I'm engineering change in girls' aspirations

May 25, 2007

For many people the archetypal image of an inventor probably lies somewhere between the wild-eyed Doc Brown in the film Back to the Future and the pipe-smoking Trevor Baylis, inventor of the clockwork radio, writes Olga Wojtas.

But the reality, as is often the case, is quite different, as evidenced by the slim, groomed form of 28-year-old Maire O'Neill, an engineering researcher at Queen's University Belfast.

Dr O'Neill has just been named British Female Inventor of the Year at the British Female Inventors and Innovators awards ceremony for her work to combat cyber-criminals.

It is not Dr O'Neill's first award: in January, she won the national Women's Engineering Society prize and was runner-up for the Institution of Engineering and Technology's Young Woman Engineer of the Year title. And she is a previous Young Engineer for Britain Vodafone award-winner.

Surprised by her success, Dr O'Neill says her chief delight in the awards is the positive message it gives out to girls: that they can be engineers, too.

She is in the final year of a five-year Royal Academy of Engineering research fellowship, and at her own request also does some teaching on circuits and systems.

"I enjoy the interaction with the students, and I like to try to explain a topic clearly. You get satisfaction from the performance grades and the student evaluations," she says.

But while many young researchers would devote every waking hour to developing their work, she also spends time visiting schools to prove that engineering is not tough manual work confined to men.

"It's something I feel strongly about. I wasn't encouraged to do this (at school). I enjoy my job very much and feel that someone should try to inspire younger girls to come and join us," she says.

"I went into one all-girls school, and they were looking behind me to see where the man was. I said: 'I'm the engineer.'" She stresses to young women that engineering is not only an end in itself but can be an excellent springboard for careers in other professions.

"I try to tell them that there's a vast range of career choice open to you.

You're not limited. You could move into sales, into law."

Dr O'Neill appears in a Women into Science and Engineering promotional video for Northern Ireland, has given a Christmas lecture to 600 schoolchildren and regularly features in the media. She also supports Queen's pioneering gender initiative and has just signed up to be an academic mentor within the university.

Despite the lack of encouragement at school, Dr O'Neill was always interested in technical and scientific subjects.

"My interest came from my personal experience. My father had a hydroelectric scheme on the river that provided all our electricity. It just opened my eyes to potential projects you could be involved in. It was probably one of the first such schemes in Ireland, and a lot of people would come to visit just to see it."

She also hero-worshipped her two elder brothers, both electrical engineers, while her two sisters, who are doctors, warned her against studying medicine.

"Now they're making all the money, I say: 'You told me not to do that!'" she jokes.

But she admits that although the monetary rewards may be small, working in higher education is where she wants to be. "There's a lot of diversity in what we do. When you're in a company you're working on very set things. I'm looking at what will be required in the future.

"Then there's the diversity of teaching, and I get to travel an awful lot to international conferences, which is very enjoyable."

Dr O'Neill stresses that she has never experienced any gender discrimination but believes there need to be more female engineers as role models before girls consider it an acceptable career. When she came to Queen's as an undergraduate she was one of about ten women in a class of 100 engineering students. She is now the only female academic in Queen's Electronics, Communications and Information Technology Research Institute.

Most young researchers join an existing team, but she leads one, the cryptography research group. The research sprang from her final-year undergraduate project, which involved working with a local company interested in data security. The firm was so impressed by her work that it helped to fund her PhD.

Security is central to a vast range of communications applications, from online banking to mobile phones, she says. "My work is to bridge the gap between the techniques and the applications that require them."

Dr O'Neill's current research focuses on encryption and authentication of information, crucial in guarding against credit-card and internet fraud.

Network providers are continuously trying to increase the speed of the network, and the security technology has to be able to perform at the same high speed. She has designed one of the fastest security techniques in existence.

She is also working on radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, set to replace barcodes, which can contain more information about the product and can be read from a distance but carry potential security risks of customer-tracking and product-cloning. "The research is looking at what is required in next-generation products. That's the attraction of doing research - you're not working on an old problem but on cutting-edge applications."

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM

Queen's University Belfast in 1999 with an MEng degree in electrical and electronic engineering, and in 2002 with a PhD in the area of DSP and telecommunications.

MY FIRST JOB WAS

as an assistant to electrical and manufacturing engineers at Qualtron Ltd, Co Donegal My main challenge is trying to balance the teaching and research aspects of my job.

WHAT I HATE MOST

is the fact there aren't more women choosing electronic engineering as a career.

IN TEN YEARS I

would like to be a professor leading a world-renowned research group in the area of communications security.

MY FAVOURITE JOKE

A man walks into a bar and he says: "Ouch."

'I wasn't encouraged to do this at school. I feel that we should try to inspire younger girls to come and join us. I went into one all-girls school and they were looking behind me to see where the man was. I said: "I'm the engineer"'

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