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Steph Rowan

Systems Engineer, Owlstone Medical

 

And - Chartered Mechanical Engineer with the IMechE

The idea that what I'm working on could be used as part of a system to save thousands of lives is incredibly motivational.

What do you do?

"This technology could revolutionise the way in which cancer is detected."

I work for Owlstone Medical, developing a system for collecting breath samples from patients for chemical analysis. The focus of Owlstone is on early stage detection of cancer by detecting volatile organic compounds on a patients’ exhaled breath (a 'breath biopsy'). This technology could make the diagnosis of cancer fast, cost-effective and less intrusive than the current method of tissue biopsy.

 

I lead the development activities for the next generation clean air supply subsystem, which provides the filtered air to the patient during the breath biopsy. The technical development involves a lot of problem-solving and analytical investigating, particularly with mechanical designs and experimental testing, but also managing and motivating people. This is especially important as the subsystem interfaces with a wider team, each of whom have a unique expertise, ranging from chemistry, physics, mechanical, electrical and manufacturing engineering. 

Why did you choose this field?

Medical engineering combined my love of creating and problem solving with my wish to work in a role which helped people. At school I'd been trying to choose between medicine and engineering when I came across biomedical engineering as a degree. The more I read about these courses, the more I realised how large the field is, how many problems are unsolved and how solutions have the potential for impacting peoples lives on a wide scale.

 

I was fortunate that I considered engineering as an option as my father, my older sister and two of my uncles are engineers (all different disciplines within engineering!). My mother had also worked as a project manager in industry, so it was very much in the family. Although I was not especially encouraged (or discouraged) from entering the engineering profession, my parents clear enthusiasm for their jobs certainly made me consider it seriously.

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

"To have a device which I led the design for in the hands of patients."

Recently, the first product I was Technical Lead for made it onto the market. The device is a respiratory drug delivery device for the treatment of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders.

 

I'm particularly proud of this achievement as medical devices need to comply with many safety standards; so design, development and verification of devices take years of work. 

Why do you love working in STEM?

"The potential of what could be achieved is why I love working in STEM."

Particularly in my current role; the idea that what I'm working on could be used as part of a system to detect early stage cancer and save thousands of lives is incredibly motivational.

The variety of the work has also definitely kept me in STEM. In one day I can be in the lab building and testing equipment, performing calculations on mechanisms at my desk, discussing the latest project developments in meetings and interviewing users of the systems we're designing. It's also an industry where you're constantly working with teams of people with different skill-sets and areas of expertise. It's very collaborative which is a lot of fun!

Best advice for the next generation

Don't let gender stereotypes put you off a rewarding and interesting career. An individual can have an amazing impact in STEM and there are so many opportunities to find challenges you can be really passionate about.

Role model 

Susan Cain who wrote a wonderful book called 'Quiet' about the power of introverts.