Why I became an engineer: Elaine Clarke of Jacobs tells her story
13 June 2019
'Although I went to an all-girls secondary school that didn’t offer applied maths as a Leaving Certificate subject or provide a clear route to engineering, a turning point came when a female engineer from the ESB came in to do a talk at my school.Although I went to an all-girls secondary school that didn’t offer applied maths as a Leaving Certificate subject or provide a clear route to engineering, a turning point came when a female engineer from the ESB came in to do a talk at my school.'
Elaine Clarke is a process engineer with Jacobs. A graduate of University College Dublin, she has a first-class honours BE in Chemical Engineering.
Between 2013 and 2016, she participated in Jacobs’ graduate programme. She has since been involved in a variety of roles across the design and construction of a leading biotech facility in Ireland. During this project, Clarke led a multi-discipline team across the organisation, client and contractors to achieve handover of all downstream systems.
For the past nine months, Clarke has played a key role in the successful delivery of a major pharma project. During this time, she has led the upstream process team across multiple offices to design and deliver the upstream processes and purchase, design and approval for fabrication of all upstream equipment.
Clarke is a member of IChemE and is part of the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering’s (ISPE) Irish young professionals’ group.
At what age (or stage of your life) did you start to think about becoming an engineer?
When I was growing up, I was interested in many different fields and was torn between engineering, law and English-style degrees.
Although I went to an all-girls secondary school that didn’t offer applied maths as a Leaving Certificate subject or provide a clear route to engineering, a turning point came when a female engineer from the ESB came in to do a talk at my school.
I was inspired by the diversity and flexibility offered by a career in engineering. It seemed like a job where you could work almost anywhere and apply a broad range of skills to tackle complex problems, so when I had to fill out my college CAO form, engineering was an obvious choice.
What were the major influencers of this decision?
I was always interested in maths, chemistry and physics and what I liked most about these subjects was the fact that you could apply them to the real world.
Similarly, engineering provides an opportunity to use science and maths to make the world a better place. I studied higher-level maths for the Leaving Cert and was very lucky to have a wonderful teacher who played an important role in shaping my career decision.
He taught me that there are many ways to solve a problem and how to adopt a new way of thinking to find correlations that may not seem obvious. This was a key learning for me and a skill that I draw on in my every day work.
How has the career differed from what you expected, particularly initially?
It has differed a lot from what I expected. Today, the role of the engineer is fast evolving. Our job is to provide solutions to real-life problems on time and within budget and the reality is there are a multitude of correct answers and solutions which keep changing as new information and technologies become available.
Engineering is a fast-paced job in an ever-changing landscape. An engineering degree prepares you to work in the industry as you learn fundamentals such as how to approach problems from different angles, make informed assumptions and identify the key variables that matter the most.
What for you are the most interesting aspects of engineering?
I am excited by the fact that I don’t know what I’ll be working on this time next year, what part of the world I’ll be working in, or even which team I’ll be working with.
Working with Jacobs means that I get to meet people from all over the world at different client sites and take on diverse projects that bring new challenges.
One very diverse opportunity I received in 2017 was to travel to Jacobs’ head office in Dallas for six months to work in the Integration Management Office on the master planning team for the key acquisition of CH2M, an investment of about $3 billion which was a landmark not only for our company but the whole industry.
It was an amazing experience where I had the chance to see the nuts and bolts of how we do business, a chance to look forward with a view to re-define and shape the future strategy and focuses for leading-edge solutions for a more connected, sustainable world.
I’m also excited that regardless of the client project I’m working on, my work will help to improve people’s lives. For example, I’ve spent the past four years working on facilities that produce various immuno-oncology drugs that help patients’ immune systems to identify and fight cancer. There’s a real sense of satisfaction in being part of these projects.
What do you expect to be the most exciting aspect of engineering over the next five years?
The most exciting aspect to me is that this is an industry where people really care about what they do. I am part of the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering’s (ISPE) Irish young professionals’ group.
In April, ISPE held its European annual conference in Dublin, and as part of that event, our group held a weekend-long gathering of young professionals from all over Europe. We spent time brainstorming about what the future of our industry looks like and how to create a European-wide network of young engineers.
The outcomes were really exciting, with themes such as sustainability and the incorporation of new technology discussed as well as the need to rethink how future projects can meet market demand and provide more affordable healthcare across the globe.
What would you say to someone right now if they asked you should they study engineering?
First, I would highlight the fact that there are many pathways into engineering, in addition to the traditional third-level degree, so it’s worth remembering internships and work placements.
Second, as well as being an exciting and challenging career, engineering provides a great basis for a diverse range of roles, both within the industry and across other sectors. If you look at the biogs of consultants, project managers, CEOs and even lawyers, you’ll see that many have a primary degree in engineering.
As a profession, engineering provides purpose and is a tangible way for you to see your efforts being realised. I specialise in pharma, but in every sector, engineering is about finding solutions to life’s problems and making the world a better place.
Regardless of whether it’s the nanobot delivery of personalised drugs, or a world with zero carbon emissions, engineering gives you the tools to go out there, be creative and make an impact.