Getting to the heart of engineering

12 March 2013
Toronto-based IET member Alyssa Randall

Getting to the heart of engineering: R&D engineer Alyssa Randall is an active IET member.

Toronto-based IET member Alyssa Randall talks to Keri Allan about her role as an R&D engineer in the biomedical sector and her prolific IET activities…

Alyssa Randall works as a research and development engineer at Baylis Medical. She first heard about the IET while studying biomedical engineering at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, when she entered the local Present Around the World (PATW) competition. Since then she’s become more and more involved with the IET, having organised the first regional PATW in the Americas, developed a regional scholarship and more recently supported nominations for the first AF Harvey Engineering Research Prize.
Currently she is chair of the Young Professional Regional Team (YPRT) in the Americas and sits on the Community Committee - Americas (CC-A) as the Young Professionals representative.

Member News: Have you always been interested in engineering or was there a defining moment or influential person that inspired you?
Alyssa Randall
: All of the above. I’ve always been really good at maths and physics, so I thought I wanted to do maths for the rest of my life, but I have a disabled brother with brittle bone disease: osteogenesis imperfecta. A large part of my life is in and out of hospitals with him and looking after him, acting as a third parent. So when we got to the genetics portion of biology class, I became interested. I initially thought I wanted to go into something much more ‘sciency’ like a genetic engineering programme, but once I got into university and started dealing with more macroscopic designs, biomechanics etc., I really fell in love with medical device design.
MN: What are you currently doing, career-wise?
Randall: I’m working as a research and development engineer in Baylis Medical’s cardiology and radiology department. My work is a little bit of everything, which is really neat. I get to support production, work out small little bugs, and I also do a lot on new product development. I’ve only been here less than a year, but I absolutely love it, working on developing effectively minimally invasive tools for interventional cardiologists. My team specifically focuses on ablation procedure and access to the left side of the heart. My masters was in cardiology, and I’ve always loved the heart - it’s the coolest organ!
MN: How did you become involved with the IET?
Randall: I got involved with the IET through the PATW competition, back in 2009. At the time the Toronto Local Network was organising a PATW competition at a number of universities and one of them was Guelph. Myself and a university team mate were encouraged to enter a third-year design project we’d done and we ended up winning that heat. As there was no Americas regional final at the time, we got to go straight to London [for the global final], which was fantastic.
It was great to meet such a wide variety of people and get feedback on my design. They asked questions that I hadn’t even thought to ask. It was a really neat experience as a young professional, and really took me outside of my comfort zone, which was an excellent learning opportunity.
One of the organisers at the Toronto Local Network was so interested in organising an Americas final that when he asked for help I jumped on board. I’ve been an active member ever since.
MN: Is it a good way of encouraging young people to become involved with the IET?
Randall: I think it’s a double-edged sword. It’s great in the sense that if you’re one of the people that gets to go through even to your region finals it’s a great experience, but we have a hard time in the Americas retaining young professionals that just make it to the first or second levels of the local competition.
MN: What was involved in developing the Americans regional PATW final?
Randall: It was a lot of work! We had initially planned on it being in Toronto and then it was decided it would be in Ottawa. We were a team of four young professionals, and we worked with the Ottawa Local Network and the CC-A (called the Americas Regional Board at the time) to put this together. We got the contract for the hotel and had to find sponsorship etc. It was a really neat experience for all of us, and was the first time we had organised such a large event, not to mention coordinating with all these Local Networks that were organising their first PATWs. It was very interesting in that sense. I’ve organised two now, and hands down it’s a fantastic experience.
MN: Do you find that through your work with the IET you gain new business and soft skills that you can take away with you into your work environment?
Randall: Absolutely. I’ve learnt to write proposals and deal with budgets. The great thing about the IET and the PATW work so far is that it’s given me a wealth of experience that no one would give me for a paid job at my age. It’s incredible in that sense.
MN: How would you say the IET has supported your career?
Randall: The IET has provided me with a wealth of interpersonal skills and managerial experience. It’s really given me the confidence as a young professional to speak up and know that someone values your opinion, which when you’re starting your first job is definitely something you don’t necessarily naturally have.
On top of that, I’ve got to deal with a wide variety of people and I’m much better at dealing with contractors and so forth as a result. I prominently display [my IET work] on my résumé. Regardless of whether or not I’ve been paid for the experience, I think the work experience the IET has given me has been invaluable.
MN: What inspired you to become further involved, on a committee level?
