Karen Perkins originally came to Swansea as an undergraduate and gained a BSc in Physics with Laser Physics. During this time, as with most students, she found there were subjects that she liked and certainly ones that she wishes she'd never encountered! Experimental work was certainly a highlight and with this in mind she wanted to pursue a career involving practical research and development. Karen moved to engineering to take an MRes in Materials Engineering; a Master’s programme that allowed her to ‘convert to materials’ and get involved in a substantial piece of research relating to an industrial issue. Bitten by the research bug, Karen went on to complete a PhD in 2003 on fatigue/fracture and environmental interactions in stainless steel. Subsequently she joined the Materials Research Centre as a postdoctoral research officer in 2003 prior to being offered a lectureship position in 2007.
She met her husband as an undergraduate, got married in 2003 and had a son in 2006 – she essentially went on maternity as a post doc and came back 6 months later as a lecturer. Some says that questions get asked regularly: ‘can you be an academic and have a family?’, ‘how did you cope?’ and ‘didn’t the research move on whilst you were away?’. The answer to these questions are simple: "yes it can be done - many have done it, yes it is difficult and maybe I wouldn’t recommend doing it quite with the timing I did and yes research moves on – we wouldn’t be doing it right if it didn’t! The only way to deal with this is to keep up to date whilst you are away – breast feeding can take a while and reading papers is less mind numbing than daytime TV. On the other hand, the flexibility of academic work can be helpful for INSET days and those days when illness keeps the kids off school – particularly if your partner is also an academic!"
Karen is currently Associate Professor within the Institute of Structural Materials and Honorary Editor of ‘Engineering Integrity’, the Journal of the Engineering Integrity Society. Her research focuses on a range of topics around advanced materials for aerospace and power generation. She is responsible for a large research portfolio with grant funding in excess of £10 million as either Principal Investigator or Co-investigator in collaboration with other academic colleagues and industrial sponsors. Research students form an integral part of the team: she has supervised a total of 27 postgraduate MSc/MRes, and PhD/EngD students. She describes her research as rewarding and challenging, always throwing up the unexpected- not always to the delight of the industrial sponsors!
Her most significant research challenges have involved the development of a unique test facility for the mechanical characterization of alloy systems in hot gas atmospheres, including sulphur dioxide. Spotting a ‘gap in the market’ and being both a new and enthusiastic academic, Karen jumped at the chance to prove herself, later describing her actions as perhaps a little rash! However, 4 years down the line, she now has a facility that is globally unique and successfully generating data and providing critical insight into advanced materials under extreme conditions. "As already mentioned, research moves on: so now the questions are ‘can we go hotter?’, ‘can we incorporate water vapour?’, ‘what about superheated steam?’. All of these have their own challenges - that is what being an academic is all about."