‘I strongly believe that technology should be used for people, not solely focused on industry’

8 Mar 2023

Amber Dowling. Image: Aengus McMahon

Award-winning engineer Amber Dowling imparts her passion for ‘technology to help improve people’s lives’ and explains the process behind developing a robotic aid for people with Parkinson’s disease.

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Amber Dowling is fascinated by how the world works.

“It’s wonderful to me to delve into what creates the world around us, how it all welds together.

“There is so much you don’t think about that goes into our functioning daily lives, often with centuries of history and development behind it.”

This fascination has already served Dowling well. Though only starting out in her engineering career, she has already been recognised for her skills.

At the Global Undergraduate Awards, she was highly commended as one of the top 16 student engineers in the world. She also received the Undergraduate Award in Engineering for Ireland.

“Seeing my name on the website was quite surreal!

“I hope my success will encourage other undergraduate engineering students to submit their projects to these awards.”

‘It’s wonderful to me to delve into what creates the world around us, how it all welds together’

‘Innovations for the good of society’

During her professional work experience in final year, Dowling worked at Boston Scientific Galway. Here she was exposed to collaborative robots (cobots).

“I was really impressed with their multiple safety features for working around humans and sensitive force sensors. I saw an opportunity for it to be applied elsewhere.

“I strongly believe that technology should be used for people, not solely focused on industry.”

Dowling’s social conscience inspired her innovative project.

“I was reading about treatment for Parkinson’s and thought about how it would be great to be able to combat symptoms in a manner that’s more comfortable for people, even if it’s only temporary.”

She designed a glove to help people with Parkinson’s disease control hand tremors. The glove can transfer tremor energy to a cobot which then filters out the tremors.

“The concept itself is pretty simple,” explains Dowling. “The user sits down, slips their hand into the specially designed glove attached to the end of the cobot, and starts the programme. The cobot, while following the movement of the user, detects the tremors and creates a counterforce to them, nullifying them.”

Universal design principles

Dowling approaches her craft with practicality and common sense.

“I went about the glove design through the lens of universal design principles, which includes equitable, simple and intuitive use, flexibility, low physical effort, etc.”

The result of her “design with common sense” was a “3D-printed flexible plastic layer that bent with the fingers, attached to a stiffer plastic column which screwed into the flange of the cobot. A band providing wrist support was also integrated into the column, sprouting from the middle back of the hand.”

Throughout the project, Dowling put a “heavy emphasis on safety”.

“For instance, the wrist support has a magnet in it, strong enough to bear the force of an arm but able to easily detach if someone needs to pull away their hand quickly.”

‘I like to work on things that I feel have a point to them’

The biggest challenge for Dowling was “determining the scope of the project”.

“It was difficult to balance the workload versus the potential usefulness of the concept. Nothing matters unless it can be feasibly implemented in a practical manner – either now or in the future.”

There is an almost impatient excitement about Dowling. She wants to see her work making a difference out in the real world right now.

“I like to work on things that I feel have a point to them. My project falls mainly under proof of concept, which is a struggle to reconcile with the real world sometimes.

“Yet these are necessary steps in the design process to one day produce something genuinely useful to people. I try to keep that in mind.”

‘A quick learning curve’

It wasn’t that long ago that Dowling was a school student who loved “to see things moving and working”.

“Originally, I was drawn to science, but for me, it lacked a physicality that was necessary to keep me involved.

“I liked disassembling things – I couldn’t understand why no one else was using the corner of their ruler to unscrew their calculator during English class.”

Dowling is grateful to her mentors at Boston Scientific for their advice and support but also for the freedom they gave her to work on her project. The trust they showed her increased her confidence.

This confidence meant she was able to take on every challenge she faced. As she puts it, “my project required a very quick learning curve, a curve which I fell off of multiple times … but got there in the end!”

Dowling now works as a junior project engineer.

“I perform a project management role which involves assessing the needs of a client. I assess the job, price it, advise on how to do it, and ensure the workers have everything necessary to complete the job.”

She is also completing a specialist diploma in automation controls with the University of Galway to further her knowledge of automation.

‘Be curious’

Dowling believes that “one of the best aspects of engineering is that it’s so broad that you can almost always find a specific area that suits you. If you are not inspired by one particular aspect, then you can move onto the next thing.”

She suggests that budding engineers “try out everything and something might stick.”

Dowling thinks that only with experience is it possible to learn the distinction between “something being difficult but ultimately enjoyable and rewarding, or if it is something not worthwhile enduring.”

Unsurprisingly, Dowling advises student engineers to “be curious”.

“Don’t let your fear of rejection and failure rule your choices. You learn so much more when things go wrong, and what you learn will likely embed itself in your mind more.”

Her final piece of advice is to learn the underlying concepts. Once you have a solid base, you can “build up further knowledge”.

“Passion comes with competence – jobs are generally a lot more enjoyable when you’re good at them!”

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic