“When asked what they want to be when they grow up, a lot of young people say they want to help people. But engineering is still not what comes to people’s minds when thinking of altruistic career paths.”
That disconnect is one of the driving forces for Deanna Hood, named the Engineers Australia Young Professional Engineer of the Year last week.
“As an electrical engineer, I’ve worked in educational robotics, renewable energy, medical robotics, accessibility technology – and that’s just so far,” she said.
“I care about helping people make the link between engineering and helping people, since – as a self-proclaimed nerd – I’ve found the intellectual challenge in this work to be just as rewarding as the applications.
“Medical engineering has a large representation of women and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. It’s because the field most clearly helps people, but it’s certainly not the only discipline of engineering that can make a real and lasting difference.”
While Hood is passionate about applying electrical engineering to do work for good, she said she is also passionate about advocating for engineering as a creative, exciting and altruistic career choice for other bright young minds that want to change the world.
From a brain-controlled car for people with paralysis, to a 3D-bioprinter aiding cancer researchers, to a USB stethoscope for diagnosing childhood pneumonia, Hood has already enjoyed a varied career since commencing her engineering degree at just 15 years old.
She said each of these projects had one thing in common: they help people, and are examples of the variety of gratifying and altruistic work available to pursue within engineering today.
“All engineers are solving society’s problems in one way or another – there’s always a human-centred need behind engineering projects. But, for me, I get the most excitement from work when I can clearly see the impact my lines of code make on someone’s life,” she said.
Hood said the huge variety of applications of engineering, and the positive and direct impact these applications can have on people’s lives, is not always clear for potential young engineers to see.
“You don’t have to be a doctor, occupational therapist or teacher to help people; I’ve literally worked with all of them as an engineer,” she said.
“That is both what makes me love my job so much, but also what makes it so difficult to explain to people. When I tell people I’m a robotics engineer, they see robots, but they don’t see what the robot is doing. Robots can make a real difference, and it’s a career I’m thrilled with.”
Engineering for good
Hood said one of the most rewarding applications she’s worked on is RASTRUM, a 3D bioprinter enabling cancer researchers to print replica tumours – structures that contain living human cells used for modelling cancer disease and testing new therapeutic drugs.
“Of all the engineering projects I’ve worked on, this is one of my favourites because of its impact,” she said.
“One researcher I met uses RASTRUM to improve treatment of preeclampsia. Her 3D-printed placenta organoids behave so naturally that they even trigger a positive pregnancy test – in a dish! To be a part of the team making ‘science non-fiction’ was so exciting.
“But technologically speaking, I also loved the project because the proposition of intricate 3D-printed organoids is a huge engineering problem. We’re printing micrometer-sized cell structures. They’re the size of a pinhead. And, to do that, we need really precision engineering from mechanical, electrical, software and biomedical engineers to make it all work.
Advocating the possibilities
Later in October, Hood will take part in an Engineers Australia-run student conference called Experience It!, aimed at giving hands-on experience with engineering approaches.
“It’s a day where hundreds of students from across [NSW/ACT] learn what engineering is … rather than telling students they can work on anything with engineering, we show them direct examples of engineering.
“We have better success communicating the excitement of engineering careers when we talk about specific jobs or tasks, as opposed to skills that can be applied to anything.”
Hood said a big part of her advocacy work is also helping to make engineering less intimidating, particularly to students who believe that the work the discipline offers might be too difficult for them to pursue.
“The first and most important thing to tell young students is that they can do it, even if they’re not the top of their class. We take them through engineering from step zero. Before you know it, they’re building their own circuits,” she said.
“Earlier this year, a group of Year 8 girls assembled a light exhibit for VIVID after one of our sessions. All because they realised, first and foremost, that the task was not too hard for them, and that they had access to the skills to enable them to create something great.”
Bolstering women’s representation
Aside from advocating for more young people to consider engineering as a career path, Hood said she is particularly invested in helping girls and women to find their way into the field by showcasing just how rewarding the work can be.
“In a recent Engineers Australia study, the biggest reason cited for girls not going into engineering was that they hadn’t heard of it. But, after that, it was that it’s not associated with creative, exciting, fulfilling work. I am living proof that this is a misunderstanding about our field,” she said.
“The thing that personally motivates me to inspire girls into engineering is that I am happy in an engineering career. I’m not trying to turn everyone into engineers, but I want to make sure that people are presented with the option that could make them happy, fulfilled and engaged.
Hood said most engineering companies have figured out that they need to be competitive if they want to attract the best talent, and a big part of that is culture.
“Personally, I evaluate companies on their gender representation within the team and at all levels of management. I’m not alone in that. There needs to be a culture of inclusion or I will simply choose to work somewhere else,” she said.
“What I’ve learnt from working the past 13 years is that the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ of a team matter as much if not more than the ‘what’. At the rate the profession is moving forward, I’m genuinely looking forward to the career that I’ve still got ahead of me.”