Niki’s explosive chemistry inspires the next generation

23/06/2021
Niki’s explosive chemistry inspires the next generation

Today is International Women in Engineering Day (23 June), with the theme of Engineering Heroes. People around the world are celebrating the amazing work that women engineers do to help society and inspire the next generation. Here, we speak to a member of the Cranfield University staff at Shrivenham who is helping young people – from school children to Defence Academy students – to take up and enjoy engineering and science.

What's the best way to get more girls and young women interested in engineering or science careers? According to Niki Darcy, the trick is to reach them while they are still at school… to enthuse them and to prove that these are not geeky subjects.

Niki should know. As a Senior Laboratory Technician with Cranfield University, an academic partner of the Defence Academy, she is training our armed forces in chemistry and explosives. In her spare time, Niki is a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) ambassador, visiting local schools to highlight the excitement – and the fun – of engineering and science. The exploding custard tin, a powder explosion that blows the lid off a sealed tin, is a favourite with the younger children.

At the Defence Academy's site in Shrivenham, Niki has been sharing her knowledge with highly motivated students across all ages and ranks since 2015, illustrating experiments in lectures and practical, hands-on demonstrations in labs.

Her lab work includes demonstrating the chemistry of explosives – and teaching students how to synthesize them in the lab; fuels and lubricants – including how to make diesel fuel from chip fat; and making pyrotechnics – including a thermite lance called a dragon that can burn through steel. Much of this is about protection for personnel, as well. Her dramatic demonstration of setting light to methane in her hand (see picture) shows that flames don't always burn… with the right precautions.

Students on the ammunition courses usually leave the Defence Academy to receive further training, joining the 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal & Search Regiment RLC as bomb disposal experts.

There is also the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) course in which she shows the students how simple it is to create chemical weapons from readily available materials.

On the CBRN course, Niki shows the Defence Academy students how to detect and decontaminate an illicit chemical weapons lab in, what they would expect to see and what chemical processes they would need to recognise.

She said that in her six years at Shrivenham she has noticed an increase in female students at the Defence Academy taking science and technology modules, which pleases her. "The situation is changing for the better," she said. "When I was at school, a science teacher told me that girls had no place in a physics class."

The theme of this year's International Women in Engineering Day is Engineering Heroes. Niki's own engineering heroes are Marie Curie, Nobel prize winner who discovered polonium and radium, championed the use of radiation in medicine and fundamentally changed our understanding of radioactivity; and Ada Lovelace, whose passion for mathematics and early computer engineering have made her a symbol for modern women in technology.

They both represent an earlier age, Niki explained, when females were expected to know, and to stay in, their place. Today, we are celebrating all the women and girls out there who fought back to say "science and engineering are my place".