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The success of women in Biomedical Engineering

An interview with Dr. Sarah Junaid and Hamna Kamran, on their journey towards success as women in Biomedical Engineering

What is Biomedical Engineering?

Dr Hilary Leevers, the Chief Executive of EngineeringUK, once said; “The fact that women represent only 16.5% of those working in engineering should still be a major concern to the engineering sector.” Women have played a huge role in the history of biomedicine. For example, Marie Curie’s heavy contribution towards cancer research, or Françoise Barré-Sinoussi’s work in identifying HIV. Yet these women have historically been ignored in mainstream engineering discourse. The highest percentage of bachelor's degrees awarded to women is in environmental engineering, with biomedical engineering coming in second. The percentage of women in biomedical engineering is around 40%, more than twice the overall engineering average.

However, biomedical engineering as a sector is still in its infancy. Despite it being a particularly important sector for the wider medical industry, there are many misconceptions as to what biomedical engineering actually entails. Biomedical engineering, or medical engineering, is the application of engineering principles and design concepts to medicine and biology for healthcare purposes. Biomedical engineering also uses traditionally logical sciences to advance health care treatment, including diagnosis, monitoring, and therapy. Throughout history,biomedical engineering has made its mark through the human need to diagnose and treat those around us, aiding to alleviate the burden of injuries both internal and external.

A Look at the Impact

I spoke to Dr. Sarah Junaid, a senior lecturer and programme director in mechanical and design engineering at Aston University, to see her perspective on the biomedical engineering sector, where she revealed that she thought biomedical engineering was a discipline with a 50:50 split bringing medicine and engineering together. And while that was partly true, what she didn’t realise was biomedical engineering is engineering. Hamna Kamran, a final year biomedical engineering student at Aston University, also had a similar misconception when she entered, “Before starting the course, I assumed the modules would only be maths and biology based, however over the years I have learnt different principles that I never even knew existed.”

Having been taught personally by Sarah, her impact on the women not only in the cohort, but the actual department of Mechanical and Design Engineering itself is staggering. Through her openness to help those around her, especially the young women who look up to her, she has gained a lot of respect in her field of work. When asked how she feels her journey in biomedical engineering has gone so far as someone higher up in academia, Sarah responded, “I graduated from the University of Birmingham with a thirst to learn more, where I went on to pursue my PhD at Imperial College London studying how we can improve implant fixations in total joint replacement of the shoulder. It opened up a new world of academia and interdisciplinary research where I was working with orthopaedic surgeons, industry partners and other engineers to understand and address clinical challenges. I loved being able to work in a team with people from disparate fields, and so, I was hooked. I felt my passion to learn was best placed in educating other engineers too, so I was pleased to join the academic team at Aston University’s Mechanical, Biomedical and Design Engineering group in 2014, where I am today.”

In comparison, as a final year student Hamna was asked how she feels her time as a student in biomedical engineering has gone so far, and where she sees it going in the future, she replied, “My journey to (almost) graduating as a biomedical engineer has been a rewarding but challenging one! Starting the course was a difficult decision, I knew I wanted to do engineering because of my love for maths, but I was unsure of which route to take. The course has taught me a wide range of techniques such as CAD and electronics, allowing me to link different elements of engineering into different projects. I have used these different approaches to understand and demonstrate how engineering is applied in the medical field. Working closely with the medical industry has allowed an insight into the different job roles the degree can offer, and I am looking forward to developing the skills I have learnt in my upcoming ventures.”

What Does the Future Hold?

Hamna’s future currently is wide open with many different routes for her to be able to take going forward as an ethnic young woman graduating, be it in industry, research or academia. Many engineering companies are now hoping to hire young women to further diversify their teams.

Both Sarah and Hamna come from ethnic minorities, which in the engineering workplace brings the percentage of women lower. However, when asked if she’s ever had any difficulties in her academic career due to her gender or ethnicity, Sarah replied, “As a female from a minority group, I have to say, I did not face any obvious barriers to my professional and personal development. I was very fortunate to have excellent line managers, peers and supportive mentors who believed in me. What inspires me is to continue developing graduates that will become ethically aware, well-rounded and society-focussed engineers. As programme director for the last year, I also hope we can bring more’ accidental’ engineers into the profession.”

The future seems to be looking brighter for women in engineering, and we look forward to seeing more women succeed as time goes on!

Mariya Khan is a Mechanical Engineering student at Aston University, and a Content Writer for the MedTech Foundation.

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