Helena Pozniak
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A Safe Pair of Hands

The Telegraph

Stephanie Weichert, 31, wears a small, stainless-steel ring on her little finger, given to her and fellow engineers upon graduation as a reminder of their responsibility to the public. Universities in North America hold these ceremonies to commemorate the building of the first Quebec Bridge in Canada, which collapsed during construction in 1907, killing 75 workers. The bridge was successfully built only on the third attempt.

Legend has it the rings are fashioned from the mangled metal salvaged from the failed bridge. “The ring is to remind engineers of their moral and professional values,” says Weichert, who graduated as student of the year from the University of Wyoming. “In any job, you may feel at times that what you are doing doesn’t matter. But realising that small decisions add up, and that you are part of the whole project, can be inspirational. It also makes you more mindful about the impact of your work.”

As instructed, Weichert wears the ring on her leading hand. “When it scrapes along your desk, it reminds you of your duties,” she says.

High-risk industries, such as transport, aerospace and chemicals, have an obvious need for skilled engineers who understand how to manage safety, both at design stage and when it comes to the management of safety systems. But, fundamentally, it’s part of any engineer’s job to ensure designs are safe, says Weichert, who is now based in Cambridge with technology and product development company TTP. “I was taught to step back from my work, to look at it as a whole work and ask ‘Is this right?’ Companies push the limits of design, but you have to put in safety margins where relevant.”

A mix of academic research, toil at the coalface and consultancy, Weichert’s career has led her to encounter many different facets of engineering. Yet her work has a unifying theme – her aim is to work on projects that make peoples’ lives better. “That feeling that I want to make a difference has been with me from the beginning,” she says.

During her degree, Weichert spent the summers working on a range of projects with the US National Science Foundation (NSF). One of them was the development of a lightweight material for soldiers’ uniforms, which involved looking at the structure of fabric through an atomic-force telescope. She also helped to create a pioneering artificial vision system that mimics the way in which flies see, in order to interact with real objects.

Another project involved improving toys for handicapped children. “Some toys might be meaningless for children with disabilities. A child needs to interact with them, so squeezing a bear to make it giggle, for instance, helps them build up their knowledge of the world,” says Weichert, who worked on designing switches that allow parents to modify toys so their disabled children can play with them.

When she was offered an internship at Volkswagen AG in Wolfsburg in Germany after her degree, Weichert jumped at the chance. Her focus was the development of a simulation tool to help design car seats that could reduce neck injury. “Engineering has come so far in 50 years – reducing the number of deaths in car accidents has always been a priority, but companies should also start asking how to reduce the worst injuries.”

In 2006 Weichert began a PhD at the University of Cambridge. Her research, which focused on the fluid mechanics of compressor stall in jet engines, was funded by Rolls Royce and a European initiative to cut emissions from jet engines. Her work has helped to improve the general public’s understanding of what happens when jet engines stall, allowing industry to make engines that are more efficient, yet just as safe.

The end of Weichert’s research, however, heralded a period of soul-searching. “I felt I needed variety, so I took several months some time to think about my future. In retrospect, it was the best thing I could have done. After you graduate, you’re exhausted, so it’s really easy to step into a career path that you think is expected of you.”

Having looked at her “laundry list” of requirements - namely variety, practical skills, responsibility and development - Weichert decided to take up a post in 2012 as a technology consultant with TTP. The job offers her not only a variety of projects, including a revolutionary hospital diagnostics solution and a number of cutting-edge medical equipment enhancements –,but also the combined wisdom of around 250 scientists and engineers on site. “If I’m feeling uncertain about something, I can got to an expert for advice – it’s a big relief to be able to do that, as it then allows me to focus on what I’m good at.”

Taking a long-term view of her career has clearly worked for Weichert. Reflection, she says, is a useful tool. “Step back and really define what you want; what issues do you care about? Write them down somewhere visible, so that even when you’re busy you can remind yourself of them on a daily basis. Talk to as many people as possible – academics and professionals might seem intimidating but they’re happy to share their experience. I certainly would be.

“And yes, the job market’s competitive but knowing what you want makes employers’ lives easier – the best person to work with is someone who is motivated and who knows what they want.”

Engineering and Safety

“Many sectors these days are heavily dependent on computers and software that often have critical functions,” says Prof John McDermid, who works in high integrity systems engineering (Hise) in the computer science department at the University of York, and who is also a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineers (RAEng). “In transport, for instance, old-fashioned signalling in trains is being replaced with computer-controlled systems.”

Safety, however, isn’t covered in any great depth in many undergraduate engineering degrees, he says, simply because there’s so much other content to squeeze in. Many applicants for the University of York’s MSc in Safety Critical Systems Engineering have several years’ experience under their belts. “Over the next 10 years, people will wake up and realise how important safety-critical systems engineering has become,” says Prof McDermid. “If we are going to build automated cars, for example, can we make them safe enough? It’s a specialist area but I see demand for these skills increasing.”

“Most ‘safety engineering’ is carried out by engineers with titles such as design engineer, project engineer, systems engineer or similar,” says Prof Roger Kemp, another fellow of the RAEng who teaches on Lancaster University’s postgraduate programmes in safety engineering. “Part of the job is to ensure that what is designed is safe.”

Lancaster University’s course targets those in high-hazard industries - such as aerospace, nuclear power and chemical production - who want to learn tools and techniques for managing safety. Participants tend to be senior design engineers who need to understand specific safety engineering techniques.

“We see safety as integral to mainstream engineering,” adds Prof Kemp. “People in the profession are generally very wary about the idea of safety engineering being carried out remotely, not least because it risks sending the message that safety is a ‘bolt-on extra’, that is in some way different from real engineering.”

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