Misconceptions in engineering (I) - a walk through engineering life at university

By Dan Mannion, 2nd year Electrical and Electronic Engineering with Nanotechnology MEng, University College London

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If you’ve ever considered a career in engineering there is no doubt that you’ve also encountered some of the common misconceptions people have regarding the subject.

You may have heard engineering isn’t for women, that you’ll be destined to wear hard hats on a construction site or that you'll be stuck at a computer the whole time: whoever told you any of these is wrong!

Let’s prove this. I'm going to take you on a trip around my university and introduce you to a few engineers and engineering students in the department. Hopefully this will prove to you that engineering is for anyone and will give you an insight into what engineering is like to study and work in.

So, let’s begin…

(Just as a quick example - some of the leading research institutions are led by women, so if anyone ever tells you it’s not a place for women - ignore them! A fine example of this is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) situated on the Franco-Swiss border. The numerous groups at the LHC have made major contributions to particle physics such as discovering the Higgs particle and more recently the discovery of the pentaquark. It should come as no surprise that the person in charge is Fabiola Gianotti - a woman. But is this just an exception? No, far from it.)

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To start our walk through UCL's engineering department we'll speak with Professor Polina Bayvel, who’s currently the director of UNLOC, a leading research group in optical communications (using light to carry information). Having been invited to give the 2014 Royal Society Clifford Paterson lecture, Prof. Bayvel is a great example of a successful working engineer who followed an academic path.

While interviewing Prof. Bayvel she prompted me to Google image search “Engineer”, unsurprisingly I was faced with a page full of hard hats, motors, construction sites and blueprints. While it’s true there are fantastic engineering jobs that involve these they are not the only options. Engineers have moved on: the computer is the tool of an engineer these days. Put simply, if you’re put off engineering because of that stereotypical image, carry on reading! 

You can watch my interview with Professor Bayvel, or read the full interview below.

Discovering engineering with Professor Bayvel

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Dan: Could you give us an overview of your engineering career so far?

Professor Bayvel: I was born in the Soviet Union and when my family came to the UK in 1978 I was fortunate to go to a school which had a wonderful physics teacher.

However, no one ever really knew what engineering was, so when it came to choosing what to study at university I went around trying to understand what one could study if one liked physics, but perhaps wanted to study something a little bit more applied.

I happened to come to UCL where there was a wonderful admissions tutor who made UCL seem like the most welcoming place and electronic engineering the most wonderful field to study. A subject where one could study physics and apply it to a whole manner of problems!

I completed a PhD and then worked in industry where I designed some of the first amplified optical fibre communication systems. I was then fortunate enough to receive a Royal Society research fellowship which enabled me to start my own group to research anything I wanted to do.

I applied to start one of the first systems engineering groups in optical communication systems in a university and the rest is history. The research group at UCL is now one of the internationally leading research groups in this area and we’re now developing systems and networks, and applying our engineering knowledge all over the world.

Dan: At which point did you realise you wanted to do research instead of working in the engineering “industry”?
Professor Bayvel: At the end of my degree I applied for jobs, but they didn’t seem that appealing to me at the time and so I fell into research – well, I more than fell. I like doing research, I like finding things out, I like the analysis and the synthesis aspect; when you’ve learnt how something works and then you apply that knowledge to make something better. However, one of the main reasons for my interest in research is that you can design something that’s not just “good enough”, that doesn’t just do the job but actually approaches the fundamental limit of a system.

Dan: It’s common for the public to associate engineering with hard hats and construction sites. Is this wrong?
Prof. Bayvel: I think people really don’t understand what engineers do. We looked together just now on google and you get images of hard hats and callipers, civil engineering sites and spanners; that is not our reality. Our reality is hi-tech: it’s computers, it’s the most sophisticated testing and measuring equipment you can imagine. Think of the most exciting project that you hear about; we’ve recently seen images of Pluto, we just heard about the latest results from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and their discovery of a new particle. All these are examples of engineering, very sophisticated examples.

I think in the public eye and also in the eye of the children they don’t see that there is an individual doing this, that people like you and I are designing one part of the next hadron collider or designing one part of the next sophisticated instrument. I think that if we were to explain just how exciting it is to children and their parents then people would completely review what engineering is all about.

Dan: If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice on becoming an engineer as a child what would it be?
Prof. Bayvel: One should spend more time building things and tinkering and not to be scared of doing that. These days, I see with my own children, they are completely obsessed with iPads and computer games. It’s a little bit sad. Let’s give everyone an oscilloscope, some electronics and let’s send them off to a workshop. It’s great to build things, mainly because once you grow up there’s just less of a chance to do such things. When I was in school we didn’t have a computer and I felt that was a big hole in my education. The children of today won’t experience that, but what they will miss is the possibility of actually building things with their hands.

Dan: What has been the most exciting part of your career?
Prof. Bayvel: Well I don’t know… I would say the greatest part of my job has been my students. To see somebody come in, they don’t know very much, but then they leave and they’re experts, world experts, they’re getting awards, they’re being recognised - that’s wonderful.


Engineering at University College London

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