Rachel Annett is the craft group leader in the engineering operations department of Thermo Fisher. She graduated from Queens’ University Belfast with an MEng in Chemical Engineering in 2016 and has worked in a number of roles since joining Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Cork campus in September 2016.  

Rachel Annett.

At what age, or stage of your life, did you start to think about becoming an engineer?  

When I was halfway through my first semester at university studying chemistry! Luckily, at Queens’ both chemical engineers and chemists studied the same modules for the first semester, and I found I enjoyed the engineering modules much more and was able to transfer across.

I think making that initial change has really stood to me over the years, especially here in Thermo Fisher where the chemists and chemical engineers work really closely together.

The team here on the Cork campus develop and scale chemical processes to create active pharmaceutical ingredients for life-saving pharmaceuticals, blending creativity and precision to make a tangible impact on health and wellbeing. I’m glad I gave chemistry a go, but it took making that minor detour to realise that chemical engineering was really what held my interest!  

What skills do you need to become a good engineer?        

Problem solving and communication. Ask any engineer and this will likely be their answer because they are the most important skills. You need them for a solid team dynamic, but you must also learn to communicate engineering issues and solutions to people who may not be from an engineering background and would not be used to the day-to-day terminology.  

Take Thermo Fisher, for example – the opportunities here are pretty unique. We are a contract development and manufacturing organisation (CDMO), making active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) for a wide range of customers and we are often customer-facing, and I have never had that experience or training anywhere else. The opportunity to hone your communication skills is invaluable. 

What can be done to encourage more people, and in particular young girls, to explore careers in engineering?  

I think it is very important for young girls to see female role models in engineering jobs. You have to see it to be it. We need to continue to provide strong role models and mentors who can inspire and guide them and implement engaging STEM programmes and hands-on learning opportunities in schools that can spark their interest early on.

In Thermo Fisher, there is a big focus on that, whether it is through internships to give students hands-on industry experience, or programmes to inspire STEM with local secondary and primary schools. The earlier we can teach young girls about the options available to them, the better, which is why I love that we have programmes here to ensure we are nurturing the future of our industry. 

For you, what are the really interesting aspects of engineering?  

In the engineering operations department, we are responsible for maintaining equipment across the entire site – this ranges from all the production vessels (reactors, filter dryers etc) to all the supporting utility systems, boilers, and on-site incinerator.

We are often called to support when equipment isn’t operating as it should be. This is the best opportunity to really learn and understand how the equipment is designed and operates, so with my job it means that I am constantly learning.

I have had the opportunity to expand my experience and knowledge of the supporting utility systems, which included external experts coming to site to complete boiler training with our team. I love that my career has led me here because I find it interesting to learn about the equipment, and then be able to see it in use every day on site and troubleshoot live problems as they arise.  

What is your favourite aspect of the job?  

Every day is different. As a CDMO we work on a huge range of programmes from small early-stage chemical processes to large-scale commercial manufacturing and you never know what your next project is going to be.

The innovation never stops. If you are in any way curious and if you like a challenge, you will thrive here. I also get to spend a lot of time on plant with the equipment and craftspeople who are incredibly knowledgeable.

The talent base in Thermo Fisher’s laboratories and production facilities in Cork work alongside each other in project management; operations; engineering quality; and supply chain to deliver the API that go into products to treat cancer, hepatitis, HIV, lupus, diabetes/weight gain, Parkinson’s Disease, psoriasis, BPH, respiratory diseases and more. 

How has the career differed from what you expected, particularly initially?  

Initially, I started working on site here as a process engineer working on things like taking processes from the lab out onto plant for manufacturing and I expected I would stay in that role for a long time.

After a time, I knew I would like to explore other avenues and use my engineering degree to work in different roles on site. There is a real sense of empowerment and growth here and when I voiced my interest in other areas, management worked with me to create a pathway to expand my experience.    

What has surprised you the most during your career as an engineer?  

The opportunities to move to different roles and departments. Being an engineer provides a lot of transferable skills, which can be used in roles across the site.

The opportunities to gain experience are truly vast. There isn’t one set path for an engineer, they can go in many different directions, which is great. Some of my team members here on site are testament to that.  

What inspires you about your work?  

The people I work with on the Cork campus inspire me; there are many people who are very dedicated to creating a world that is healthy, clean and safe.

The depth of knowledge that the team have is phenomenal, and they are consistently innovating, always working to find solutions to issues or a better way to do things. Additionally, knowing that the work we do – manufacturing life-changing medicines – will one day treat a huge range of common conditions from cancer, hepatitis, HIV and lupus, to diabetes/weight gain, Parkinson’s Disease, psoriasis, BPH and respiratory diseases.