Friday, 24 July 2015

ISTM Women in Engineering: Dr. Caroline Stewart

Dr. Caroline Stewart is a Senior Research Fellow in ISTM, and the manager of the Orthotic Research and Locomotor Assessment Unit (ORLAU) at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in Oswestry. Caroline and I share an interest in exploring problems in human movement, and I was very excited to talk to her about her work and career in engineering.

You work in Bioengineering. What does that mean?

Bioengineering brings together people with a wide range of skills and backgrounds. I originally trained as a mechanical engineer and now I work with doctors, therapists, other engineers, computer scientists and life scientists. Our main aim is to use technology to come up with innovative ways of assessing and treating people with many different health problems and disabilities.

My main interest is in walking. It’s an activity most people take for granted, but it is surprising how much we still don’t understand. That is particularly true when you start to investigate the problems patients have with their walking. I’m interested in all kinds of questions. Why do patients with arthritis wear out their joints? Does orthopaedic surgery help children with cerebral palsy to walk better? Can we design better splints and artificial limbs to allow our patients to be more mobile? Is it possible to build computer models to help us to understand how patients walk?

I enjoy bioengineering because it is a field where you have to solve problems. Very often there are no standard answers and when there are they don’t always fit the patients you see in clinic.

What do you do day-to-day?

For four days each week I work in ORLAU at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital, where I am employed as a Clinical Scientist. ORLAU assesses patients with all kinds of mobility problems and also provides equipment to help patients to stand and walk better. We have a gait laboratory for measuring walking and workshops where we can design and build patient devices. Much of the equipment we give to patients was originally designed in ORLAU. I am responsible for managing the services and also use my expertise in biomechanics to assess patients in the lab.

On a Wednesday I work for Keele University as a Senior Research Fellow. This post gives me opportunities to work with researchers to devise new ways of using technology to assess and treat patients.

How did you become a Senior Research Fellow in Bioengineering?

After I left school I studied mechanical engineering at university as an undergraduate, followed by postgraduate training in bioengineering. For my PhD I studied amputees walking, to see which kind of mechanical knee joint worked best for them. During my mechanical engineering training I mostly analysed the function of structures and machines, so at first glance the work I do now looks quite different. You do, however, need all the same analytical skills to assess the loads on the body and the control systems people use in order to move. I probably use my engineering text books more than many of my fellow students who now work in industry.

In the NHS Clinical Scientists are registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. To register you have to go through a programme of training which makes sure you understand the clinical aspects of the job as well as the technical ones. Today there is very strong competition for places on the national training scheme, and it’s great to see that women are well represented. Half of those specialising in rehabilitation engineering who completed their training this in 2015 were female.

Research and development is a large component of many NHS clinical scientist jobs, so I was very pleased to be released to take up my part time post at Keele University. I now have time to explore things in greater depth and collaborate with other researchers.

What advice would you give a young person considering a career in engineering?

I became an engineer because I loved maths and physics, and wanted to translate what I learned into practice. I would strongly recommend engineering for anyone who likes using their numerical skills to solve problems. Working in bioengineering is a particularly good choice if you also enjoy working with and for people. There is a great deal of job satisfaction in working with clinicians and other researchers to improve the lives of patients.

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