Emphasise your common interests and common goals rather than differences 

Dr Gwen Reilly is a Senior Lecturer in Bioengineering in the department Material Science and Engineering department.

Gwen Reilly

Watch: our interview with Gwen

My role as Senior Lecturer is a combination of tasks including research but also looking after students; both undergraduate and PhD students. The most challenging, but also the most rewarding is the research. It is also rewarding to see the development of the students to watch them grow and obtain knowledge. They often keep in contact and are very proud to show me their achievements, even after graduation.

The University of Sheffield is very keen to promote a multicultural environment, where all countries are represented, this is very clear in our student base and at an academic level. We are very welcoming of students from different cultures and it is this difference and coming together of community and culture that makes us interesting.

I originally trained as a biologist, I was particularly interested in bones. Bones are one of the most important solids in the human body; helping us move around and supporting our body. I started a PhD and realised that most of the tools I needed to understand bones were engineering tools. I studied engineering during my PhD because I needed to better understand the mechanical properties of the human body.

How did you first get interested in bioengineering?

I was interested in the human body; so I studied evolution, then I did my biology degree and I had some very inspirational Professors there, who knew why bird bones have to be like that to enable them to fly and how insects are able to fly. That got me interested in bio-mechanics. I also did a project on seaweed; it has very different mechanical properties depending on whether it’s on a very rough sea shore or on a very calm sea shore.Here we learn how biology adapts according to engineering principles.

I currently work on the cellular level of biomechanics. When you do something to a cell such as squash or stretch, which happens all the time in the body. The cells in our body are under mechanical strain and the cell must be able to sense that and know it is being stimulated because it responds. When you exercise a lot your muscles get fatter and your bones get thicker. Your blood vessels respond to blood pressure and get wider or smaller, the lining of blood vessels adapts to the shear stress. We research how this happens, how does the cell sense these forces? We look at nanostructures in the cell and see how these cause the cell to change its behaviour

The next stage is that we want to better understand the orientation of tissues. We understand the shapes and proteins that go into them, but we still don't understand the micro and nanostructure of the protein filaments that make up the tissue. In bone for instance we have layers of collagen in rows where they will all be parallel but change direction in different places in the bone, this is very important for its mechanical function, but we don’t understand why it grows that way. What's stimulus makes it grow that way? How do the cells know how to structure and organise the matrix. Our work is on the organisation of this matrix and how we can modify it. As a tissue engineer if we can create a tissue in the laboratory that we can implant we can avoid the problems of having to use grafted or donated tissues.

What is it like being a woman in engineering?

I didn’t experience being a woman engineer until later on, its quite fun these days because my female students enjoy being a bit unique, they take advantage of the opportunities that are available for women in engineering. One of my students is in the Women in Engineering Society for instance, she helps run events. I moved into engineering gradually, when I first worked in the engineering I had a bit of a shock at how many women were around; until then I had been in more mixed environments. Its not a problem as long as you don't make it a problem. You just get along with people, you have to emphasis your common interests and common goals rather than your differences. 

If anyone thinks its strange or makes strange comments they are the ones in the minority. Most men are happy to have more women in the environment, they like to work in a mixed group and are very encouraging. There are only a few old fashioned short-sighted people that see it as a problem.

How do we encourage more women to work and study engineering?

Its all about understanding what engineering is about. This goes to both men and women, because its not a school subject, its only physics where it is even touched on. You don't hear about its purpose and function, you don't understand what an interdisciplinary subject it; bioengineering is absolutely ideal. People don't know its there and understand that it will be a nice mixture of subjects.

What excites you about engineering?

I think one of the best things about the job is being able to guide students when they do a project and to help develop their understanding. Its great to watch them get more and more excited about results, and start to realise the significance of the project. That's really encouraging. Its really nice when my students can write up their results and get it published too. Everyone around the world can see it and the student feels like they have contributed to scientific literature. 

We interviewed Gwen in 2014.