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Helen Allton

Quality Manager, Merxin Ltd

 

And - PhD

There is nothing you can't do, but you are going to have to go outside your comfort zone to do it.

What do you do?

My role is to make sure that, ultimately, when a patient takes their medication that the right quantity of drug is delivered to them the first time, every time. My role is to define the approach that we’ll take to achieve the required level of confidence. I then provide direction and support the different areas that are responsible for designing, making, testing the device such that those processes are reliable and the product produced is the right product each and every time. Quality should be a bit like the support when building an old-fashioned arched bridge, if the arch is built properly up you can remove the support and the bridge stays up, and works as a bridge, with no intervention.

 

When things don’t go to plan I’m in with the team, trying to work out where we go from here, how do we stop the same failing happening again etc. It does mean that Quality get a reputation for being trouble, we only turn up when something has gone wrong, but that’s to mis-represent the case.

 

My job is partly about making sure that we have the right processes in place to allow the rest of the team to get on and do their job. They are the experts in what they do, part of my role it to ensure their expertise is being applied to the right areas at the right times to ensure that we have the necessary confidence in the product.

Why did you choose this field?

"I didn't set out to be in Quality, in fact I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up! All I've ever done is pick the most interesting option at that time."

As a child I was never given the idea that there was anything that was not for me, I had Lego and cars as well as dolls and, my favourite, books. Initially I wanted to be a motor mechanic, just like my dad. However, at school, it was the academic subjects that appealed more, and science trumped the arts as I had to write fewer essays. I had an excellent science teacher, Mr Clarke, at secondary school. He encouraged all of us to explore the world around and to always ask the next question, he was a real inspiration and tolerated no nonsense. Again, he encouraged the girls as much as the boys. I took a degree in chemical physics, and that lead to a PhD in a subject that has no practical application in this life or the next. After a postdoc, I decided that academia and the purely theoretical was not for me. I realised I need to have a practical application to my efforts, and moved into a manufacturing company, working in the lab. This was satisfying as it made a lot of the theory learnt to practical application.

 

While in the laboratory I became more involved in the proving out of a device design, testing the requirements of the device were met. That led to being more involved in writing the requirements in the first place. And so Quality lured me to the other side. The first thing I discovered was that Quality has a huge breadth of activity – I have to be a real jack of all trades, understanding enough of each different discipline to ask the pointed question and know when there’s something amiss. I don’t have to solve it myself, that’s the job of the technical experts in the different specialisms. Quality’s role is to prod and ask questions such that the technical teams arrive at the best possible solution, not just the first or easiest solution. There’s always something new to learn, a new approach or advance to take on board. And yet, with that huge scope, there’s the need to have an eye for detail to pick up the tiny things that can make or break a project.

 

I really love my job. It’s something I never even knew existed. All I have ever really wanted is to be intellectually stimulated and to make a difference. I like to think that I have managed both of those.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

"There are worse things than being wrong, like having a valid idea and being afraid to say so."

The younger me lacked confidence. I was smart, but doubted myself. While I scored well on tests, I didn’t have the confidence to step up and make myself heard. I am now at a stage that I am the one being listened to, I’m asked what I think and that information is acted upon. I used to be afraid of being wrong, but I have learnt that there is usually more than one solution to any problem, the key is finding the right combination of answers, not expecting to find that one golden bullet.

Why do you love working in STEM?

"I'm at my happiest asking questions, trying to learn and understand."

I love the challenge of a technical environment, trying to work out what’s going on, why’s it doing that, what if we did it this way. There’s something new every day to take on board, some new design, technology, test, or some new problem to overcome. No two days are the same, something different can go wrong on any given day.

 

I may not use the detail of my degree on a daily basis, however I use the ability to think critically, to interpret and analyse data, to get inside a problem and arrive at a conclusion. 

Best advice for the next generation

There is nothing you can’t do, but you are going to have to go outside your comfort zone to do it. You have to speak up and make your voice heard, you have value to add to the conversation - don’t allow yourself to be shouted down. Technical subjects have a place for different patterns of thought, gut feel and intuition; the best solutions are not always discovered from a linear thought process, sometimes that leap of faith has to be taken. Diversity of thought and approach is vital, you have a place at the table, pull up that chair and get stuck in.

Fun fact

I’m a church bell-ringer, which involves using complex mathematical patterns to create that jingly jangly noise. There’s a physical element to ringing, but it’s the intellectual exercise that I love.