Professor Alison Noble OBE FREng is a Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Director of the Oxford Institute of Biomedical Engineering
“There is a wealth of global possibilities to use your engineering skills to try to make the world a better place. ”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I am a senior academic engineer who splits my time between running a large biomedical engineering research group and raising funds for its activities, teaching undergraduate and training postgraduate research students at the university, and in my capacity as its chief technology officer, supporting my spin-out company (Intelligent Ultrasound Ltd) in the development of its products. I also sit on a number of national and international committees that promote engineering and its application to medicine. No two days are the same.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
At school, in the 1980s, I was always fascinated by how things worked, especially robots and artificial intelligence (AI). Unusually, I went to a girls’ school where physics was very popular and would be chosen as a third A-level. My physics teachers encouraged me to look at studying engineering at university, even though the careers office had no information on it. I was also interested in studying medicine but someone told me I would make more impact to medicine as an engineer than a doctor; this turned out to be sound advice.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
There is a wealth of global possibilities to use your engineering skills to try to make the world a better place. I enjoy working in interdisciplinary teams with clinicians to take ideas from concept to working prototype evaluation in the clinic. For instance, I am currently working with obstetricians to develop new ultrasound-based software tools for risk assessment in pregnancy for the developing world.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
I have always sought to effectively combine advanced research with training the next generation of researchers in my field. I have supervised over 50 biomedical engineering PhD students to successful completion, a third of whom are women. There is a personal story behind every PhD. I am proud of every one of my students and what they themselves have achieved.
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
Without doubt, awareness activities and initiatives, such as International Women’s Day, are playing an important part here. Gender parity requires one to respect and value differences, and this is not always a priority in the busy and competitive professional world that we live in. Things are going in the right direction, but there is some way to go before the engineering profession will have achieved gender parity.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the engineering sector?
The positives are that there are more women studying engineering, and greater flexibility in career structures and recognition of the importance of a work–life balance. Professional networking and mentoring schemes are more widespread and provide valuable ways for women engineers to engage with each other.
The negatives are that there are still far too few senior women in academia and female entrepreneurs holding ‘C’-level positions in small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
Often people worry about which sub-speciality to study at university or college. My advice is not to worry too much about this and study whatever sub-discipline of engineering you find interesting. Alternatively, if you can’t decide, consider studying general engineering (at the University of Oxford this is called engineering science). Engineers generally work in multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary teams where you will be valued for the skills you contribute to a project and you will pick up new skills from others. Engineers never stop learning or creatively solving real-world problems.