Meet the women behind the lab tests

While women are under-represented in the global scientific community, United Utilities has been bucking that trend for many years and now more than 50% of the scientists working in its laboratories are female.

Ahead of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the water company for the North West is celebrating the diversity of its own scientific community.

Chief Scientific Officer Dr Charmian Abbott explained: “Globally, women make up about 33%* of scientific researchers so I feel very proud that we are bucking that trend at United Utilities.

“We’ve had a strong female representation in our laboratories ever since I joined the company back in 1998 and now 52% of our roles are filled by women, that’s from apprenticeship through to managerial level.”

Charmian, from Chester, was advised at a school career day that her ideal job would be a postwoman, but she knew immediately that wasn’t the path she wanted to take. She explained: “I always enjoyed the investigative side of science, so I chose sciences for my A levels and went on to do a science degree, which led to a masters and a PhD.”

Now Charmian is Chief Scientific Officer at United Utilities where she is responsible for running all water testing services and looking after water quality.

She added: “Even when I joined the business 25 years ago, women were well represented but we have definitely seen more women joining us, in particular through the Apprenticeship scheme in our Laboratory which leads to a degree.

“There are so many rewarding career opportunities in the world of science, here and in other companies and it is fantastic to see more young women joining the profession.”

Laboratory Manager Laura Pinkney, from Warrington, a former pupil of Great Sankey High School, joined United Utilities as an apprentice in 2002. Since then she has gone on to complete a degree in applied chemistry and become a Chartered Chemist.

As Laboratory Manager, she oversees water testing and also helps implement new processes and technology, including an industry-leading new method which has halved the time needed to test water samples for geosmin.  This naturally occurring substance can be present in some of our raw water reservoirs at certain times of the year.  It can cause a musty taste or smell even at very low levels, although it is not harmful to health. Additional treatment is used at our water treatment works to remove it to ensure the drinking water does not have an unusual taste or odour.

She explained: “Although geosmin is naturally occurring and harmless, it can create an unpleasant odour and taste so we need to know if it is present so we can remove it.

“The testing process was taking over 48 hours and we were keen to speed that up so I was fortunate to head up that project. I worked with suppliers to investigate whether automation was possible.

“As a result, not only have we been able to cut the time needed in half, we have also been able to make the method more sustainable by reducing the amount of chemicals required in the testing process. 

“I feel really proud to be using my scientific knowledge to deliver something that benefits our customers across the region.”

Applications are now open for United Utilities 2023 apprenticeships, including Laboratory Scientist, for more information take a look at the apprenticeship pages.

*UNESCO Science report 2021.