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Our polymers expert provides PPE knowledge to aid Cumbria’s coronavirus response

Penny Rathbone is Sellafield Ltd's plastics expert. She leads our centre of expertise for polymers and understands the physical and chemical properties of materials of things like grease, oils, plastics, coatings and elastomer seals.

Much of our personal protective equipment is made up of polymers, with plastic and elastomers helping to protect the wearer.

At a time when there have been shortages of such materials, the importance of understanding their chemical makeup and protective properties has never been more important.

As a result, Penny has helped support Cumbria’s Resilience Forum, by ensuring those who need it have appropriate equipment.

She explains:

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there was a shortage of PPE. I worked with colleagues to identify where Sellafield Ltd could help to supply into the areas of shortage.

My scientific understanding of these items meant that I could ensure that appropriate supplies were directed to the appropriate people and tasks – where they could be used safely.

I chaired the technical meetings to look at what PPE the health care providers could use. While there were shortages, we were offered supplies from suppliers across the area. My understanding of the properties, and how the materials would interact with things like cleaning products meant that we could direct alternative supplies to where they could be used safely.

My skills and experience in this field have been developed throughout my career, and I was really pleased to be able to put these to use to help the community. After all, it’s no surprise that councils and other public bodies don’t have plastics and polymer specialists.

Penny got into the subject after completing a materials science degree at university. This was followed by a PhD in polymers.

Her career has been rather more varied. In fact, she worked as bank manager before joining the nuclear sector via Springfields – a nuclear fuel production facility near Preston, which was that once part of the British Nuclear Fuels empire.

I’ve had a varied career, and kind of fell into, and grew into, my current role. I’ve had other jobs, but always seem to come back to polymers. I’ve now got a decade’s experience with the centre of excellence.

It’s a career and field I find incredibly interesting. Things are always different, and I rarely get asked the same question twice.

Our team is involved in a fantastic mix of research and development and long and short-term projects.

The nature of Sellafield means that much of this work is at the cutting edge, and some of it is finding solutions to problems related to our older facilities.

Penny explained the importance of organisations like WISE and days like today. She said:

I want to encourage women into roles like mine. It’s a fantastic career, but one that not many people know about. We need to encourage more people into these and then to ensure those who do, stay.

To help with the above, she is a mentor, STEM ambassador, member of Women in Nuclear and also a fellow of her professional body, the Institute of Materials.

Outside of her day job, Penny is an active cyclist and walker, which she has found invaluable during lockdown.

If you’d like to find out more about careers like Penny’s, why not explore some of the resources on the WISE website?

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