UCL Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering


Exploring Engineering Excellence: A Q&A with Prof. Sarah Spurgeon for INWED

18 June 2024

We are celebrating International Women in Engineering Day with a Q&A featuring Prof Sarah Spurgeon. Discover her inspiring journey, key milestones, and insights into the future of engineering.

Prof Sarah Spurgeon speaking at the Mildner Lecture 2024

Can you tell us about your journey into engineering? What inspired you to pursue this field?

 I didn't originally study engineering; my path was influenced by circumstances. At my comprehensive school, I was the only girl in my physics set and the sole student of further mathematics. My dedicated maths teachers introduced me to mathematical modelling, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This led me to study mathematics at the University of York, where I focused on applied mathematics and completed a Theoretical Physics project in my final year.

By graduation, I had met my husband, who worked at York, and my project supervisor connected me with the Electronics Department. They needed someone to study the stability of switched flight control systems. Despite not having studied control or aerodynamics, my background in applied mathematics was relevant. Through a sponsored project with British Aerospace, I earned a DPhil and became passionate about control engineering.

As the many undergraduates who have taken my control courses over the years will tell you, I still have a soft spot for aircraft and will happily talk about aircraft control problems!

How did your early academic experiences shape your interest in control engineering and systems modelling?

I have always been excited by the power of feedback to change systems for the better. This may mean improving the nominal performance of a system, where one example is enhancing the behaviour of a device that will be used because it is inexpensive and will reduce product cost but where the open-loop behaviour of the device is not ideal. Introducing feedback can also enhance robustness, which is all about ensuring systems work well despite changes or disruption in the environment or the ageing of components. My mathematical background enabled me to work in highly interesting complex and safety-critical application domains whilst being able to guarantee robustness and performance levels. I remain as excited about the power of feedback today as I was at the start of my career.

Prof Sarah Spurgeon early career

What have been some of the key milestones in your career that have significantly influenced your success?

The first key milestone was transitioning from a Mathematics degree to a role in the Electronics Department at the University of York and British Aerospace. I am an introvert by nature, and for me at that time, it was a brave step. Having taken that step, my confidence grew, and I began to understand that I could have a fun and fulfilling career as a control engineer.

Another important milestone was becoming a Sub-Dean at Leicester University's Graduate School. At that stage, I had no ambition to become involved in leadership roles in universities. I was happy as a member of the academic staff and was engrossed in my teaching and research. One day, out of the blue, I was visited by the newly appointed first Dean of the Graduate School who was from a different Faculty and who I did not know personally. He asked me to work with him as a Sub-dean establishing a training programme and support for PhD students. I was surprised to be asked yet encouraged by his interest and went on to have a great time working across Leicester University with a range of colleagues on the establishment of their first Graduate School. This was my first leadership position and was instrumental in setting my future career direction.

More recently, I joined the Board of the IEEE Foundation. I am excited to have this wonderful opportunity to work with IEEE as well as with donors more widely so that the power of STEM education and the impact of technology can continue to drive positive social impacts worldwide.

Prof Sarah Spurgeon opening teaching lab

You've published over 300 research papers. Can you share a few key insights or breakthroughs from your research that you're particularly proud of?

This is a very difficult question! At any particular time, my favourite area is always the one I am currently working on!

Across my career I have worked on fundamental theoretical developments in the area of control and estimation as well as analysing feedback loops and/or developing controllers and estimators for a wide range of practical systems.

In terms of fundamental theoretical contributions, I developed a highly robust approach to reconstruct actuator and sensor faults in dynamical systems. This has been used to design soft sensors for a range of fault detection and monitoring problems with the fundamental paper being cited over 1600 times by colleagues. I have been asked to present this work around the world and am very proud of the result we established.

Prof Sarah Spurgeon with colleague

I'm particularly proud of my interdisciplinary and collaborative work across various applications. One notable paper involves advanced control schemes for antilock braking systems (ABS) in electric vehicles using brake-by-wire technology. This research revisited established ABS designs due to electrification, and it has been pleasing to see the uptake of research in this area. Additionally, I'm excited about applying control engineering to biological systems, analysing their robust and energy-efficient feedback mechanisms. There's still much to discover in this domain.

This year’s theme for International Women in Engineering Day is "Enhanced by Engineering." How do you interpret this theme in the context of your work and career?

Personally, I have been enhanced by engineering. It has given me a wonderful career and my life and work as an engineer are at the core of who I am. Further, society as a whole is enhanced by engineering, and I am very proud of the impact engineering has around the world.

Prof Sarah Spurgeon with her husband

What role do you think women engineers play in enhancing and shaping the future of engineering? Has the playing field improved over the years?

To develop appropriate engineering solutions, it is essential to engage in a way that is representative of society. Engineering is also an international and pervasive endeavour that underpins many things in society across communications, transport, health, and leisure to name but a few.  As women make up approximately half of the population, the input of female engineers is essential to ensure solutions are appropriate. 

Who have been your role models or mentors throughout your career, and how have they influenced you?

I have had numerous mentors throughout my career who have influenced my career trajectory in positive ways. In the early days, my Maths teachers at secondary school set me on a trajectory to tackle practical problems with rigour.  My final year project supervisor had the influence to introduce me to control engineering as well as give me the confidence to seize the opportunity.  My first mentor at work showed me the value to be gained as an early career researcher from the advice of an empathetic and encouraging senior colleague. Dame Julia Goodfellow introduced me to policy and government advisory work, which has since become a highly enjoyable and significant aspect of my career. 

Prof Sarah Spurgeon posing for official photo

Can you share a piece of advice that has been particularly valuable to you in your career?

Do what you enjoy and make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. 


Sarah Spurgeon’s research profile 
Sensors Systems and Circuits research group 
IEEE Foundation