Catriona Kenny, of Tyndall National Institute, has fond memories of those who encouraged her to pursue her chosen career path. She elaborates on the exciting projects she’s working on, her passion for raising the visibility of women in engineering and other under-represented groups in STEM. She talks in detail about her Sensational STEM project which aims to deliver sensory friendly experiments for autistic students.

Catriona Kenny, senior engineer, Specialty Products & Services (SP&S),Tyndall

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in engineering? 

From an early age I was fascinated with how things worked, and my parents encouraged this by letting me take apart objects such as old radios! During first year in secondary school, I was a student in the first technology class, in an all-girls' school.

My science teacher, who was learning the ropes of this new alien subject, motivated me to build electronic circuits in my spare time, and share with her my discoveries and how they worked.

The encouragement that I received – and the freedom to explore electronics outside of the curriculum as a 13-year-old – really influenced my decision to become an electronic engineer. My parents also gave me great support and, in place of clothes and games for birthdays, they gave me the requested microscopes and soldering irons!

What research area are you working on at the moment?

I started working in Tyndall in 2001 when it was formerly known as the NMRC (National Microelectronics Research Centre), and have worked in what is now called the SP&S (Specialty products and services) group since I joined. My roles have been focused on industry projects, in the areas of IC circuit analysis, device characterisation and destructive physical analysis of components for space applications.

The project that I am currently working on involves analysing components for use in a project called Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), for the European Space Agency. LISA will be the first-of-its-kind space-based gravitational wave observatory.

This novel technology will address the science theme of the gravitational universe. LISA will consist of three spacecraft separated by 2.5 million km in a triangular formation, following Earth in its orbit around the Sun. The exciting launch is expected to take place in 2034.

It’s great that even after 20 years in Tyndall, the work continues to evolve in line with changing societal and economic challenges, and there is always an opportunity to learn and add to my skillset along the way.

What do you think could be done to raise the profile of women working in engineering?

STEM outreach has a very important and influential impact on young girls, offering a great opportunity to show them that engineering is a career that is very much open to them.

Every year, I return to my old all-girls' primary school for Engineers Week and practise simple electronics with the sixth class girls. I share with them my career path that spun out from the very classroom that we are in, to my current role as senior engineer.

More female engineers need to take part in STEM outreach, to share their engineering experience with young girls, to cultivate and empower them to make an informed decision about STEM careers and to not think of it as a career that is out of their reach.  

Part of the STEM outreach we do in schools, also targets another group that are underrepresented in engineering. I received funding under the SFI Discover call in 2019 to deliver a programme known as Sensational STEM. The programme is aimed at autistic students who may otherwise find existing STEM programme settings distressing. Typical STEM events use what is exciting, loud and bright to highlight the brilliance of science.

This can induce sensory overload and upset in students with ASD. The programme focuses on delivering sensory friendly experiments for these students by providing schools with the necessary resources required. We work with both autistic boys and girls in primary school and the experience is as enjoyable for us as it is for the students.

Many of these students have a natural gift in many areas of STEM and so it is important to provide them with these opportunities at an early age in an environment that they are comfortable in.

What advice would you give your younger self?

You have made the right career choice in engineering. You may meet hurdles along the way, but you will be successful and will hopefully encourage many others to follow in your footsteps.