Charmalee Jayamaha, Energy Systems Catapult

Charmalee Jayamaha, Energy Systems Catapult

What job do you do?

I work as a Technical Collaboration Manager within the Systems Integration team in the Energy Systems Catapult. My role involves exploiting the range of funding sources available to create innovative projects in low carbon technologies. Innovation in the UK energy sector is happening fast to achieve Net Zero by 2050, aiming to create a future energy system that is sustainable, safe and affordable to all.

On a typical day, I work closely with the Systems Integration team to identify and pursue interesting funding opportunities. My team specialises in whole systems thinking, which is a key element in designing the future energy system. I talk to internal and external experts from different backgrounds and work alongside the Catapult’s Bid Managers to create project proposals. I also act as a technical lead and project manager for selected projects.

What I love most about my job is the changing nature of it. The different people I talk to, the funding streams I work on and the partners in the consortia we create – no two proposals are the same. The innovations could be targeted for next year or for 2050. And in an innovative environment, you must always adjust to change around you and be up to date. My job pushes me out of my comfort zone and never fails to give me a new challenge.

Tell us about your background.

I come from the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. A greater proportion of energy there is generated by hydropower and, as a kid, I used to love visiting the hydropower stations and reservoirs with my parents. And this led to a budding desire to work in the energy sector one day. Little did I know that it will be thousands of miles away from home.

My interest shaped my education choices and my first degree was in Electronics Engineering where I discovered power electronics and renewable energy, leading to a Masters in Electrical Technology for Sustainable and Renewable Energy and then a scholarship for a PhD in energy storage systems – all at the University of Nottingham.  My research produced a novel control method to support frequency fluctuations in weak electrical grids by using energy storage. My favourite piece of research was conducting experiments in a microgrid.

After graduation, my first job was an ERDF-funded placement with an SME that designed a home CNG refuelling machine. In a short time, we built a strong relationship that exists to this day. And this is where I realised that I enjoy working with people, despite being in academia for 10 years basically avoiding outside people!

I then moved to another ERDF-funded low carbon project, at the University of Derby, this time at scale and with many different companies coming to us for new products and services development.

Next, I joined a company that specialises in innovation in EV charging infrastructure, where I was able to explore technical consultancy in a more industrial environment. I was also given the chance to lead in obtaining funding for the projects.  This led to my current role, where I found I could expand my exposure to the wider energy sector. And given the Catapult’s strategic position, I feel I am able to make a greater impact.

What has been your personal experience of climbing the career ladder?

I believe my career is equally built on the strength of my ambition and on the power of networking. I have met so many different people that connected the dots for me in my chosen career path. Each step added value and pushed me to the next level. Of course, there were times when I struggled, but they allowed me to see things differently and understand my skills, abilities and passion.

The biggest challenge I still face time to time does not come from outside, it comes from within – conquering my own fear of the unknown. I am naturally a quiet person until I warm up to people. On top of this, coming from a different country, working in an environment very different from home and not speaking my mother tongue has made me nervous sometimes. But people appreciating me for who I am and respecting my knowledge has given me the confidence to break my own limitations and expand into new possibilities.

What kind of support have you found helpful in advancing your career?

I have been very fortunate to have so many inspiring men and women as my seniors and colleagues, people who believed in me and wanted me to do my best. Trying new things has helped me realise what I am really good at, what I am OK at and what I struggle with. This self-awareness helps me identify where I need to support myself and ask for training.

In particular, my current line manager has a unique way of informal mentoring that gently and gradually encourages me to leave my comfort zone and do things differently. This has strengthened self-belief in my role.

From my experience, I can say: when others believe in you, great things happen; but when you believe in yourself, extraordinary things happen.

What advice would you give to aspiring women in the energy sector?  And what approach do you take to managing women in your team or mentoring others?

  • Choose a role that combines your passion and ambition because this will take you to new levels.
  • Experience is the key. Good or bad, it all serves a purpose – positive experiences build confidence while negative experiences build resilience.
  • Choose the boss before your job. A great boss can do wonders for you and your career and will leave a lasting impression, even after they have moved on.

I believe honest sharing of experiences leads to great mentorships. To know that everyone goes through ups and downs, and to hear how they overcame them, makes one feel more confident about achieving great things. Personal stories bring true inspiration and can show incredible possibilities. For me mentoring is not static, it is a dynamic experience that is uniquely weaved around the stories and challenges of the mentor and the mentee.

Finally, what are your views on the current state of play regarding gender diversity in the UK energy sector?

I have noticed gender disparity in energy since my university days. In my first degree, there was a 1 to 10 ratio of girls to boys in the engineering class. And I have worked in teams where I was the only diversity factor for gender and culture. But I feel fortunate to be part of an organisation where so many women are contributing. At the Catapult, we do not differentiate between men and women. We consider fresh talent to be at the heart of innovation.

Sadly, stereotypes prevent girls from choosing careers in the energy sector. But the reality is far better, and energy is a great industry to work in. Women bring a unique set of skills and abilities to the table. We must empower girls with confidence in their own capacity and uniqueness. Sharing more stories of successful women through platforms like POWERful Women will hopefully create enthusiasm among girls to strive for a career in energy.