Interview: From Supercars to Superstar


Machinery & Manufacturing chats exclusively to Ella Podmore MBE about her growing list of notable achievements in a young career that is still gathering pace

Some will be familiar with this story: when school children in the early 2000s were asked to name a famous engineer, by far the most popular and somewhat disappointing answer was Kevin Webster, the hapless car mechanic in long-running TV soap, Coronation Street. Well, if that same question was posed today, the answer might well be Ella Podmore MBE, a young, enthusiastic, highly motivated materials engineering specialist at supercar manufacturer McLaren Automotive. Already the recipient of an MBE, Ella is not just a rising star at her employer, she is also a committed STEM ambassador, rocking up at schools across the country with a McLaren supercar and an important message for young students: a career in engineering can be exciting and rewarding, and potentially contribute to a brighter future for everyone.

Like many young engineers, Ella’s story began with parental influence.

“I was fortunate in that I understood what an engineer did from quite a young age,” she says. “My father was an entrepreneur, fascinated by mechanisms. I grew up with his logical mind set. It prompted me think about how I could combine my problem-solving mentality with something like chemistry; I adored chemistry at school.”

Ella’s passion for chemistry spurred her interest in materials engineering and, following her school years, she opted to attend the University of Manchester, largely for its industrial links. Commencing a degree in Materials Engineering, part of the course involved an internship during the third year.

The P1 effect

“I had a poster of a McLaren P1 sports car on the bedroom wall of my student digs,” says Ella. “With its perfect combination of science, performance, glamour and luxury, I’d dream that one day I might own a P1! The poster prompted me to apply to McLaren Automotive for an internship.”

McLaren Automotive did not have a materials department at that time, but the company wanted Ella as an engineering intern and she duly accepted.

“I had the opportunity to add a new skill set to the list of in-house capabilities at McLaren Automotive,” says Ella. “I could recommend a change of steel type, for instance, or make material choices that would save money or weight. In return I gained important experience, discovering what areas of the industry needed R&D. I uncovered a particular issue relating to material science and recall thinking it could be a sector-wide issue, so I focused my thesis on setting out the solution.”

In 2018, Ella graduated with a First-Class Honours degree in Materials Engineering. McLaren Automotive offered her a full time position as a Materials Engineer at its headquarters in Woking, and created an Advanced Materials team (part of the Body-in-White division). Five years down the line, Ella is now a Senior Materials Engineer, specialising in metallurgy and metallic surface treatments, leading the company’s R&D into metallic material science technology.

“I’m involving with everything from specifying new materials for future projects, right through to analysing failures during the product development cycle, including at the test track,” explains Ella. “Some days, I’ll be analysing the root cause of a crack in a specific component, for example. How has it propagated? Is there any fatigue or thermal degradation? Then I have to propose solutions. The Speedtail, McLaren Automotive’s first ever Hyper-GT, priced around $2.25 million, was an amazing project for me. The materials in there are phenomenal. It was kind of scary but really cool at the same time: where else would I come across such exotic materials?”

STEM ambassador

With such an exciting career, most could forgive Ella for wanting a quiet life away from work. But no, she is on a mission to get more school children interested in engineering.

“Children are not taught engineering at school,” she states. “We learn about the sciences but don’t necessarily relate that to coming up with creative solutions, which is why I became a STEM ambassador. It’s the most rewarding role: if I can get through to just one or two students, I’m happy. I frequently take a supercar along, which is a huge advantage as it immediately draws attention.”

The focus at present is on primary school children, as this is where it becomes possible to sow the seeds of a future career.

“When I talk to 8, 9 or 10 year olds, I hear about their dreams to be an astronaut or work with robots, but by the time they get to 12 or 13 they suddenly want to become a YouTuber or an influencer. As a STEM ambassador I feel a responsibility to help them retain any early interest in engineering-related topics. Taking a supercar along makes a statement. Children associate supercars with racing, music videos or people who are successful. I explain that these cars need designing, developing and manufacturing. It’s a very exciting time to get into engineering, particularly with the shift to electrification. I always try to get that message across.”

Woman of substance

Of course, there is something not mentioned thus far. It almost feels unnecessary to spell it out because industry is hopefully progressing to a time when this topic no longer needs discussing. But yes, Ella is a female engineer. And a very good one, as recognised in 2020 when she became IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year. Today, Ella is a strong advocated for women in this sector and a committed supporter of WISE (Women in Science and Engineering).

“I went to an all-girls school and then, at university, around 30% of my class mates were women, so the true extent of the gender gap never really hit me until I entered the automotive industry. In particular, there’s still a particularly masculine energy around the supercar sector. I’d like to think we’re on the verge of change, but it’s probably going to take a bit longer.”

According to a 2021 survey by not-for-profit organisation EngineeringUK, just 16.5% of the UK engineering workforce is female.

Says Ella: “I feel that industries are doing their best to address gender disparity, although in a way it’s helped me find my calling: because there aren’t enough women in engineering I’ve become a STEM ambassador, delivering speeches, visiting schools and participating in many incredible initiatives.”

Royal recognition

Ella’s impressive work as a STEM ambassador did not go unnoticed at McLaren Automotive, who put her forward for a British Empire Award.

“I had a very official and confidential letter arrive at my desk, at which point all the bad things I’d done in my life flashed through my mind,” she jokes. “But it was an offer of an MBE. What an incredible surprise. I had to sign the acceptance and pledge not tell a soul for two months, not even my mum. I was thrilled that McLaren Automotive recognised my endeavours outside of work. I give up most weekends to either mentor students or deliver talks for societies. They didn’t have to acknowledge that, but they did.”

Ella received her MBE from the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace in February 2023, aged just 27, in recognition of her services to engineering, innovation and diversity.

“The event was incredible,” she says. “Prince William meets thousands of people every year, but in those five minutes he makes you feel very special. It inspired me even more. Today, I’ve never felt more motivated to represent engineering and science. This is just the beginning!”

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