Dr Catherine Dobson is a Lecturer in Mechanical and Medical Engineering at the University of Hull. Besides teaching mechanical engineering, she applies engineering principles to medical problems. She has worked on many diverse projects, from bone growth and disease, cardiovascular stents, speech valves and wound therapy, to balance and posture in falls prevention. Catherine has had an incredibly varied career, in industry and academia, as well as two career breaks – one to travel the world and the other to have her son. For her Soapbox Science talk this September in Hull she will be talking about “Medical engineering – what is it and how can it help us? How can an engineer be involved in bone or heart disease?”
SS: Catherine, how did you get to your current position?
CD: I have a fairly unconventional route into my current role, having initially done an undergraduate degree in Metallurgy and Materials Science at what was then the City of London Polytechnic (now Guildhall University). After graduation, I worked in failure analysis (basically structural forensics – working out why things have broken) for a while, before being approached to join an oil and gas consultancy, where I was a welding engineer. This involved no welding, but plenty of overseas travel, site visits, and report writing. I enjoyed the work but was ready for a change from London, so left and travelled for 2 years taking in 3 continents and working on a dive boat on the barrier reef for 6 months (fantastic!). On returning to the UK, I decided I wanted to apply my engineering knowledge in a new direction, so did a PhD looking at the effect of the bone disease osteoporosis on the bone’s structural strength. Since then, I have applied engineering principles to many medical problems in my research, from designing new medical devices, to using sophisticated computer simulations to gain a better understanding of the physiological processes of the body. This was done in a series of post-doctoral research positions and now, as a lecturer, I supervise PhD students and post-docs working on many more projects as well. I hope my story proves that a degree in a STEM subject is versatile and can lead to many different exciting careers!
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
CD: I always loved the idea of science as a child, and can still remember the excitement of starting secondary school of seeing science laboratories with Bunsen burners and experiments going on – I thought to myself – “this beats just sitting and writing”, which is really all you did at school up to then. I was also inspired by Amy Johnson, who was the first female pilot to fly from England to Australia in 1930, and also the first women to gain a ground engineers license. It made me realise that women could do anything if they put their minds to it. Finally, I had a wonderful lecturer at University, Mr. Dias, who also worked as a failure analyst and expert witness, and his lectures and anecdotes opened my eyes to the exciting careers that engineering could lead me to after graduation.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
CD: The most fascinating thing is that engineering can be applied to a multitude of aspects of anatomy and medicine – I am constantly amazed what a perfect piece of engineering the human body is –for example, the way bones adapt to the loading they experience – so they are not too heavy for the job, but strong enough to withstand everyday activities. I have already been involved in projects relating to many aspects of the cardiovascular system, the musculoskeletal system and improving disease detection techniques – who knows what aspects of anatomy and medicine I’ll tackle next by applying engineering principles to them?
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
CD: I love the idea of bringing science to a wider audience, especially children – they are the scientists and engineers of tomorrow, but they won’t become that if they don’t get inspired along the way.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?
CD: I’m going to cheat and use two words – excitement and trepidation!
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
CD: I would change the perception that you have to be like someone from the programme “The Big Bang Theory” to be an engineer or scientist. You don’t have to be male, nerdy, unfashionable and socially awkward to follow a career in STEM subjects. If you are any of those things – that’s fine, if you aren’t, that’s fine too, and there’s room for all of us – science is fun, and shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of a particular “type”.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
CD: Make sure you publish, publish, and publish. Writing up your work can be difficult – establishing a good discipline for writing is an essential skill for an academic career. Also, don’t be persuaded to do too many tasks within your department that don’t benefit your career, be strategic.