Professor Sir Saeed Zahedi OBE RDI FREng is a biomedical engineer and technical director at Chas A Blatchford & Sons. Along with four other colleagues, Zahedi won the 2016 MacRobert Award for their development of Linx, the first ever prosthetic limb system with integrated control of the knee and foot.
“From a very early age I felt a sense of duty to the needs of society, and an uneasy feeling about injustice and exploitation due to inequality in access.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I am the Chief Technical Officer of a company that designs and manufactures artificial limbs and assistive devices for physically disabled people, and provides these products globally. I am responsible for the technical aspect of services we provide to the NHS and Ministry of Defence for veterans. An engineer is a person who directly adds value and generates real wealth, whether that's a person who can engineer a table from wood or make a plane that flies 500 people across the globe at 600 miles per hour while earth is turning around the sun and itself at about the same speed.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
From a very early age I felt a sense of duty to the needs of society, and an uneasy feeling about injustice and exploitation due to inequality in access. I also always liked to take things apart when broken and try to fix them by understanding the bits, what they do and why and how. This was combined with an interest in biology and physics, and an interest in how the universe works. At 18, I opted to do a degree in mechanical engineering and in the final year of my degree course I opted for biomedical engineering. Ever since, I have been fascinated by the application of engineering to medicine. With technology, it has evolved into improving and advancing orthopaedics, and transferring this application to people with physical disability.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
Creativity, being factual, precise, systematic, not afraid, daring to take calculated risks, enjoying the real power of knowledge, knowing how it works and how it can be applied, being can-do, making the world go round, making smart cities, bringing prosperity to people, providing water to many, providing food, providing shelter, providing medical devices and medicine for people, landing several tons of equipment on Mars, making things, inventing, innovating, not being deluded by size and garniture and treating the whole, analysing and measuring the problem, breaking down the big issues into smaller manageable identifiable tasks, and providing pragmatic solutions.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
I’m most proud of developing a team of engineers, many of whom are now individually capable of doing a lot more than me; watching them grow and work together as a team, observing how a seed idea germinates among them and takes shape and form as it manifests. Individually, each one has unique talents and makes unique contributions. Knowing that we can make dreams become a reality and being part of a team of engineers who have transformed the lives of so many is a great honour.
How do you think racial parity in engineering can be achieved?
It’s important to not be fooled by the colour of skin, someone’s accent, or a particular mannerism, as it may result in false prejudices. Instead, we should realise the humanity under the skin, which would automatically result in not seeing or accepting the concept and classification of race. Providing equal opportunities requires sufficient wealth, education of parents, education of society and incentives for media to not fuel falsehood of apparent differences.
Has being a BAME engineer had an impact on your career that is either positive or negative?
I have fortunately never seen myself as a BAME engineer and to acknowledge such a belief or participate in activities that separate us as humans from people from other backgrounds. As a mechanical engineer, the foundation of the course and work experiences, the mistakes and the success, the challenges and solutions emerging, the sense of daring and taking on opportunities that are good for many and benefit a larger circle has had more impact.
How has the ethnic diversity of the profession changed since you started working in engineering?
I cannot say the observational experiences of over last 45 years have been any different. In 1975, there were two female undergraduate engineers in my year of over 50, and in 2018 there still seem to be similarly low numbers. The UK, unlike Germany, Japan or the US, considers engineers to be sort of labour-intensive, possibly messy, workers compared to lawyers, bankers, accountants or medical doctors. Prejudices start at home, through a lack of awareness among parents, and then as children grow, their home and school education have inherent biases towards children following parent’s footsteps. To change attitudes and culture we need to change the environment and replace the old noise with new sound, emphasising the importance of engineers to our future welfare.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
I would encourage them to believe that we all have a special talent. If they find that they love to solve problems, being challenged but not held back and get excited to eliminate barriers or go around obstacles, if they feel alive when they’re a part of a team, they are engineering a new thing or harvesting and transforming an energy form in a most efficient manner, and they feel good producing a lot with very little, then any career other than engineering will not satisfy them.