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UCL East: Professor Paola Lettieri, Pro-Provost

As an undergraduate studying mechanical engineering in Rome in the 90s, Paola Lettieri was one of only eight female students in a highly competitive class of 300, and had to fight to even get a seat.

Prof Paola Lettieri in front of stairway artwork

2 May 2023

She quickly learnt the importance of resilience and staying committed to your passion, whatever the odds. And now, in her new role as Pro-Provost of UCL East, alongside her Professorship in Chemical Engineering, she’s bringing that same level of unwavering commitment, spearheading an educational revolution on a campus like no other. She’s the perfect leader for these exciting times.

UCL East: a new space for innovation

The new campus has been constructed with togetherness at its heart. From the creation of joint research facilities to the innovative design of the building, the focus is on breaking down boundaries within research and education, allowing people with different perspectives to share their specialisms to solve local and global challenges.

“Our students are future innovators, and to innovate they will have to see problems from multiple perspectives,” says Paola. “UCL East will expose them to different ways of thinking, enabling students to work across disciplines and to share spaces and facilities. By design, the buildings are fluid and transparent too. Whichever floor you're on, you’ll be able to see what's happening on the floors above and beneath you. That physically encourages people to talk, and to cross-pollinate different ideas.”

Beyond the student body, UCL East also has ambitious aims to embed itself within the local community. With widening participation events, recruitment schemes and scholarships for east London residents, the campus opens its doors with a planned programme of public and community engagement. Paola says:

We don't just want to land in the Olympic Park, we want to arrive as a neighbour that the community interacts with.”

Whether it's developing sustainable cities, or transformative technologies, or improving public health and wellbeing, Paola believes that UCL East marks a new age of discovery for the university. But it’s been a long road to get here. She says: “It’s been an incredibly rewarding programme, given its scale and complexity. All the challenges that we have encountered, we’ve been able to overcome as a team. It’s also required a lot of optimism, and maybe one reason I've been able to do it is because I've always been an optimist!”

The passion of a lifetime

Paola’s positivity and work ethic is infectious, and it was born out of her affection for engineering. For as long as she can remember, she’s seen engineers as people who translate an idea into a design. “Something that isn't only working, but is beautiful and creative,” she says. “Engineering, for me, was the expression of that journey.”

Her specialist research into fluidisation and life cycle assessment has made an impact internationally – so much so that the Royal Academy of Engineering awarded Paola their prestigious five-year research fellowship in light of her achievements. She was the very first female engineer to receive it, and has paved the way for others to follow this path.

Paola’s engineering studies began at The Sapienza University of Rome in the early 90s. At the time, she was focused on Mechanical rather than Chemical engineering. Due to the open nature of university studies in the city, her course was hugely oversubscribed. “I ended up dismantling a scooter and changing the engine so I could basically fly on the roads of Rome to make it to the gates before 7am,” she says. “It was tough, but it made me the committed person I am today.”

Arriving in the UK as a self-funded research student in 1995, she took advantage of her university’s links to UCL’s Chemical Engineering department and she pivoted her specialism. Her commitment impressed Professor John Yates in UCL’s fluidization group who put her forward for a research assistant role at BP Chemicals. She returned to UCL as a research fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2001 where she’s remained ever since.

Having worked her way up to become UCL Professor of Chemical Engineering in 2014, Paola is now an international authority in fluidization and on life cycle assessments, analysing the long-term impact of certain processes – from the treatment of nuclear waste to disposable facemasks and the Royal British Legion’s yearly poppies. She says: “My aim was to use my engineering skills to enable a better society and benefit the environment, and through our applied research and development I've actually been able to do that.” 

Looking to the future

Moving into her new Pro-Provost role, Paola is stepping away from teaching, while remaining research active, but her many years working with engineering students have given her a firm understanding of what makes them tick, and what they need. “I’ve been lucky enough to have taught subjects that were close to my research,” she says. “A lot of my teaching I’ve been able to put in the context of an industrial setting, recognising that many of our students go out to seek jobs in engineering rather than taking a PhD. I think this is what the students have always enjoyed.

“But for students today, the lens has become wider, and I think we've broken down some of the boundaries between disciplines. My own research students have become part of larger research programmes with students from environmental engineering, chemistry, and the Bartlett [UCL’s Faculty of the Built Environment]. It's different, but to solve the grand challenges we’re facing, you need all the different disciplines and perspectives of the problem to come together.”

This mentality sits at the core of the new UCL campus, and for Paola the title of Pro-Provost is recognition of her own personal journey as well as UCL’s. She says: “I’ve had a leadership role in the development of UCL East for many years. Not just constructing the academic vision but also bringing along nine UCL faculties out of 11 – all sharing the passion, the commitment and the vision to work differently and act differently. A new mindset for the future.

“The fact that UCL East is a reality, and we're almost open, is absolutely amazing. To be recognised with a title that represents Provost on a new UCL campus… it's the job that I’ve dreamt about.”


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Prof Paola Lettieri in front of 'Cray and Indigo' (2022), a piece by UCL Slade School of Fine Art alumna Abi Ola that was commissioned as part of the Pro-Provost (UCL East) Awards. Image by John Moloney.