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Driverless cars and robotic surgery: how female engineers are changing the world


Dr Paula Palade, from Jaguar Land Rover, working on a machine

Autonomous cars of the future will have a 'moral compass' to make decisions

Paula Palade is affectionately known as Jaguar Land Rover’s ‘professor in residence’. She holds two degrees - one in electrical engineering and another in computer science - together with a PhD in electrical engineering and is now working with the University of Bradford to encourage more women into engineering.

She is one of a number of speakers taking part in an event to mark International Women In Engineering Day on June 23. Here, she talks about her cutting edge research into ensuring driverless cars of the future have what effectively amounts to a moral compass and why she’s passionate about encouraging more women into the field of engineering.

Recently appointed an Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at the University, she won an Autocar Great British Women in the Car Industry award in 2019, and now works as human resources (HR) Digital Manager at Jaguar Land Rover.

Challenge and change

She says: “Of course I would encourage more women to take up engineering, because it’s such a rewarding career and women have so much to offer in terms of creativity and skill. Being an engineer opens so many doors in so many fields, it's no longer just about a man in a hard hat on a building site. If you have creative skills, enjoy identifying solutions to problems, and seizing the opportunity to be innovative, there are so many interesting jobs you can do.

“During my career, I’ve worked as an academic, a researcher, an electrical engineer and now I’m in HR, so that shows you the diverse range of career options available to people with this skill set.

“This is an interesting time to be in the automotive industry, as there are a lot of challenges and changes taking place. Jaguar Land Rover is very forward looking and it’s a wonderfully liberating environment to be in and one I would recommend to others.”

Embedding ethics

She grew up in Romania and was inspired to explore a career in engineering by her parents and grandparents, describing them as ‘an engineering family’. During her career, she has worked as a lecturer, researcher, an engineer, electrical engineer and is now HR Digital Manager, working on introducing more customer-based human resource strategies to the workforce.

She has worked as an engineer for some of the world’s biggest companies, including mining group Rio Tinto, where she designed and built huge microwave processors used to extract things like copper ore more efficiently, while also wrestling with the challenge of embedding ethics into self-driving cars.

In September 2020, she contributed to a report to the EU Commission entitled New recommendations for a safe and ethical transition towards driverless mobility, which examines the ethics of driverless cars.

Moral compass

She adds: “Where cars differ from other types of tech which involves AI is that in a car you put your loved ones and so you want to ensure that the car behaves properly, is robust, reliant, and also that it behaves ethically. 

“We all have our own ethics on the road. It could be that you push your way into a roundabout or budge your way into a queue - those behaviours are not illegal but there is a question about ethics there.

“So, is it ethical to break the speed limit or mount the kerb to allow an emergency vehicle to pass? As people, we all make these decisions but we need to ensure the driverless cars of the future have an ethical framework to underpin such decisions. Part of this process is also about ensuring these ethical considerations are embedded in such projects at the development stage.

“This may also extend to things like ensuring driverless cars give pedestrians and cyclists more room. Vehicles of the future will have a moral compass that we all have a responsibility to create, so they can make these decisions.”

Student perspective

Second year Mechanical Engineering student Sumaiya Khan said: “My cousin is a mechanical engineer and she currently works in the renewable energy sector. Watching her graduate as a mechanical engineer inspired me to do the same. My career goal is to work in the green energy field. I want to do my part by inspiring young women to become mechanical engineers or go into another STEM career.

“People usually say I don’t look like a mechanical engineer but that’s because typically they are men and that needs to change. Diversity is important because different backgrounds, gender, culture and race brings different perspectives on the project and the benefit of that is it can cater to a wider range of society. Women are just as capable at engineering as men.”

Stem cells

Manja Ehmke is a second year biomedical engineering student, learning about a wide range of subjects including stem cell research, artificial tissue engineering, prosthetics, MRI machines and more.

Originally from Germany, she came to Bradford with the intention of studying forensic archaeology but was lured by the possibilities offered by biomedical engineering. She’s also a supporter of getting more women into engineering.

She says: “For me, the subject offers the chance to make a big difference, not just to one person but potentially millions, in terms of things like stem-cell research and artificial organs. I’ve always been interested in science and there are a lot more women taking up these subjects today, so I would encourage anyone at school who is interested in science to pursue this career - it holds so many possibilities, both in terms of research and career prospects.”

Pioneering surgeon

Naseem Ghazali is a Consultant Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeon, sub-specialsing in head and neck oncology and reconstruction, at Royal Blackburn Teaching Hospital, East Lancashire. 

She is an accredited daVinci Robot surgeon, and has pioneered minimally invasive surgery on the robotic platform, establishing the Transoral Robotic Head & Neck Surgery (TORS) Service for East Lancashire NHS Trust within the first year of her appointment in 2016.

She is passionate about encouraging more women into the field of engineering and so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

She says: “The lack of female involvement creates an imbalance in the overall perspective of any subject or field related to the betterment of humanity. This is especially true in STEM [subjects] and engineering, which is sometimes traditionally an area predominated by men.

“I’ve always loved science fiction - it was like a blueprint of ‘life imitating art’, especially in the 1970s, growing up in America. I read Asimov’s books, watched cartoons like The Jetsons, and a tv/movie diet of Thunderbirds, Star Trek, Star Wars, Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, etc.

“During my childhood, I developed a curiosity for building circuit boards and mechanical devices as an experimentation exercise after reading the autobiographies of the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci. While I didn’t end up in STEM specifically, I’ve always retained my childhood fascination with engineering in the area of medicine, which I’ve ended up in as an adult. 

“Having an interest in engineering, which is considered completely different and separate to my chosen field of expertise, allows me to readily embrace technology and innovation in medicine, drives me to think outside the box in the process of clinic problem-solving, and has allowed me to create a niche area of work in robotic surgery.”

Engineering diversity

Dr Elaine Brown, Associate Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the Faculty of Engineering & Informatics, said: “Engineering is a rich and rewarding career with fantastic opportunities but women are underrepresented. This means many women are missing out on the exciting experiences on offer and is also bad for business and the economy because gender diversity is shown to increase team performance and lead to more innovative solutions.

“At the University of Bradford, we appreciate diversity, and love that our students bring diverse experiences and perspectives - we see at first hand how this enriches the engineering ideas that students develop during our projects and problem solving activities.

“Our wonderful graduates who have had the advantage of learning in this environment are ready to apply their skills in industry and business. Diversity is a win-win situation and so it’s obvious - we need to encourage more women into engineering.”

The University runs undergraduate courses in: Biomedical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Civil and Structural Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and more, while postgraduate courses include Advanced Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, Advanced Civil and Structural Engineering, Automotive Systems, Smart Grids and Energy Systems. There are also undergraduate courses in Computer Science, Cyber Security, Software Engineering and postgraduate courses in Big Data and The Internet of Things.

The University also recently received three new Athena Swan awards, including a Bronze Award for Faculty of Engineering and Informatics, meaning it is a leading example in terms of ensuring women (and men in some departments) are properly represented in the workplace.