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22 Jun 2015
At the heart of every aspect of our complex environment is a human. It could be the air traffic controller and pilot navigating the flight for your holiday this summer, or the check-in staff, baggage handlers and security staff at the airport, or you as you scan your passport through the electronic passport reader, or the postal staff who process and deliver your postcard home…
You may be reading this article now on your smartphone, or your tablet or laptop or perhaps a smart TV. It is clear that the way we interact with information and our environment is consistently developing and evolving. But for systems to operate safely and effectively, they must be designed to support the people who operate them.
The study of Human Factors & Ergonomics (HFE) allows us to understand human interfaces with complex systems so we can develop and optimise our design solutions, and ultimately minimise the potential for human error. Ergonomics and Human Factors plays a key role in the design and engineering of successful systems and environments.
My route to working in Engineering was unexpected, and didn’t follow a conventional route. When I was 15 at college, I received a letter informing me that I would be spending my week of work experience at an engineering company specialising in integrity management of offshore oil and gas installations – I’ll be honest, it wasn’t exactly my first choice.
Later at 18 – while my friends celebrated their A-Level results, I was on the phone trying to secure a place at University as I was just short of the grades needed for my first choice of degree Psychology, I didn’t plan for events to pan out that way!
During that day I got a call from the admissions tutor at Loughborough University who offered me a place on the Ergonomics course instead. I had heard a little bit about Ergonomics before, but the course admission tutor asked if I had heard of Piper Alpha, or the Kegworth Air Disaster. We continued to talk, and while discussing these major accidents didn’t do much to lift my mood that day, I began to understand how the study of Ergonomics and Human Factors contributes to our understanding and ability to learn from these accidents.
All things considered, I didn’t expect or plan to embark on a career in engineering. But I wouldn’t change those experiences for the world – they led me to where I am, and I love my job. I have worked both in the UK and abroad. I work on really varied projects in Rail, Nuclear, Oil & Gas and Aviation, and everyday I learn something new about our complex engineered systems and environments, and the people that work with them.
There is increased focus in schools, the media, and in Government around ways to encourage girls to consider careers within Engineering and Science professions. I’d like to add a slightly different perspective and show that from my experience, it isn’t necessary to study just the traditional engineering subjects of Maths, Physics and Chemistry to work in Engineering. It’s certainly beneficial and paves the way to become a Chartered Engineer, and more female engineers in the future is definitely a good thing. Diversity of gender, knowledge and culture creates a strong team.
There are other routes to a challenging, exciting, rewarding and enjoyable career in Engineering. I studied English, Art, and Psychology and Biology – I didn’t know it at the time but a combination of design and social sciences, and English to provide strength in writing and reasoning a strong argument, really lend themselves to a career in Engineering, particularly to become an Ergonomist or Human Factors Consultant.
So in summary if things don’t turn out the way you expected, pick a different route – challenge yourself. Keep your eyes open to new things, and say yes when new opportunities arise, even if they might appear to be difficult or challenging. And most important of all, if you’re not sure, ask questions and find out!
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