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Research is working hard on the future
Portraits 07/02/2024

Research is working hard on the future

After 25 years as a researcher at Laborelec (one of ENGIE’s 4 research centers), Sigrid Gijbels became a Fleet Manager at ENGIE Flexible Generation Europe. But what does a fleet manager do? And what have her years of research brought her? Here are some of the questions we asked her.

I always think you should do as you say, because that’s how you gain credibility, that’s how you build good things and good teams, and that’s how you make things work better.

I find it strange that there are still so few women in science and technology.

Can you say a few words about your journey and how you became a researcher?

I started working at Laborelec more than 25 years ago, after graduating as a metallurgical engineer.  In the beginning, I didn’t do much research—it was more consulting, mainly for the power plants in Belgium. Gradually, as time passed, the focus shifted more onto Research, while I moved and held a range of positions.

After a few years, I became responsible for what was at the time the biggest research program at Laborelec for CCGT power plants.  During my last years at Laborelec, I also managed the R&I Green Thermal Generation Lab. It all came about rather organically, I’d say. 

At the beginning of 2022, I took the decision to try and do something new, so I moved to Flexible Generation Europe, where I’m now Fleet Manager. When I say I’m a fleet manager, people often think I manage a fleet of leasing cars! But actually, it’s the fleet of power plants. I’m responsible for following up our power plants in Belgium, the Netherlands, and the UK and I have a colleague who’s responsible for France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. As fleet managers, we follow up the power plants to help them achieve operational excellence and maximize the sustainable performance of the assets by monitoring performance, challenging the status quo, supporting, looking for (transversal) improvements and sharing good practices.

We also manage a research program in partnership with Laborelec, so I’m on the other side now and there’s still a link with research even though, compared with the R&I programs, the fleet program is much more practical in its focus. We ask the power plants what generic topics they would like to see investigated and that’s the way we collect ideas and set out a research program for Laborelec. R&I programs take a much more long-term approach, while the projects we do in the fleet program are more short term.

We want them to have a payback time of one or two years, not five or 10 years. The long term is also important but that’s the R&I mission, not ours. 

You trained as a metallurgical engineer. How did you choose this topic? Was it a random choice or was it something you always wanted to do?

It was rather a process of elimination. At university, you could choose different topics like chemistry, mechanical engineering, computer science, metallurgy, etc. The first few years, we were given a little bit of a taste of the different topics and materials science and metallurgy appealed to me. Computer science wasn’t my thing, and I hesitated between chemistry and materials science but then the size of the groups drove me in the direction of metallurgy. For instance, the Mechanical Engineers were a big group of maybe 100 or 150 people. In the Metallurgy section, there were 20 of us, which suited me much better.

And I guess there weren’t too many girls?

Actually, there were quite a lot! I think there were seven of us girls in a group of 20.

There were other groups where there were almost no girls and I think in general, if you look at engineering even today, there aren’t enough girls studying on these programs.

What would you say your time as a researcher brought you? What are the key takeaways for you?

What I liked is the network and the people I met. We had the opportunity to go to conferences and get in contact with competitor companies that were developing innovative solutions. We were really working on the future, and that was something that I liked.

There was a lot of variation. We weren’t always doing the same thing—it was challenging! You sometimes worked on a topic and after a year or two, you came to the conclusion that it definitely wouldn’t work. It’s a pity, but it happens—research doesn’t always lead to good solutions.But the diversity of the topics, the opportunities to meet different people and experience different cultures—because we were in contact with companies in Asia and the Middle East—those were things that I liked very much.

Do you have a saying or a mantra that is important to you?

Something that’s important to me is “practice what you preach” because you reap what you sow.

It’s something that I’ve always tried to implement in all aspects of my life, not only at work but also in my private life. I think that when you’re working with other people, if you treat them with respect and focus on collaboration, then you get much better results than when you’re not so constructive.

And I always think you should do as you say, because that’s how you gain credibility, that’s how you build good things and good teams, and that’s how you make things work better.

And so collaboration is important to you?

Yes, I think that by working together with a team, you can achieve much more than you can working on your own. This is something that some people might underestimate, but to me, it’s clear that when you work together—even internally within ENGIE, like between Laborelec and Crigen, or between R&I and the power plants, but also externally, working with companies that can be competitors in some areas—you can achieve much better and more results.

Collaboration is also something that happens a lot in research at ENGIE R&I. For instance, for European projects there are often consortia where ENGIE is working together with competitors. For the same amount of money, you get much more results. 

Is there a magical talent or a gift you would like to have?

Maybe something a bit selfish and not so much work-related.

I think we lose a lot of time traveling, being stuck in traffic jams and things like that. So if we could say, “Beam me up, Scotty” and you could just disappear from one area and appear in another, that would be nice. That would be a great talent to have, but I don’t think it’ll be here tomorrow.

As you said, there aren’t enough girls studying science and there aren’t enough girls who want to be researchers. 

I find it strange that there are still so few women in science and technology. In research and in the academic world, I think the balance is OK. But if I look at the power plants where I work now, well, there are very, very few women.

I think it would help if there was more of a balance, because sometimes women might be a little scared of entering this “man’s world”. Although I have to say that from personal experience, this isn’t something that you need to be afraid of. Girls and women can stand up for themselves and men aren’t so scary!

What could we do to improve the situation? 

I think we really need to start at a younger age. All parents need to start making less of a distinction between boys and girls, for instance, stop giving toy cars only to boys and dolls only to girls. And if your daughter is good at science, push her in the direction of engineering and research topics. Schools should probably also focus more on that.

I looked up a few quotes and I found a really good one. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “a woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.” And I think maybe women underestimate themselves a lot and they shouldn’t do that. We have to keep on repeating that women shouldn’t underestimate themselves.  

I think it’s stupid that we still have to discuss this! For me it is a ‘non-topic’, and it should be like that for everybody. But I realize the reality is still different and that is a pity. I think the trainings organized by ENGIE to make us all more aware of our prejudice and bias are a step in the right direction. If men are more aware of this, then maybe they’ll also act differently. And that could help bring women to the forefront more, because nowadays, men’s voices still carry much further than women’s, and that needs to change. Maybe we should also look to actions and not only to words. 

And we should also look further then the man-woman topic. Diversity & inclusion entails much more than this, so let’s not forget about the rest. 

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