Careers in Chemical Engineering: Sara Penrose

Article by Yasmin Ali

Yasmin Ali interviews Sara Penrose, about her journey from alkyd and polyester plant manager to professional artist

MY name is Yasmin Ali and I’m a chemical engineer working in the energy sector. I was originally attracted to study chemical engineering because of the breadth of career opportunities it provides. To showcase this diversity, I will be talking to a range of fellow chemical engineers to find out what they do, how they got there, and why they do it. For this instalment, I spoke to Sara Penrose, a Chartered Chemical Engineer and a professional artist.

Sara is a Chartered Chemical Engineer, former chemical plant manager, and professional artist. Through her company, Sara Penrose Ltd, she brings together her varied experiences to deliver process optimisation with a difference. 

“I am a chemical engineer delivering industrial optimisation for people rather than processes. I run workshops about optimising performance within people,” Sara explained.

As a plant manager, Sara was sometimes challenged to get her team’s buy in when changes were made to the plant. This wasn’t due to any lack of skills or experience, but rather because of feelings of disengagement, feeling that it was not their place to say something, or a feeling of not being listened to.

“You can optimise a process, and save 5% on batch costs, or an hour per batch, but if people are not on board and don’t understand what you’ve done and why you’ve done it, a lot of that cost saving can be lost or not maintained and developed further.”

Sara’s business looks to solve these issues, and tap into this huge wasted potential. The day-long workshop is a simulation of a process using a highly-skilled creative task, fused with a lean six-sigma approach. Using her fine art experience, Sara develops team problem-solving skills by coaching participants to create a landscape oil painting. Many people start the day believing they cannot complete the task.

Sara Penrose: Using art to optimise people

“By challenging them with something they think they can’t do, or can’t do so well, it simulates that same sort of pressured environment that you get from a change in a process, but it’s done on a much more practical level.”

The day involves different stages, from design and definition, to measurement. Each team member completes an individual task, but they do this within the team. Sara pointed out “there is an I in team”, as strong teams are made up of individuals.

Participants learn about how they, and their team members, think and communicate. Everyone is measured by positive exceptions, for example when an individual analyses something, or asks a question. 

“You get a profile of when and why people’s skills are triggered. That’s useful for the individual and the manager. It’s a powerful knowledge base if you know when and why your team members will start thinking laterally, to place people in the right place at the right time, and optimise your team.”

A day at the careers library

None of this would have happened without her mother’s help. As a teenager, Sara had a passion for both arts and sciences. Careers advisors presented her with two options: a business studies diploma or nursing.

“My mother dragged me down to the local careers library, and we spent an entire day going through careers from A–Z, she was picking out anything to do with creativity or science or engineering.”

During this day, her mother found a leaflet about women in chemical engineering, advertising a weekend course at Bradford University, UK. Attending the course cemented Sara’s decision to study the subject.

ABR Foods, a subsidiary of British Sugar, sponsored Sara through her degree at Loughborough University, UK. She subsequently worked there, on the manufacture of starch and glucose, commonly found in food and drinks, as well as glue and animal feed.

“I got to work on projects where I was managing the whole turnkey, multidisciplinary teams, commissioning, and training people. I loved it. I did a lot of plant optimisation too,” Sara told me. 

After nearly ten years with the company, which eventually became Roquette UK, Sara moved to a senior process engineer role with Scott Bader, a resins manufacturer in Northamptonshire. The products were used for boats, cars, drain covers, wind turbines and paints appropriate since she would soon become a professional artist. She continued to work on optimisation projects, eventually securing the job of plant manager for the alkyd and polyester plants. She enjoyed developing teams, and bringing process and people together, but got the “creative itch”.

Scratching the creative itch: "Victoria Mill", flour mill at Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, by Sara Penrose

Becoming a professional artist

Having become a Chartered Chemical Engineer, and reaching the level of seniority she was aiming for, Sara felt the time was right to take her hobby to the next level, and establish herself as an artist.

“I promised myself that I would somehow evolve what I was doing into a career where I had the perfect balance of creativity and process. I leapt off the career ladder.”

Ten years on, Sara has established herself as a professional artist, built up a luxury leisure business of experience days, holidays and mini-breaks, runs creative people optimisation workshops, and produces and sells her own art collection. Her latest is a series of engineering art pieces, with the purpose of visually representing her passion for both art and science, and the beauty of the modern day plant.

“The aesthetics of a plant has an impact on its efficiency. If you’ve got an aesthetically pleasing plant, I bet you that it’s pretty efficient,” this was a lesson she learned from one of her first mentors, a mechanical engineer.  

Inspired by engineering: "Engineering Art 1.0", work in progress, reactors inside a resin plant

“If you think about optimum pipe flow and pipe networks and where things like storage tanks and reactors are optimally placed, if you’ve got a beautiful efficient design, it’s going to look good.”

Despite society placing sciences and arts into separate boxes, there is a lot of commonality, and Sara is determined to break down the walls between them. 

“What I do is the science of light and understanding how it behaves, and representing it on a canvas. It’s also about perspective and ratios and drawing people in.” 

Sara’s dual passion for the arts and engineering has collided into something unique; helping her to unleash the creativity that is bubbling away in every engineer’s mind.

For more articles in this series, visit

Article by Yasmin Ali

Chemical engineer working in the energy sector

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