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STEM case study - Olivia Byrne

What you need to know

Olivia Byrne - Assistant Environmental Chemist, Bombardier Aerospace

Olivia ByrneWhen I started thinking about careers in school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I had chosen science subjects for A-level as I enjoyed them, but not with any particular career in mind. After much reading of university prospectuses and careers websites, I settled on a degree in Chemical Engineering. I knew I wanted to study something that would allow me to use maths and science every day, and have a challenging and varied career. I also wanted a degree which would open doors to a range of jobs, rather than narrow my choices.

I studied at Queen’s University for the MEng degree, including a year in industry. I then stayed on at Queen’s for a further (sixth!) year to complete an MPhil research degree. This opportunity was sponsored by a local quarrying company, and I spent the year completely focussed on improving a drying plant at their site. I was able to use the resources of the university labs and had the support and guidance of my research supervisor, and also spend half my time on site carrying out trials on the “real” full sized equipment. This year developed my skills in research and problem solving while giving me more hands-on experience of how a production environment operates.

After graduating, I stayed on with the company who had sponsored me for another 3 years. My role was process engineer, and I was responsible for any modifications to the production process, as well as supervising the implementation of new equipment. As a member of a fairly small engineering department, I was able to learn a little of everything, which made it a great environment to learn on the job!

I moved on to my current role in Bombardier in April 2014. Bombardier in Belfast employs around 5000 people, and makes aircraft parts such as wings, fuselages, and engine nacelles (or housings) for a range of aircraft. I’m a Materials and Processes Engineer, in the Chemical and Environmental Technologies group. In contrast to my previous role, I now have the opportunity to specialise in a few areas.

There are 2 main aspects to my job. Firstly, I work on the elimination of hazardous materials from our processes. Many of the materials historically used in aircraft production were harmful to workers’ health and/or the environment. Even today some materials must be applied in strictly controlled environments to protect workers, or disposed of carefully to protect the environment. It’s my job to find new materials or processes which aren’t hazardous, and to prove that their performance is equivalent to those they are replacing before introducing them. I work on some joint projects with other aerospace companies, where we share research and development work related to these materials. This means I get to travel and meet those in similar roles across the UK, and work with them on cutting edge technology. It’s also great to know that we’re making the aerospace industry as a whole safer for people and the environment, while still retaining the features and functionality the original materials were chosen for. An aircraft can have a lifespan of 40 years so my work today will be keeping people safe as far away as the 2050s!

The other side of my current role is supporting metal treatments processes currently in production. This is true engineering problem solving, where I need to be able to gather the facts and apply my knowledge of the process to advise on the cause of or solution to a problem. I often investigate an issue in the factory, and then carry out lab trials to support this work.

I think that as an engineer I’m very lucky, in that there is no “typical working day”. There is always a new project to work on, and we typically work on many things at the same time. For example, in one week I can prepare test panels in the lab for an R&D project, inform clients about which materials are used to make the product we deliver, and spend time on the factory floor investigating our current work processes and developing a test plan to see if doing things differently could be more efficient or cost effective. It’s a great feeling to see a process in action that you’ve developed, or a new, safer product introduced due to your hard work. It’s also always fun to get out of the office and into the lab or factory, especially to see the full-scale version of a lab trial. I run a cleaning process in the lab where I use 10 litres of a solution, but the factory process has 30,000 litres – it takes school science and technology practicals to a whole new level!

When I began studying engineering, I had no idea that in just the first 5 years after graduating that I would have worked in 2 vastly different industries, or that the work would be so varied and interesting. There is always something to learn, and a way to stretch yourself and to try something new. One of the most exciting things about studying engineering of any type is that you’re not “locking yourself in” to a particular industry or job type, you’re developing skills that allow you to face the challenges any job can throw at you. Really, engineers are problem solvers – and it doesn’t matter what size or shape the problem is, the same problem-solving steps apply. In my university class, everyone studied the same subjects, yet we now work in industries as diverse as aerospace, oil and gas, food production, and pharmaceuticals. We are also spread over the UK, Ireland, and as far afield as Australia.

Engineering is a really interesting and rewarding career choice, and I’d recommend it equally to girls and boys. Your professional skills and enthusiasm for your job are what matters to anyone you deal with, not your gender.  If you want to study something where you will be in demand worldwide, get to be hands-on with exciting equipment and processes, and continually learn and develop, then engineering could be a great fit!
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