As a little girl, Lucy Collins dreamed of creating space shuttles for Nasa.

But after learning she had to be a US resident to join the programme, the UK woman settled for designing something else apparently just as complex: submarines.

Now a high-flying naval architect for the UK's Ministry of Defence, Ms Collins will star in July's New Zealand International Science Festival with hopes of inspiring Kiwi girls to make their own dreams come true.

Specialising in submarine design, she's now based at University College London, completing a PhD while helping to run the MSc in Naval Architecture and the world's only submarine design course.


"Submarine design is very challenging - they have to operate silently, make their own water and atmosphere, have the strength to dive hundreds of metres under the sea and protect the lives of the people who serve on them," she told the Weekend Herald.

"And, to add to this, the main difference between a submarine and almost any other marine vessel is the one thing that adds the greatest complexity - a submarine has to be neutrally buoyant, this means it doesn't sink and it doesn't float."

She said her career highlight so far had been spending seven nights aboard a Trafalgar Class Submarine while training in what is a civilian branch of the Royal Navy.

"I was the only female on board, among 125 men, and at that time the Royal Navy didn't have any commissioned female submarines so I felt very privileged."

The experience was critical for gaining a first-hand appreciation for how submarines operated at sea.

"Imagine trying to design a new kitchen having never seen one being used - how would you know where to put the cooker or the fridge and how big would you make it?

"So now try to imagine designing a nuclear submarine without ever having been to sea on one and seeing it in operation - I'm sure you can appreciate how difficult it would be."

Looking back on the voyage, she recalled being on the bridge in stormy weather, just as the sun was setting, and seeing a pod of dolphins jumping in the vessel's bow wave.

"It was a very surreal moment."

As chair of Women In Science and Engineering's Young Women's Board, Ms Collins was passionate about seeing more women enter the engineering profession, and more girls pursuing Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

"Stem subjects influence every aspect of our lives and a job in Stem can help to change the world."

Having passion, she said, was the advice she gave to anyone wanting to follow a path similar to her own.

"In my experience, you achieve the most when you are doing what you love and ... when you have passion and share it with others, it rubs off," she said.

"There is not much that can stop you from becoming an engineer ... and you don't have to be a maths or physics whiz.

"What will make you a successful engineer are the skills you start developing in school; communicating with others, working in a team and being interested in the world around you."

The festival's director, Chris Green, said having a scientist of Ms Collins' calibre attend was a privilege, particularly for inspiring a new generation of women into science.

"A career in science really can take you anywhere and in Lucy's case it is literally places that most of us have never been."

Tickets for this year's festival, held in Dunedin from July 8-16 and featuring more than 170 mostly free events, go on sale on June 9. To check out a full programme, visit