Professor Rachel Williams FREng is a Professor of Ophthalmic Bioengineering at the University of Liverpool
“An eye surgeon asked me to help improve their treatment of retinal detachment, a condition that occurs when the retina (the layer of tissue on which light is focused) starts to come away from the back of the eye. ”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
Engineering is part of everyday life. Take a look at any object or structure around you: what is it made of? How is it shaped? Why? Its design and very existence are down to the creativity and work of engineers. In my case, engineering has involved designing materials and discovering ways to improve outcomes for patients with conditions that affect their vision.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I was interested in design and making things from an early age and was always interested in science subjects at school. I studied maths, physics and chemistry at A-level. My parents were medics, and I became interested in the role of engineering in medical innovation and how it could make a real difference to people’s lives.
Please describe your first job.
I have always been an academic engineer. Early in my career, I was working on understanding how materials behave when implanted in the human body. An eye surgeon asked me to help improve their treatment of retinal detachment, a condition that occurs when the retina (the layer of tissue on which light is focused) starts to come away from the back of the eye. This started a long and productive partnership with the clinicians in St Paul’s Eye Unit at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
A career in engineering often involves working in multidisciplinary teams and for me this has led to many exciting opportunities. I have collaborated with clinicians and industrialists. My clinical colleagues have taught me so much about eyes and vision and how they are influenced by disease and ageing. I have learned how to best explain to them how engineering can develop solutions to their problems. The industrialists have helped to make these solutions a reality.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
I have recently been working on a project in South India. We heard startling statistics from our collaborators at the Aravind Eye Care System, who reported that 200 million people need eye care in India and less than 10% receive it. The Aravind Eye Care System’s vision is 'to eliminate needless blindness by providing high-quality, high-volume and compassionate eye care for all'. Our collaborative work aims to develop new ways to diagnose and treat sight-threatening conditions that can be delivered directly to patients within the community.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the profession?
As a woman in academic engineering, and particularly in biomedical engineering, the numbers of women have, perhaps, been better than in other sectors. It is very encouraging to see the number of excellent and inspiring women engineers who are developing their careers in this field and who will be future leaders.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
An education in engineering opens doors to such a variety of career opportunities. All it takes is your ambition and enthusiasm to apply your knowledge to the area of daily life that interests you the most. The opportunities are limited only by your imagination.
This year’s IWD theme is ‘Balance for Better’. How can engineers contribute to a gender-balanced world?
We need to inspire the younger generation of girls to embrace engineering as an exciting career and understand how their abilities can make a huge difference to society. The engineering community needs to evolve to support gender balance and demonstrate how this leads to excellence.
This profile was created for International Women’s Day in March 2019. All information was correct at time of publication