Cathy McClay graduated from Electrical and Electronic Engineering in 1992. She was President of the City and Guilds (1990-91) and involved in the Imperial choir.
Cathy is currently Head of Future Markets in the System Operator at National Grid. Cathy and her team work with the wider industry to develop and drive the change in the gas, electricity and capacity markets required to transition to the energy system of the future.
"You get out of life what you put into it. I was interested in my studies and did well but also had a lot of fun. It’s also important not to compromise on your values so you fit in. London is a fantastic city – make the most of it."
Why did you choose Imperial as the place to follow your interest in STEM subjects? I really wanted to do electrical engineering rather than general engineering and a teacher at school recommended Imperial. Having grown up in a small village in N Ireland, London was appealing.
How did you find life at Imperial as a woman? I really enjoyed my time at Imperial. Most of the time it never really occurred to me that I was in a minority and I didn’t feel the need to become ‘one of the boys’ to fit in. I was the first female President of C&G in a few years and I also didn’t drink alcohol so it was definitely possible to ‘just be yourself.’
Who inspired you at Imperial and why? I had some very good lecturers who made the subject interesting because they loved their topic and cared about communicating it well. I would shout out Bob Spence, Chris Toumazou and Steve Williamson (who became my PhD supervisor).
What is your fondest memory of your time here? The friends I made – we grew up together at Imperial. I also really enjoyed travelling down to Brighton in the back of Bo, a vintage car on the Brighton run.
Please tell us about the work you’re doing now. I work for National Grid System Operator. We are responsible for keeping the lights on and gas flowing in GB. I’m Head of Future Markets and am responsible for ensuring that we have the structures in place to allow us to manage an electricity system with zero carbon by 2025. It’s great to be at the centre of the decarbonisation challenge in the UK.
How has what you learnt in the Department helped you in your career so far? Some of the subject matter has been directly relevant to my roles such as the maths and the power system engineering. However what has been far more important was all the project work we did: learning to work in teams; how to break a large problem into smaller ones to tackle it; how to deal with colleagues who aren’t pulling their weight. It’s also the place that I learnt to think critically rather than just accept everything I was told as being correct.
What have been your career highlights and challenges? One of the biggest challenges was deciding where I wanted to focus my career as there were so many options. I started as an academic but moved into industry. I’ve also had to overcome ‘imposter syndrome. I probably held myself back a bit in my career, thinking I wasn’t good enough to be at the next level. Some really good coaching has helped me with that. Working abroad in Amsterdam and Paris as I learnt so much about other cultures. I was also really proud to be listed as one of the Top 50 Influential Women in Engineering in 2016.
What are your career plans for the future? I enjoy what I do and have no plans to change right now. I am a director on the boards of 3 companies which I really enjoy and I would like to do more of that in the future.
What advice would you give to women students starting a career in the sector, or girls who are thinking about studying STEM? Choose something you enjoy and go for it.
What makes you proud to be an Imperial alumna? It’s got a great reputation.
What one word or phrase would you use to describe Imperial alumni? Extremely diverse