Randall: Honestly, the opportunity presented itself. When the chance arose to be part of the Americas’ long-term development plan, I was game. I think it’s a really interesting time, and I really love the community that the IET offers. I do think it’s a great value proposition, especially for a young engineer, considering the number of times our generation is expected to change jobs, and the interdisciplinary route that engineering is taking. I really feel that the IET strongly supports that. As a biomedical engineer there really isn’t any international society or organisation for me to go to. The fact that the IET is so welcoming, and that it does try to be interdisciplinary, definitely suited my needs.
MN: You’ve helped to develop a regional scholarship for the Americas too, correct?
Randall: Yes. We’re hoping to [offer] the first one in September 2013, and we’re looking to award a scholarship to engineering undergraduate and graduate students in the US and in Canada for $4500 over a three-year period. I’m really happy to create something that has a small impact on any number of engineers’ lives.
MN: How did you develop this idea?
Randall: I was on the YPRT and we received a note asking if it was something we would be interested in putting together. I was very interested, so I sat down with another young professional and talked about what requirements we would need, and wrote a formal proposal for the awards committee. We agreed that it would be self-funded, so we are responsible for finding funding for it long-term.
MN: Then there’s the AF Harvey Prize. Please could you tell us about your involvement in this?
Randall: It was a little overwhelming! At the time I was doing my masters in biomedical engineering at the University of Calgary, and I got an email asking if I could put together a list of top researchers in North America I was aware of that were doing excellent research in biomedical engineering. So I asked around, did my research, and came back with a list of ten or 12 people, not really knowing what it was for.
A month later, the IET started approaching them for interviews, to figure out who exactly they were going to nominate. I realised exactly what I’d just done and the impact that list had had! I helped by talking with them about the interview process and recommendations for writing proposals for the prize, as regards the tone and the type of organisation the IET is, as for many of the researchers it was the first time they’d heard of the IET.
It was an amazing opportunity and I was so excited that Prof Edward S Boyden received the [2011] prize, I was so happy that day. It was more than worth the effort I put in.
MN: Looking forward what do you see as your future challenges and goals?
Randall: My constant challenge is to make sure that I try to take advantage of every opportunity. I think I’ve got a lot out of opportunities that I could have turned down due to high workload or because it just wasn’t the ideal time for a knock at the door. I’m really hoping that I can keep pushing myself to take those opportunities that support me professionally.
Career wise, I’ve got goals from A to Z, but I really just want to make the biggest possible impact I can on the biomedical sector.
I really enjoy my role as an R&D engineer because the changes that I make to our products are bettering the lives of our patients and doctors. That’s a really great reason to get to work every morning.
MN: What do you think is most important for the engineering and technology community to focus on?
Randall: I think the big thing I’d like to see the IET address on is [promoting] itself as a professional organisation. We have all of these niche technical disciplines and societies, regional and global, and the IET has done a great job within those niches. I think it’s great we have those technical professional networks, but the key at the end of the day is [it’s a] professional network and [helps] develop those international relations and professional skills, especially for young professionals. As an IET member your organisation is recognised not just in one country but in any country you go to.
MN: What technologies excite you at the moment, is there something you have your eye on?
Randall: My sector is definitely leaning towards biomaterials. Materials engineering becoming more and more crucial, along with process engineering.
I love the organ research that we’re doing. The amount of effort going into it [is amazing]. You have this merging of biomaterials with respect to cell cultures that are OK with interacting long-term with these implants. The science of it is so neat.

GENDER GAP?

Member News asked Alyssa about her experiences as a female engineer in Canada, if they have similar issues in the Americas, as in the UK, and if she thinks girls are gradually seeing engineering and technology as a viable career, or if it’s still an up-hill struggle to inspire them:
“I was lucky, I went to the University of Guelph, which has the highest female engineering ratio in all of Canada, and they have for years. They really focus on cause engineering: environmental engineering, biomedical engineering. There are things women can really relate to besides just electrical engineering.
“But I do see it as a challenge. It’s really hard to convince young women that you can do greater good as an electrical engineer, and there’s no one out there telling them to.
“Especially in our society, I think we’re very ‘princessy’, and not a lot of fathers or mothers take their daughters to show them how an engine works, or how to build an alarm clock etc.
“I’m not entirely sure how it’s viewed in the UK, but here engineering is considered something that ‘smart people’ do, and a good career option. It’s definitely considered masculine, and considered to be a very male-dominated field that not a lot of women would go into. I do think that’s changing a little bit, however, and universities that I’ve seen are definitely trying to change that image.”

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