Professor Eileen Harkin-Jones OBE FREng is the Bombardier/Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Composites Engineering at the University of Ulster
“The most exciting aspect of engineering for me today is the opportunity that exists to learn from the biological world.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I have two main responsibilities in my current role. Firstly, to work out how to make advanced polymer and composite materials that are lightweight and multifunctional, for use in applications ranging from aircraft components to medical devices.
Secondly, to design sustainable manufacturing processes for these polymers and composites so that energy consumption and material waste are minimised.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I love solving challenging problems and I love designing/making things. Engineering offers the opportunity to do both.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
The fact that I have never once been bored in my job nor can I ever imagine a time when this would be the case. There is always a need for new products/processes to be designed and for existing ones to be improved. The most exciting aspect of engineering for me today is the opportunity that exists to learn from the biological world, particularly in relation to how we design materials and structures. There is huge potential for engineers and life scientists to work together to enhance their respective disciplines.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of?
Fixing a hay baler for my father after he and my brothers had decided it was beyond repair!
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
Eliminate gender stereotyping and bias in STEM at the earliest possible stage e.g. in preschool/early years education, children’s tv programming etc. Awareness training around the subject of gender bias in STEM should be an essential part of initial teacher training. While diversity and inclusion are generally part of initial teacher training, little time is spent on gender and I suspect even less on gender issues in STEM. This, in my opinion, is of critical importance to ensuring that, from the earliest age, girls can visualise themselves in STEM roles. We also need to focus more resources towards promoting engineering at primary school level and emphasise its societal contributions – leaving it to secondary school is just too late.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the engineering sector?
Thanks to initiatives such as Athena SWAN there has been significant change in the past five years in the academic world. There is much more awareness of factors that can have a negative impact on job satisfaction and career progression. This is helping to promote steps to improve the working environment, but a lot remains to be done. Gender proofing of job specifications and promotions criteria is an example of an area that attention as aspects of both are often unintentionally discriminatory.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
If you love challenges, problem solving, learning and making a contribution to society then consider engineering as a career. Very few careers offer such a diversity of opportunities to impact positively on society.