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Women in Engineering – Inspiring interview with Rachael Peterson - Electronics Engineer

Redline's, Women in Engineering advocate has another inspiring interview discussing a career in electronic engineering

The number of women working in core Stem (science, technology, engineering, and maths) jobs in the UK topped 1 million in 2020, according to Wise, an organisation that promotes gender balance in the sector.

But there is still much more to do……. this series of interviews highlights the diverse nature of the roles available and the women who undertake them.

Hi Rachael, please introduce yourself and tell me an interesting fact about yourself.

I’m Rachael Peterson and I’m an Electronic Design Engineer. I’m keen on sustainability and making my home, my car, and everything as environmentally friendly as possible, so currently a big interest of mine.

What made you go into electronic engineering?

A lot of my family and friends have been engineers or scientists so I grew up surrounded by it so it only seemed natural to go into that field. I’ve always been good when it comes to maths and science-based subjects so with my family’s influence it seemed natural.

Did that happen at a young age?

Yes, I would say so. I’ve pretty much always been interested in going into engineering; although I did have a very small moment of wanting to be an accountant which did not last very long!

What was engineering like through education?

I was always encouraged through the path of GCSEs, A-Levels, and Degree. It’s the path my family took so I didn’t question it. I was fortunate enough to be able to go down that route, I achieved the required grades and I managed to gain sponsorship via Smiths Aerospace (now GE Aviation) to go to university which was helpful. This also gave me experience as I worked with them during the summer breaks.

So, from a passion for maths and science, family influence, and GCSEs, A-Levels. You mentioned sponsorship - could you explain a bit more?

Before I went to university, I applied to various engineering companies for summer placements. I managed to find one which would pay me a small amount whilst I was at university. This meant a bursary and paid work during holiday periods which helped as a student.

So, what made you choose electronics as a focus?

I’ve always found it fascinating. I was into gadgets and had computers at an early age. My dad won a Sinclair ZX Spectrum which he gave me, and I learned how to program; I then became interested in how it worked and the add-ins for it. That’s what spurred me on to pursue electronics as opposed to the family way of mechanical engineering or other branches of science.

What was it like to study electronic engineering at Southampton University?

It was fun, quite a lot of work, and lots of variation as there are multiple subsets of electronic engineering and the course taught me to solve real-world challenges. I recognised early in the Electronic Engineering course at Southampton  that I enjoyed digital electronics and embedded systems. That enabled me to choose options that suited my skill set at the time. Things have changed over time and I’ve diversified away from just being digital-only. It’s amazing what different experiences of technologies in a work environment can do to influence and pave your career.

You are now working within FPGAs, how did that start?

Initially, in my first year, it was an industrial placement. When I moved on to project work, I started mainly undertaking testing and development work whilst assisting the more experienced engineers. There was a technical issue, and a board needed a partial redesign. There was nobody to do it, I was the youngest person on that project but the only one with free time. So, I was tasked with the redesign and quite a significant part of the product including electronics and FPGA design. I had done a little bit of programmable logic design (pld) at university l but on much smaller devices and in a niche obscure language called PLPL and I was good at it then. I designed a large FPGA device for the project, it piqued my interest a lot! So, I then orchestrated my career at that company and focused on a combination of digital board design and FPGA implementation. I found a niche that I liked and started building on it.

So, has FPGA design become a predominant part of your career?

Yes, certainly for a while. I then moved from aerospace to a pro audio company so an entirely different field. I did some FPGA design and a lot of digital electronics and board design. I branched out into analogue, power supply design, and mixed-signal audio. I gained a lot more experience in other areas and became more of a generalist for quite a while. In the last 3 or 4 years, I’ve got back into FPGA design, using some of the latest devices and software. The design process, especially in the FPGA arena has changed quite a lot over the last 10 years it’s still very interesting and there is a lot more to it now too which helps keep the passion and excitement when working on new projects.

What does the day-to-day look like for an electronics engineer that might spur someone to follow this career?

The variation that you can get. Some days there will be tasks that are not the most exciting, but then there are such interesting days. If you are working on a new product design and you’ve got research to do to find out the best technologies, filter the requirements, develop the architecture, pick out the most important parts of the product. Then to work out how you’re going to meet those requirements. It’s quite challenging technically and there can be quite a lot of trade-offs. You may have to consider cost, delivery timescales as well as performance. There are also other people to work alongside and often a team, so all very interesting.

You have had a broad career path and study, what changes have you seen for women in engineering.

There are a lot more women in engineering now compared to how many there once were. I was fortunate in the companies I work with and for. There were several women engineers in Smith Aerospace; largely software and systems engineers but not many within the electronic hardware department. But as mentioned it‘s certainly common now and if you follow any technical discussions on Twitter, social media, etc the number of women in an engineering position is a lot higher. There is still a gender gap but thankfully more females are coming through. Many businesses have recognised the importance of the equal participation of women at all levels in a subject that has traditionally been, and remains, male dominated. Institutions are focused on ways to encourage more female students to study engineering and go on to consider engineering as a viable career path.

The good news is that for women who do stay with it, engineering is a great career that consistently shows higher than average earnings and higher than average levels of job satisfaction.

Do you think there is enough done within a school environment to promote the variations available within engineering?

Certainly when I was at school it wasn’t very well sold as a career path. I think in general people don’t understand what engineering is and the many disciplines. It’s not just a school thing it’s wider than that. Engineering seems to have a very broad definition within the UK and what qualifies as an engineer. People tend to notice the ‘engineers’ such as a mechanic or someone seen as hands on as they tend to be more public facing. There is a huge amount of engineering that people generally do not see, and they don’t realise the process behind it. Since engineering isn't a subject often taught at school, we need to get more engineering "presence" in schools to help the teachers. Some of the larger companies are trying to do this.

If you want to encourage more engineers (men and women) then it needs to be sold as an intellectual profession. It's maths, physics, and common sense. Things which men and women are equally adept at.

Even within a specialism such as software engineering, there are many elements to it

Yes, engineering is a huge field with so many potential areas for people to go in. Pretty much whatever someone is into, hobbies, etc, there is an area of engineering relating to it and these are disciplines are growing, such as data science, robotics, and wireless systems.

One of the topics previously discussed in these blogs would be to have engineering in the curriculum. Do you think that would help to promote engineering as a career?

I would say so yes. When I was at school, we had technology as one of our courses which helped to give a broader understanding of what engineering is, so I think it would help.

I wanted to ask you about mentoring?

I have not had a mentor for years. In my first job, I had structured training as it was an IEE accredited training course, so I had a mentor then.

Is there someone you would go to bounce ideas off if a problem occurred within your role?

I would certainly bounce off colleagues, co-workers. A lot of times I worked as the lead engineer running the design teams so sometimes there are not always others to easily turn to. At this point, a mentor would be useful. I think if there was a mentoring scheme of some description that younger engineers could benefit from the experience of more senior people, it would help a lot.

When you first move into engineering from university, it’s a big change. You think you know a lot with a degree, and you’ve done well but when faced with your first task/challenge you realise it’s a little harder than you may have expected. There is also a whole range of things you learn on the job so having someone to help guide would be very valuable.

Rachael thank you so much for taking the time

For other interviews covering Women in Engineering click on the links below, or for more information why not follow the Women's Engineering Society.


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