The Accidental Engineer

Posted by Elaine Massung on 22 March 2018
Abstract image of purple and pink circles

It’s estimated that the UK is facing an annual shortage of 20,000 skilled engineers. One of the goals of the Year of Engineering is to encourage students to consider a career in this wide-ranging discipline, whether it’s using mechanical engineering to design new robots, constructing future cities as a civil engineer, or looking at how everything works together from a systems engineering perspective.

It’s often said that it takes a community to raise a child, but the same can be said of encouraging budding engineers to follow their dreams. For electrical engineer Dr Jenny Cooper in particular, she never set out to be an engineer, but rather fell into the profession through the encouragement and support of those around her.

Early encouragement

As a child, Jenny enjoyed sciences and maths as well as making and dismantling things. Jenny preferred the toys her brother was given like Lego or Meccano and when given dolls, Jenny would design and make furniture, cars and houses for them.  To this natural affinity was added a dose of inspiration.  Whilst growing up, a neighbour always told her she could do whatever she set her mind to, and at school, her Physics teacher recognised and encouraged her ability.

But despite her clear aptitude and capability for science and maths, Jenny’s school suggested she focus on Occupational Health instead. Refusing to give up her interest in the subject, Jenny pursued her studies in Physics at university. But during her time at the University of Durham two things happened that would change her life – Jenny realised that she would rather work with applied science than theory, and she fell in love.  Her now-husband was an engineering PhD student and this introduction to engineering propelled her studies down a completely new path.

Natural progression

As a Research Officer at the Central Electrical Research Labs (CERL), both Dr Cooper’s manager and mentor helped her understand the energy industry whilst she learned how to carry out PhD-calibre research in electrical engineering. As Jenny progressed through her career, she learnt inclusive approaches to leadership that stood her in good stead whilst heading up the research team for gas and electricity at the National Grid. Today, Dr Cooper has her own company delivering energy innovation support, and she enjoys the flexibility of being able to say ‘no’ to things that don’t sound fun!

"My team motto was that it is sometimes better to seek forgiveness than permission when nurturing innovation!”"

Dr Jenny Cooper MBE

Celebrating success and inspiring future engineers

From borrowing her brother’s Meccano sets to being awarded an MBE for services to Energy Research as part of the 2018 New Year’s honours, Jenny’s journey through engineering highlights the importance of fostering curiosity, refusing to be pigeonholed, and choosing a route that is right for you.

Jenny’s top tips for anyone interested in a career in engineering and deciding if it is right for them are:

  • Don’t try to be the best at everything - focus on what you are passionate about
  • Don’t let ‘being different’ get in the way - celebrate difference to achieve excellence
  • There are so many opportunities and so many different aspects of engineering to get involved in - look for what fits your skills and enthusiasm

About Jenny Cooper

Dr Jenny Cooper specialises in innovation management and is director of a small consulting company focused on managing energy innovation, working with private and public enterprises including universities, EPSRC, InnovateUK and the Energy Systems Catapult. She has thirty years’ experience in innovation within the energy industry with a focus on the electricity industry, short and long term strategic planning, environmental issues, new technology and increasingly all aspects of energy technology. For ten years she focused on the management of the electricity and gas transmission research and development, then innovation, programme for National Grid setting the Innovation Strategy and increasing the innovation profile within the company, Ofgem and external stakeholders. Her emphasis has been on developing relationships and delivering solutions between the energy utilities and research and development suppliers – both academic and industrial.  She also led a project on strategic innovation engagement in National Grid.

She is comfortable developing relationships and debating issues at all levels of organisations and government to achieve leverage of funds and hence increased benefit for all parties.  She has been a regular speaker at international seminars and conferences and member of national and international committees and advisory boards. She was a member of EPSRC’s User Panel, chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee for RCUK’s Energy Programme, is a member of EPSRC’s Strategic Advisory Network and Supergen HLG and an Honorary Professor at the University of Warwick.


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Elaine Massung
Job title: Portfolio Manager
Department: Engineering
Organisation: EPSRC
Telephone: 01793 444527