Alicia designs and develops respiratory medical products for hospitals, and helps ignite Auckland school students' interest in science, technology, engineering and maths.
What do you do on an average work day? He aha tō mahi ia rā, ia rā?
I’m really lucky, as product development engineers at Fisher & Paykel Healthcare have a unique opportunity to be involved in all stages of a product development cycle, so what I do in an average day depends on the stage of the project.
I could be doing customer research, talking to doctors or patients in hospitals, running brainstorms to come up with new product concepts, prototyping, modelling on the computer, writing patents, working with the process teams to design the assembly line, or testing and clinical trials. I’ve even had some experience helping out our sales reps to sell our products!
That level of exposure is one of the things I love about product development here. Collaborating across such a multi-disciplinary company also means lots of great team interaction. I also believe in customer empathy and love the idea of creating meaningful and effective products by working closely with the market.
In-house prototyping and manufacturing is a big focus, and one of my favourite parts of a project is using our workshops for machining prototypes and jigs. There is plenty of expertise in the company for learning these skills.
I have been really fortunate to have been the lead engineer in several product releases, and I’ve been part of clinical trials in New Zealand and Australia for our products. I’m currently coming up with test plans for a new product design - and trying not to blow up the lab!
Alongside my day job, I help with our company’s commitment to promoting STEM engagement in our local community. As part of our program we support SouthSci, a Participatory Science Platform initiative in South Auckland funded by Curious Minds that aims to get local kids into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). I’m passionate about providing career exposure to young people and increasing diversity in these fields, particularly for females. I think a lot of people (guys and girls) just don’t know what is available to them!
What did you study at school? And after high school? I ako koe i te aha i te kura? I aha koe whai muri i te kura tuarua?
In Year 13 I did sciences and maths (Stats, calculus, biology, physics and chemistry). I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but those seemed like good, safe bets and subjects I was good at. My next subject picks were languages, and I was really sad to give these up.
My parents are both scientists and they were both terribly uncool, so I knew I didn’t want to be a scientist! I chose engineering as a practical application of subjects that I knew I was capable in. I knew there were good career opportunities in engineering in areas I was interested in, and that it would be easily transferable overseas.
After school I went to Canterbury University and did a Bachelor of Engineering majoring in Mechatronics.
Was your study directly related to what you do now? He ōrite tāu mahi i taua wā ki tāu mahi o ināianei?
I would say my study is related to what I do now, but some of the specific aspects are not directly applied. Product development is maybe a less ’technical’ and numbers-focussed than some other engineering jobs. It uses a lot more of the soft skills of engineering. Having said that, the basics of problem-solving and analysis are definitely applicable - how to approach and develop solutions and how to use available resources to achieve this.
Mechatronics graduates are seen as good well-rounded engineers with problem-solving capabilities that transfer across multiple areas. Given the rapid increase in the use of electromechanical systems in designs, and the fact that nowadays very few systems are either simply mechanical, electrical or software, I think employers can also appreciate a Mechatronics graduate’s wider understanding. And I believe there will be increasing demand for this skill set in the future.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now? He aha āu kupu hei āwhina i ngā rangatahi wahine e whakaaro ana ki tā rātou mahi mō te wā kei mua i te aroaro
What kind of jobs are you interested in? What industries appeal to you? Then read about those potential career paths, talk to people in those industries and ask to visit companies! Most people are more than happy for you to come in for a visit.
Try to make opportunities to expose yourself to as many different areas of work that interest you as possible. And even some areas that don’t! You may find particular aspects of some jobs that appeal more than others. Think about what attracts you to a job. Make sure that what you’re excited about is what the job is actually going to offer you.
Think about where you want to get to. Investigate what kind of future you want. Then work backwards from there - what qualifications are necessary to achieve that? Do this before you leap into a degree or qualification.
Be practical. Don’t just choose a degree or qualification that is a simple extension of subjects that you are good at. Whether you are picking school subjects, looking at doing a degree, a tech course, or an apprenticeship, they should be aligned with your end goal. You can even ring up companies you might be interested in one day and ask what they would expect! Make sure you choose a career-relevant course of study, and that you have a good understanding of what you can expect when you graduate.
Be aware of becoming too ‘in love’ with glamorous –sounding careers (Robotics is the one in Mechatronics!)
In general, obviously the higher the level of qualification you get, the more opportunities will be available to you. However you should think about where you want to get to first, and what is necessary to achieve that.
Also, check out scholarship options, particularly if you’re a woman. There’s huge drive from the government at the moment for engineering and tech careers and some really great financial support for this.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand? He aha a STEM (pūtaiao, hangarau, pūkaha, pāngarau) e whai take ana ki Aotearoa?
STEM underlies everything in the world. It’s how things are designed, the reason for changes in the environment and the basis for many of the world’s past and future developments. It’s important for our people to be engaged, and be able to participate in how the world is shaped.
There is also a strong and growing public interest in making a real difference in the world. This contrasts somewhat with the common complaint that Millennials ‘don’t care.’ I see genuine engagement from people and a real desire to be a part of creating a better future.
I believe many of the global issues we face are going to be solved by STEM-related developments. Public engagement and active participation in these developments is essential for sustainable success. Development of education and work in STEM industries is critical, but so is an understanding of STEM for every New Zealander.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM? He aha te take me whai wāhi ngā wāhine ki STEM?
Research shows that diversity leads to success. Everyone has different perspectives and approaches and it’s essential to take advantage of these to deliver the best possible solutions.
Working in STEM is often about a mindset. It’s being able to look at a problem and figure out solutions, whether you’re familiar with the context or not. It’s also about enthusiasm to get stuck in and give new things a go. These are approaches that can be applied to lots of different situations, and increasing diversity by having more women working in STEM embraces these principles.
I also believe it’s important to have women in STEM to aid and progress gender equality in general. Having role models in prominent and meaningful fields can have a significant impact on this.
We all need to be a part of this change. One aspect is the huge detrimental effect of subtle biases. In general, most people are well-intentioned, and not deliberately sexist. But there are often well-ingrained stereotypes, and actions reflect these subconscious biases. Change starts at home, and it starts with the small things. People in the workplace need to have the confidence to check others and themselves, block ‘locker-room’ talk, and casual jests. These are the things that continue to support that ingrained culture. Adjusting these can affect wide-reaching cultural change.
Alicia is a Senior Product Development Engineer at Fisher & Paykel Healthcare. She typically works in a team with 5-10 other engineers to design and develop respiratory medical products for hospitals. She is passionate about increasing diversity in STEM fields, expecially for females. In her spare time she loves cycling and she competes in road cycling events across New Zealand and overseas. You can follow Alicia on Instagram or LinkedIn.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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