Studying STEM subjects gives you a set of skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving, creativity and innovation, design and communications, all of which are highly valued by many different types of employers.
Physical and Mathematical Sciences is a broad sector, with many potential career paths for those with qualifications and suitable skillsets, including medical work, engineering, teaching, finance and technology.
The engineering sector itself is made up of a wide range of companies providing a diverse range of products and services.
The most usual route is through taking a degree at a third level college, often following this with a post graduate qualification.
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A wide range of opportunities exist in both electrical and electronic engineering.
Sinead Kenny works with Creganna in Galway as a Design Engineer in the Medical Device Sector. She did a degree in Material Science from the University of Limerick where she continued with her studies and was awarded a PhD in Biomedical Cements.
What were the main 'career decision' milestones in your life so far?
During secondary school I decided to do transition year. The teachers in our school went to great lengths to ensure we experienced as much as possible during the year. One of the science teachers, Ms. Rosemary Ferriter arranged visits to Cork Institute of Technology and University College Cork to speak to scientists & students about the various courses available & the types of careers available. She also demonstrated some interesting experiments which were not on the junior or leaving certificate curriculum. I also had work experience in a solicitors office & the zoology department in UCC. These experiences coupled with the sciences teachers enthusiasm sparked my interest & I decided to do both Physics & Chemistry for the leaving.
During my final year in school I found out that there was a course in the University of Limerick which consisted of Maths, Chemistry & Physics & was also practical as it was a study of materials & their application. Hence following the leaving certificate I started in UL studying Materials Science. A lecturer in the department, Dr Robert Hill, was, like my previous science teacher, extremely enthusiastic. His main research interests lay in the chemistry of biomedical cements & their interaction with the body. Therefore, to experience the medical industry & ensure I was correct in deciding to carry out my FYP (final year project) on biomedical cements, I did my co-operative experience in Boston Scientific in Galway.
During this time I was exposed to many medical devices & how they are used in the body. On returning to college I completed my FYP in biomedical cements & obtained a scholarship to continue my research as a postgraduate. During this time I travelled to many conferences to present papers on my research & learnt about many other areas and which materials could be applied to the body
Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?
How did you go about getting your current job?
I really enjoyed living in Galway during my cooperative work experience, so I kept an eye on the papers & internet for suitable roles there. Creganna had recently set up their Design Services department & advertised a position for design services engineer. I applied for the job & had 2 interviews. I was successful & moved to Galway just before Christmas in 2004. I started working in Creganna the following January & really enjoy working here.
Describe a typical day?
The good thing about working in Creganna is that the job has a lot of variety to it. Unlike working in a R&D department of a large company, Creganna provides the service of device design to many different companies. Hence you could be working on a device for a cardiovascular application, like a stent delivery system one day & on a biomedical cement delivery device the next.
A project is usually kicked off with brainstorming sessions, which may involve 8 – 10 engineer discussing a possible device design & subsequently coming up with possible solutions. We will then try to construct prototypes in the lab. The next step involves testing these devices in conditions which simulate those experienced during application. Some projects may require additional research, for example, we often travel to NUIG hospital to view various procedures. This enables us to understand the conditions the device will be exposed to during surgery & the requirements of the surgeon.
Once a prototype has been refined & there is confidence in its performance against a defined set of specifications, animal trials will be carried out, which is a very important step. During these trials we can test the device to the extreme & ensure that once it is used in patients it will perform as expected & not cause any injury to the patient or physician.
What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
As a design engineer you will oversee the application of your knowledge through the design cycle.
Observations made during hospital visits, historical experience with other devices & the experience from the other design engineers are all feed into the design of new & improved products.
As the medical device industry is constrained by a lot regulatory requirements, testing of any ideas makes up a large part of the job.
Another aspect of the job involves regular communication with various vendors to ensure the timely delivery of components for the assembly of prototypes. As it is such a competitive industry, timelines are extremely important. Therefore as businesses want to be first to market with their new products, management of the project to specific timelines, together with the quality of the product is all part of the design engineers responsibility.
What are the main challenges?
Device design & the application of new materials: As the majority of products we work with have to be delivered to the body non-invasively the main challenge is to find materials & components that are small enough to provide the necessary requirements.
For example, the application of Nitinol (NiTi), a shape memory metal, to stents in the 1990’s. NiTi is commercially used in spectacles & can withstand very high stresses & stains. Stents are small metal structures used to open vessels in the body which may have become blocked. The stent can be reduced in outer diameter & is attached to a delivery device. Once in the body it is enlarged, sometimes by the inflation of a balloon which pushes the stent against the wall of the vessel it needs to dilate.
Other challenges include the management of projects & ensuring timelines are hit on schedule.
What's not so cool?
Because we work in such a regulated industry there is a lot of paperwork required. This involves validation of the design & all the various processes used to make the product. This represents the uncool aspect of the job but is extremely important as it reduces the potential that a patient will be injured or die as a result of a poor design.
What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?
What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?
I wasn’t 100% sure that I would end up in the science/engineering sector when I was at school. I found doing transition year really helped me to explore the various options that were available. This helped me to decide the subjects for my leaving certificate. I chose physics, chemistry & accounting, again keeping my options open. At the moment I am doing a masters for which I have to do aspects of accounting & economics so the accounting I did for my leaving has come in handy!
What is your education to date?
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
The aspect of my education that I have used most often is the ability to question. I have always viewed education like a set of encyclopedia, it shows you where to find the information you may need in the future. Practical hands-on experience is invaluable. Therefore if you do have an interest in something particular, its good to do summer work, hobbies etc that expose you to practical application.
During my FYP & PhD I designed the types of testing I needed to perform to allow me to answer specific questions in the research. This has been invaluable as I now use this approach to ensure that a design we create meets the original specifications that were set out.
What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
I was extremely proud of completing my PhD, which resulted in some interesting & unexpected findings in relation to the interaction of biomedical cements in the body & the mechanical strengths that can be achieved with composite type cements. Working in the area of medical device design is also very interesting & can be exciting
What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?
Having an open mind, questioning things & being innovative, whereby you ask why something is the way it is. Find a better way of doing things / See the possibilities and present them to others Ask why not Try someone else's idea that may not necessarily be agreed with Try out new processes or ideas before knocking them Open mindedness Motivation is also very important, especially if you have been working on something which hasn’t worked out as you expected. Its always difficult to go back to the “drawing board”. Being organized is important, especially when trying to hit deadlines in a project.
What is your dream job?
My dream job would include variety, doing something different everyday & meeting with different people. Working in the design (of medical devices) requires different activities everyday. Also because we are designing new products for new procedures, we get to meet with physicians & observe procedures. I think I have the dream job as it is so varied and I am very satisfied with it.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
There are many opportunities in Ireland in the medical device arena as Ireland could be described as the “silicone valley” of medical devices in Europe. A majority of the large multinationals are located here which means that there are a lot of people with the skills specifically required for the industry.
Most of these multinationals are located in North America, hence we are often required to travel to the US. I have travelled to a number of different countries both during my postgrad & with my job. Also, because people are living longer & have certain lifestyle expectations, there will almost certainly always be a need for new medical devices. Unlike a lot of other industries, this would suggest that there will always be funding available to develop products for new areas. Also as a result of human DNA mapping, more & more diseases will become manageable, possibly through the help of medical devices
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
If it is possible to get some work experience during the summer holidays or weekends, it would be great. Find out if there are any positions (voluntary or otherwise) available in your local IT or University. Get involved in a hobby such as model making, this would be very helpful as it would help with dexterity & impart an understanding of the ways in which different materials interact when assembled together.
What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?
Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?