Professor Eileen Harkin-Jones was recently appointed to a new research chair at Ulster University, Northern Ireland. She speaks to Simon Frost about composites, industry links and inspiring the next generation.
Tell me about your background.
I’m a mechanical engineer and gained my engineering degree from University College Dublin. My interest in materials began when I was in my first job in R&D and production management in a plastics company in Northern Ireland, where I developed an interest in plastics. I went on to do a PhD at Queen’s University Belfast developing materials for the rotational moulding process. I then took a job there as a lecturer.
Why did Ulster University appeal to you?
Ulster University (UU) has a great reputation for working alongside industry and for research in the area of composites. I was keen to forge close links with industry – I have always worked with business through my research projects, but this position in particular offers the opportunity for even stronger links, as the Chair is sponsored by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Bombardier.
How do you aim to link up with industry?
I will be very closely associated with the Northern Ireland Advanced Composites and Engineering (NIACE) Centre, which has a number of companies working together with an interest in advanced materials. Bombardier is one of the main partners within NIACE, alongside several other major companies including Wrightbus, Thales and B/E Aerospace, all of which have applications for new composites. That offers us the opportunity to conduct research for companies that have a common interest in the materials.
What materials will you be working on?
Two of the key areas will be the introduction of thermoplastics and nanomaterials into composites. UU has been developing 3D-woven composites, which isn’t my particular area, but one that I can contribute to and am keen to work on, particularly in terms of thermoplastic materials – we could introduce them into woven composites to give multifunctional properties to the materials. There are also manufacturing techniques that I would like to look at in terms of optimising performance, such as resin infusion moulding. I also have a big interest in sustainable manufacturing, so that will be another key area.
Tell me about your thoughts on promoting STEM careers to women.
I am heavily involved in promoting engineering and try to do so in a way that is attractive to both genders. I strongly believe that we need to bring it all back to primary school level, as many initiatives are directed at secondary and above, when the damage is already done. A lot of children either aren’t aware what an engineer does, or they associate it with fixing rather than creating things. The fixing side is interesting, but the creative side is far more so. I know from experience giving talks to schoolchildren that if you put the correct picture across, you can encourage more young people to consider engineering as a career. STEM is still very much gendered as male, but it wouldn’t take huge efforts to change this in terms of curriculum development and teacher training. Engineering is completely gender-neutral – it’s just not presented in that way.