Dr Gillian Mara
Group Leader, Frontal Crash Simulation: Jaguar Land Rover
Gillian studied Sports Science and Maths, graduating in 2003 from Loughborough University. She then continued her studies to gain a PhD in Finer Element Analysis. Alongside these Loughborough experiences, Gillian talks about her roles with Jaguar Land Rover; Youth Sport Trust and breaking a World Record.
Why did you choose to study at Loughborough University for your Undergraduate and PhD qualifications?
I decided I wanted to study for a Sports Science and Maths degree. Loughborough had a fantastic reputation and prestige and the modules on offer fitted in with what I wanted to study. When I visited the campus it had a friendly atmosphere, this was a great selling point for me as I loved the homely feeling of it. It has such a country, family atmosphere.
I continued to study for a PhD as I needed industry experience and wanted to continue my studies. The PhD on offer – Finer Element Analysis – combined both of these elements alongside work with Adidas. I proceeded to work within an Engineering field and could apply both of my undergraduate subjects and PhD work within this.
I was very involved with the canoeing club having competed internationally. I joined the committee as the training secretary and the canoeing club was a huge part of my life. I continued to be involved with the club years after graduating.
My time at Loughborough has hugely impacted upon my life and career. I have been lucky enough to have two different views of the world from my degree as well as becoming a world-class coach and an educator. I was able to apply my Sports Science degree to improve as an athlete and I have also used Biomechanics when working as a guest lecturer at various universities. I moved into automotive engineering as a result of my PhD and I have worked very closely with virtual simulation of the physical world. During my studies, this involved things such as testing the performance of shoes without having to create physical prototypes.
I initially became a professional coach, having competed as an international canoeist during my postgraduate studies. I have also coached within education and been a lecturer in elite sports performance. My current roles, however, involve technical simulation and working to solve existing problems and implementing them - rather than developing new techniques like you do in academia. The industry that I am in is much more fast-paced, which I enjoy.
Alongside this, I continue my canoeing and also work as an athlete mentor for the Youth Sport Trust’s Sky Sports programme. I utilise my sporting knowledge and experiences to give talks in schools and also encourage the uptake of STEM subjects.
I also have my own autobiography called “Climbing Back”, focussing on my recovery following a serious spinal injury between my second and third years of university. My recovery was aided by so many people and aspects of my life at Loughborough and I never expected to be able to canoe again.
Despite this, I have recently become a multiple World Record holder and set a number of world firsts with 4 other women. We rowed across the North Atlantic from West to East, starting off in New York in June 2016 and reaching the UK in late July. For me it was not just about setting the speed record but it was about challenging myself physically and mentally and completing something many would not dare to even try to do.
I work on the virtual simulation of crashing whole vehicles, enhancing the safety restraints and structural integrity of cars; which reduces the number of prototypes needed to be made. This is done in a CAD and CAE virtual environment using the Finite Element method. Much of my PhD was about problem solving and applying different mathematical techniques and engineering methods to develop performance products. This has been very useful in my work for Jaguar Land Rover. I lead a team which run frontal crash loadcases and develop unique solutions and I'm responsible for the upskilling and career development within my department.
With my varied set of skills, there are lots of avenues that I can take. I believe that everyone should work to do something special and create a legacy.
I often utilise every second of every day. You have to achieve a balance between tasks and I ensure that I prioritise. I believe that if there’s something that you want to do, you will make the time. I have always been passionate and competitive which is important – but I always ensure that I take the time to reflect on anything that seems to be a burden so that I can re-evaluate.
Becoming a World Record Holder this summer as it has been the culmination of everything that I have ever done as an athlete. From my various lines of work, I know how to deal with people in a stressful environment, which was very valuable!
My undergraduate graduation day was one of my best at Loughborough. I was able to share a very special day with my close-knit group of friends who are all still very close, and we could reflect on our incredible three year journey. We had always worked well together throughout exams and this was the absolute pinnacle of everything from our degrees and especially our final year – when we all supported each other so much.
You can find details of Gillian’s book, Climbing Back, on her website.