuition fees funded by the Environment Agency(equivalent to £9250 per year)
  • Two (2), six (6)-month placements and payment of £1000 per month whilst on placement
  • Placements available at our offices and depots across the UK or at a local Risk Management authority
  • Access to an experienced mentor from the Environment Agency or local Risk Management Authority whilst on placement
  • Networking and development opportunities whilst on placement

FaCE FdSc: We are looking for students starting university in September 2021.

Eligibility:

  • GCE A-Level BCC, including Grade B in Maths or Physics (excluding General Studies).
  • BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma DDD in Engineering, including Distinction in Further Maths or Further Mechanical Principles.
  • BTEC Level 3 Diploma DD in related subject with an A-Level grade B in Maths or Physics.
  • BTEC Level 3 Subsidiary Diploma D in related subject with A-Levels at grade BC, to include grade B in Maths or Physics.
  • International Baccalaureate Diploma 28 points, with Higher Level 5 in Maths or Physics.
  • Access to Higher Education Diploma Complete and pass an Engineering Access course with 45 credits at Level 3 and Merit or higher in all units.
  • Five GCSEs at grade C or grade 4 and above are also required, to include Maths and English Language.
  • If you do not currently meet the Maths or Physics entry requirements the Brunel Admissions team may be able to provide you with an opportunity to sit a Maths entry test as part of your offer. This test will be based on the material provided at: http://www.facepreparatorymaths.net/, which you will need to study independently beforehand. 

The FdSc application and who we’re looking for: 

All applications go through Brunel University first, to ensure they meet academic requirements. Successful applications are sent on to our team at the Environment Agency, who review these and then invite candidates to an interview for potential sponsorship.  

Diversity: We are committed to diversity and inclusion. We want all our trainees to feel valued and respected. “Diversity: it’s in our nature”

Qualities of candidates

  • Interest and passion for flood engineering 
  • Academic competency
  • A recognition of the invaluable role that Flood engineering plays in tackling climate change
  • Knowledge of challenges facing flood engineering
  • Leadership qualities and potential
  • Motivation and drive
  • Examples of successful team working
  • Evidence of any relevant work experience

Additional information 

For more information or to apply for the FdSC FaCE programme, click here. (https://www.brunel.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/Flood-and-Coastal-Engineering-FdSc)

Or send us an email: Face@environment-agency.gov.uk

Related Articles

Fast-track access to expert innovation insight and thinking – OnTap When You Need It

Written by Jo Coles