Dr Helen Berney from Analog Devices combines her skills to improve how we can sense the world with engineering. She spoke to Claire O’Connell.
Life is busy and fast, so how do you find opportunities along the way? By watching out for them, and by being willing to learn.
That approach has served Dr Helen Berney well throughout her career and now, as a senior process design engineer at Analog Devices, she is looking to new ways to find signals in the noise.
That’s because Analog, a global multinational that recently celebrated 40 years in Limerick, makes electronic devices that can sense and process signals.
As a business-to-business company, Analog might not be a household name, but its technology is embedded in devices in consumer devices such as phones and fridges, and across industries including healthcare, agri-food, aerospace, automotive and the internet of things.
“We take analogue signals and translate them into the digital world and then back again,” said Berney, who has worked with the company for more than a decade.
Her role at Analog started as their representative in the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute (BDI) in Dublin City University (DCU), a centre funded by Science Foundation Ireland to explore new platforms to detect or monitor signs of disease in samples such as blood or urine or even breath.
Combining biology and engineering needed new conversations between researchers across various disciplines, and those conversations helped Analog to explore the complexity of the biological world as a source of signals, according to Berney.
“The electrochemists and biologists would say there is a signal but it is small and difficult to detect, then the engineers in the room would say we can get the signal out of the noise,” she recalled. “That is the crossover, and if you have those kinds of conversations between smart people, then interesting things happen.”
Bridging the gap
Another learning from the academic-industry partnership was how to convert research findings into innovations that could be used by industry. “I came from academia and I worked on projects with an industrial slant, but, until you come into industry, [you] don’t realise the gap between having a magnificently elegant concept and industry’s need to make a product at scale.”
The BDI recently formed the foundation of the Fraunhofer Project Centre (FPC) For Embedded BioAnalytical Systems at DCU, and Berney spoke at a panel discussion at its launch earlier this month.
“I think the FPC is recognising and trying to bridge that gap between academia and the industry need to produce at scale, and Analog is a supporter of the centre,” she said, adding that it plans to work with the FPC on projects, particularly in the area of microfluidic platforms.
— Brian MacC (@muirtheimhne) May 9, 2017
Berney’s own career path is itself an example of how interesting things can happen when you take opportunities and combine fields.
She studied biotechnology at NIHE in Glasnevin (now DCU), where she was ambivalent about science study until she completed her industry placement with Smithwick’s in Kilkenny.
“That changed everything,” she recalled. “I loved it, I was working in a microbiology lab doing experiments, reporting results, and knowing that it mattered that we were measuring the growth rate of yeast for the fermentation of beer, and making sure there was no bacterial contamination.”
Berney moved to the UK where, applying to an ad in a job centre, she became a trainee roulette dealer in a casino. “I was using my maths skills there,” she said.
But her future got diverted when she received a call to work as a technician in a cancer research lab, and she jumped at it. “I was not perfectly trained for that job when I went for the interview,” she said. “But I think if you are interested and willing to ask questions, you can learn and it means you can take the opportunities that present themselves.”
The immunology that she learned in the cancer lab paved the way for a job at the National Microelectronics Research Centre in Cork (now Tyndall National Institute), where Berney worked for 10 years on immunosensing in silicon, and she completed her PhD part-time.
The travel bug took over, and Berney worked in the UK again before backpacking around Australia, where her skills earned her a job at the University of Canberra, before returning to Ireland and taking up her postition with Analog and the BDI.
Today, Berney’s role is to look to the company’s future horizons and explore the sensor needs of industries. “We are trying to create sensors that will allow customers to get access to data, and looking at how we can make this technology so it is small and fast and fits in the right form factor,” she explained.
“So you are talking to customers, looking at trends, working with engineers – it’s a very rich area and it is intellectually satisfying.”
‘Take the fear out of it, challenge this notion that engineering is hard and full of maths, show what you can do with it and make engineers more visible’
– DR HELEN BERNEY
Making engineers visible
Less satisfying, though, is the gender ratio in professional engineering in Ireland. It is estimated that only around 10pc of engineers here are women, and Berney would like to see a greater representation in the field.
“I think the only way to change it is to start right at the beginning when kids are in the early stages of school, take the fear out of it, challenge this notion that engineering is hard and full of maths, show what you can do with it and make engineers more visible,” she said.
“Analog does really great outreach, we are involved in Limerick for Engineering and we present at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition every year.”
Berney also encourages students and prospective engineers to take opportunities when they arise. “The path may be winding when you do that, but it leads you to interesting places.”
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