Women in Engineering
Roisin Howard, engineer and athlete, tells how her interest in Maths and Physics has led to a rewarding career in engineering that provides her with challenges that satisfy her drive to keep solving problems.
My interested in engineering stemmed from childhood, I was always asking questions and trying to figure out how things worked. I grew up on a farm and my mother was a Mechanical Engineer so I knew what an Engineer was from a young age. In secondary school I found my love for maths and physics, and this only meant one thing, I was destined to become an Engineer. Being involved in an Engineering career means every day there is a new and exciting challenge. Working with teams of engineers means you are involved in a creative process that requires a lot of different types of thinking. There is never a dull moment in engineering, with daily goals and continual learning.
I attended the University of Limerick where I received a degree in Computer Engineering. This gave me the flexibility to work both as a Hardware and a Software Engineer. Engineering makes you well-rounded; I don’t think other degrees challenge your mind the same way. An engineering degree enables so many opportunities with people, technology, and education. It also gives you the opportunity to travel and get involved with Engineers around the world. I love exploring, solving problems, and rising to a challenge. I love the hands-on work and playing with hardware and technology, engineering is a great fit. Prototypes can be developed to bring technology to life. The most fun I have had so far since I got into engineering was when I worked on a project with Analog Devices where I developed a Robotic Arm control device which was connected to a touch screen device. In this project I really got to experience all the different aspects of computer engineering. I developed the control board for the robotic arm. This involved designing a circuit and programming the microcontroller. This device controls what the other devices in the circuit do. I drew up a circuit diagram to connect all the devices together and then I created the board and soldered the chips on. The touch screen device was very challenging, I had to begin at the very bottom here and build the kernel so that an operating system would run on the device; I then created an application that was used to control the movements of the robotic arm. This would be a similar to an app you would see on your smartphone. The software is broken down into small segments, each one controlling a particular movement or group of movements like lifting or grasping or rotating and so on. As an Engineer your thinking is very logical, every complex movement can be broken down into simple steps.
I love working in Engineering because I love the innovation that surrounds the field. I love that we get to solve problems and think outside the box. I also love the way that it applies to many different aspects of our lives; you can make an impact in any industry. I also worked in the Software Industry. Again, there are so many possibilities here. I was involved with the programming of a payments system, such as the system you would find when you go to an ATM to withdraw money from your account or top-up your mobile phone, etc. This was very interesting work and I learned a lot about the payments industry. Encryption and security are a big part of this industry. All you private data must be kept safe, to prevent fraud and theft.
Athletics is a big part of my life, I have been involved since I was around 10 years old. I was interested in combining my engineering interests with my sports interests. For my PhD I was researching how to improve on the analysis of human movement from an engineering perspective. There are electronic devices which measure the electrical muscle activity during a contraction. For example, if you want to move your arm, tiny electrical impulses are sent from the brain through the central nervous system to control the muscles in your arm. I won’t go into all the science behind it but basically the muscle fibres contract as a result of the electrical impulse and your arm moves. The devices I mentioned above sit on the surface of your skin and can measure these impulses, things like the number of muscle fibres contributing to the contraction or the frequency of the electrical impulses can be figured out.
We can also analyse the muscle fibre types, if you are involved in sport you may have heard coaches or trainers talking about fast twitch muscle fibres, these are the fibres that Olympic sprinters such as Usain Bolt would have more of. There are also slow twitch muscle fibres; these are found primarily in long distance or marathon runners, such as Mo Farah. By analysing the results of the muscle's electrical activity we can see if a person has predominantly more fast or slow twitch fibres. Fast twitch fibres will fatigue sooner than slow twitch fibres and by performing specific muscle contractions we can tell the fibre type that dominates a person’s muscle.
Currently I am working as a Senior Software Engineer for Emdalo Technologies, we are an embedded software development company based in Shannon. We have taken on a range of complex software solutions, ranging from deeply embedded systems through to large-scale Unix web services and Windows GUI applications. The company I currently consult with design, manufacture and supply advanced subsea imaging and measurement systems, such as cameras, lighting, lasers, machine vision and data management tools for all deep sea vehicles. I am finding this work very interesting and challenging. I am really enjoying learning about these systems and expanding my knowledge base. I am even finding the 3D maths from my PhD to be very useful in the processing of deep sea 3D point processing.
Overall, I am very happy with my choice of career. My advice to anyone deciding what to do next is to follow the subjects you enjoy at school, don’t just go into a college course for the sake of it. There is no harm in taking a year to decide or changing your mind while on one path. If you keep working at what interests you and keep pushing yourself to be the best you can be, you will find a career that suits you.