Don't be put off engineering by a perception that it's for the guys - engineers usually make pretty good colleagues, whatever their gender.
My name is Heather Powell, I studied Electric and Electronic Engineering at The University of Sheffield.
I did a PhD in Medical Imaging after my first degree and then worked in industry for five years. From the start I found myself doing a combination of designing hardware and then writing software to control it or to take measurements. I got further into software as a Systems Engineer and ended up just doing software, initially to control manufacturing production lines and then writing software to run inside computer networks, to send messages to the right place for example. I eventually thought I’d go back into university life and joined the computing department at Nottingham Trent University as a lecturer. I did teaching and research and ended up researching into things like how to automatically interpret images and text. These are areas of artificial intelligence - it’s a lot harder to get a computer to do these sorts of tasks than most people realise. I also did research on the best ways to use technology in teaching and training.
Alongside the teaching and research activity, I worked my way up through various course management roles to become Head of the Computing department. The Computing department sits in the School of Science and Technology which also includes departments of Biosciences, Chemistry and Forensics, Sport Science, and Physics and Maths. In the last few years I have progressed to be an Associate Dean in the School. This means that I now have a full time management role, supporting the Dean in running the School. I therefore get involved in everything from managing staff and dealing with student issues to working out how big the Chemistry Laboratories should be or how many staff we need. I would never have foreseen doing such a role ten years ago, let alone when I started out.
I was good at science at school and had wanted something with a clear career path and vocation so I chose to study medicine. I started but didn’t get on with medicine – too many unrelated facts and Latin names to absorb for my liking. After a term I was looking around for something else and stumbled upon Electronic and Electrical Engineering. It ticked the vocational box so I went for it. I didn’t have the A-level Mathematics required so I went home and did a crash course in maths for 13 weeks to get my A-level! I’m therefore always sympathetic to any of our students who don’t get on with their first choice of degree and want to change subject.
I have always liked feeling that I have done a good job and achieved something. That is what is great about engineering and computing – the fact that you can actually help make something happen that is useful. I was always more interested in this than in abstract ideas-based research. Similarly in the more management roles I have held, I enjoy the satisfaction of seeing things working better as a result of my efforts; whether it’s the creation of better courses, better experiences for students, a better environment for staff or just knowing that I have played a part in supporting others make significant research breakthroughs.
What has been the highlight of your career?
It’s hard to pick a highlight. I have enjoyed all of it and after the rather confused start, I feel really lucky that I have managed to find a path that has allowed me to progress and develop and that has fitted my skills and strengths well. I enjoy what I’m doing now, but I look back with fondness to my years in industry when I was doing engineering-proper, developing and commissioning systems on factory shop-floors.
Advice for students.
I would advise people to follow their interests and not to do things in a half-hearted way – you only get one chance at life. The more enthusiasm and commitment you can bring to your career right from the start, the further you will go and the more rewarding it will be, it's a non-linear relationship.
Have confidence in yourself – you aren’t expected to know everything at the start. Find out as much as you can about the industry and try different roles. There’s a lot of variety and so you have to look around to find the sort of work that suits you best.
Don't be put off engineering by a perception that it's for the guys. It pays well and in my experience engineers usually make pretty good colleagues, whatever their gender.
We interviewed Heather in 2016.