Dr Gbemi Oluleye, Imperial College Research Fellow
Dr Gbemi Oluleye is a Research Fellow in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London. Her research is focused on synthesising pathways to support decarbonisation of industrial energy systems, and synthesising pathways to commercialise low to negative carbon technologies using Model-Based Decision Support Frameworks.
Early interest in Chemical Engineering
Gbemi’s interest in pursuing a career in Chemical Engineering began at an early age.
“I remember when I was a child – about 9 years old. I had the opportunity to visit an oil rig in South West Nigeria, I wore a hard hat, little safety boots and a coverall my mum made for me,” Gbemi recalled.
“In the briefing room, I saw a picture that captivated me during the entire trip – it was the flow sheet diagram which showed all the production processes on that particular site, and how the materials are transformed to end products.
“It had so many colours and lines, and I loved that I could trace the lines. Looking out the window into the production area, I noticed the piping and equipment layout were very similar to what I had seen on the picture. I said to the tour guide ‘I want to be able to produce this diagram when I grow up’ and he replied ‘then you’ve got to be a chemical or process engineer’.
And so I said, ‘I am going to be a Chemical Engineer’. To be honest, if he had said I would need to become an artist, I would have struggled.”
Gbemi said that the drive to produce that type of diagram influenced her choice of subjects in senior high school, college, and university – her first two choices were chemical engineering. Whilst at university, she chose a process design firm for internship opportunities, especially in her second, and third year, which gave her an opportunity to work with experts who produce those diagrams.
Working in industry and further education
Her first job was as a Process Engineer in a design consultancy firm where she was finally able to work with a team to produce Basic Flow Diagrams and Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams for various projects.
However, the joy was short lived when she was told we need to think about the utility requirements for the process – heat, electricity, cooling and refrigeration. She said she had no idea about these topics.
“I knew I needed to study about industrial energy systems (It never stops I guess). I googled ‘Chemical process design’ and the University of Manchester came up. The only thing I knew about Manchester was the football club,” Gbemi added.
“I spent two years planning to come to the UK for my Masters and finished with a distinction. My highest score (about 96%) was in utility systems! I was thrilled to also discover Manchester is the birthplace of Chemical Engineering.”
After her M.Sc., Gbemi gained more experience as a Process Engineer in the UK, this time also focusing on improving energy and material efficiency and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions from the process site. She desired an opportunity to see energy from a systems perspective – not just for industrial use, but for other sectors of the economy.
Gbemi said her interest in energy systems “grew because energy is the main stay of any economy, and therefore needs to be produced and utilised in a clean and efficient manner.” She wanted to have a wider systems understanding of energy, gain some more expertise in this area, and contribute in her own little way towards the future of energy systems - especially in the area of achieving cost-effective transitions to clean energy systems.
When a job opportunity came up in Dr Adam Hawkes’ research group, she applied and was successful (noting that she had several rejections from other places).
“That is how my journey in the birthplace of Process Systems Engineering started.”
“Working at Imperial has enabled me to consolidate my interdisciplinary expertise at the interface of engineering, economics, and policy – which is relevant to transitioning to clean energy systems,” Gbemi explained.
“In particular using my engineering skills and experience, I conduct research at the core of determining the optimum combination of raw materials, fuels and technologies to achieve clean industrial energy systems, then integrate economic analysis and policy interventions to show pathways to commercialize these systems – specifically showing how to shorten the time from demonstration to wide spread market adoption.”
She said there are many opportunities to meet new people in the Department - at events like all-staff meetings, Christmas dinners, the summer barbeque, and at symposiums and the annual seminar series - and the passion and drive from other staff is contagious.
She added: “There’s support provided to learn new skills, and opportunities to be visible (this I found useful as a brown female academic). The social responsibility of the department, its position as a research powerhouse, and the dedication to students are all things I’ve enjoyed too!”
Gbemi has worked on several project with Imperial Consultants (ICON).
“I always desire to be an academic who shares her interdisciplinary expertise with industry and vice versa. Working with ICON has given me that opportunity. I have been involved in a number of projects including developing emerging strategies for decarbonising industry, renewable gas production in Europe, scaling up renewable gas production, decarbonising energy-intensive industrial manufacturing – strategies, policies and technologies required, fuel switching for marine applications, technologies for decarbonising global mining industry and relevant case studies, and advanced waste heat recovery in the energy intensive industry. “
When it comes to her career aspirations, Gbemi said that if she was asked about them three years ago, her answer would’ve been that she would remain in academia or go into industry. However, she added that having a daughter in those three years and becoming a mother has given her more perspective about her career.
“My aspiration is to contribute towards maintaining the relevance of the global industrial sector as we pave the way to a zero-carbon economy,” she said. “I am passionate about the industrial sector because industrialisation has been instrumental in the economic development of the world. As a brown female academic from a third world country (Nigeria) I would love to contribute to increasing the pace of industrialisation in third world countries. Now imagine what will happen when we pursue clean and sustainable industrialisation!”
“What’s next for me? I am soon discovering that achieving net-zero carbon in industry and achieving clean and sustainable industrialisation would require more than a systems perspective. Specifically, it requires a System of Systems perspective! So watch this space!”
When asked about how Higher Education can better support Black students and researchers and diversity in academia, Gbemi said:
“When I saw this question, I thought perhaps I will avoid it, and that is because I feel the question has been asked so many times. Personally, when I see the question I feel being brown is a disability, but then again thinking beyond myself I am now more convinced that diversity of all kinds is required to solve global challenges quickly. Global challenges like climate change, pandemics etc. can only be solved by a global team that is diverse and inclusive. A diverse team is the bedrock of radical innovation.
“So back to the question: Higher education can fund research to provide evidence that a diverse team is the bedrock of radical innovation, especially in academia. I believe this will change the narrative from seeing minorities as people that need to be supported, to people that should be included, and also change the narrative from seeing diversity as a nicety to a necessity.”