Professor Liz Tanner OBE FREng FRSE is a Professor of Biomedical Materials at the University of Glasgow
“My research is developing materials that can mechanically and biologically work better with the human body.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
As an academic, my job has three components: research, teaching and administration to make the first two happen. My research is developing materials that can mechanically and biologically work better with the human body (in particular bone) than previous materials. I started, and ran for five years, the Glasgow undergraduate biomedical engineering degree; it has grown from the first intake of 23 students to now nearly 200, with our graduates working around the world.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I was always interested in how things work and how to make them function better. I was also interested in medicine and had to decide which to do. This combination brought me to the subject of biomedical engineering. I was at a girls’ school with a headmistress who thought that there was no reason that women should not do engineering and encouraged at least one girl a year to go to Oxbridge to do engineering.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
The variety of subjects I can cover. During February, I tested the mechanical properties of a calcite structure that is inside a sea shell that grows at 80-130m below sea level off Japan, developed a method of mechanically comparing the response to loading of two methods of fixing one design of total hip replacement and have attended the main membership committee of the Royal Academy of Engineering.
I have also held a planning meeting for the 2020 World Biomaterials Congress to take place in Glasgow, worked on a couple of journal papers, run two undergraduate labs, taken the first year biomedical engineering students around the Anatomy Museum and given biomaterials lectures to the second years, and run the seminars for the MEng final-year course ‘Applications of Biomedical Engineering’.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
In research, I am most proud of HAPEX®, a composite made of bone mineral in polyethylene, which was used in about half a million middle ear implants in the 1990s – because of this work, people can hear. In teaching, starting the biomedical engineering degree at Glasgow, the first such undergraduate degree in Scotland.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the engineering sector?
As an undergraduate, I was one of eight women students in a cohort of 120 and there was only one woman academic who taught me. Looking at the students joining the Glasgow biomedical engineering degree this year, the intake was 23 men and 25 women. Throughout engineering, the intake is still more than the 7% I was part of as an undergraduate. All the first-year students get taught by myself and another female professor.
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
It will take time, but it is accelerating. In 1912 my grandmother qualified as a doctor and became an army doctor in the First World War, a totally extraordinary thing to do as a woman. Now medical school intakes are more than 50% female. I think, with time, this will happen with engineering, probably a hundred years after the end of the Second World War, not that far away.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
Go for it! All sorts of things will happen in your career, but you will never be bored for long. There is a poster I’ve seen that says “Engineers make the world that has never been” and it is true. New things happening in the world only happen because engineers to make them happen.