As nurses and doctors work around the clock to treat people affected with Covid-19, they’re supported by medical equipment that’s helping them to save thousands of lives.
We spoke to Louise Hutton-Bailey about why healthcare needs engineers, how she became one, and how she’s helping to tackle the global pandemic from here in Cornwall.
Louise, tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought a drastic increase in the need for critical care beds, and those beds need very specific types of equipment. Right now I’m working as a consultant with a medical equipment company to help them ramp up production to support Covid-19 patients.
Everyone’s heard about the shortage of ventilators – but there’s also an urgent need for things like breathing tubes and equipment for intravenous filtration and intravenous drug delivery, for blood gas monitoring, heartbeat monitoring, and so on.
The company I’m working with has to ramp up very fast – they need to produce many times the volume they’d produce normally. My engineering background means I can help them find new manufacturing equipment, improve the current ways of doing things, new suppliers, as quickly as possible.
Most of us might not immediately think of engineers when we think about the people leading the fight against the virus. But it sounds as though engineers have a key part to play.
Engineers are involved in so many different ways. If you take just one aspect of how we might come through this crisis – that’s mass testing of people to see if they have the antibodies in their blood. If they do, it means they’ve had the virus and recovered, in theory meaning they can’t catch it again.
Those tests have to be designed, they have to be manufactured, they have to be made easy to use. Every stage of that needs engineers: to design equipment for the test itself, to design the process by which the tests are produced, to design the equipment that will manufacture the tests, and to design how the test will be administered. Engineers are even involved in getting the test approved for use – they’re the ones who have to describe to the regulator how it works, so they can decide whether to approve it.
And once it’s up and running, it’s engineers who will look for ways to make it more efficient, so that more tests can be manufactured. In times of huge global need, like we’re seeing now, engineers are working night and day to find ways to produce enough equipment to fight the virus.
And that means the work they’re doing will save lives?
Yes, absolutely. If you look at ventilators, they’re looking to increase the number available globally by six times. And every additional ventilator means more people will make it through.
Was engineering something you always wanted to do?
No, but I was always quite curious about how things worked. At my primary school there was a classroom filled with stuff that wasn’t being used, and one day I found a dissection set in there.
I convinced the teachers that if my parents gave me something to experiment on, I could use the dissection set to do some investigating. So I turned up the next day with a with a bull's eye in a plastic bag – and they let me take it apart to find out how an eye works!
My uncle was a physicist, though, and I thought that was cool. It led me to take physics A-level – as one of only three girls in the class. One day, the three of us were invited to Southampton University to learn about Science and Engineering careers for women, and that was where I had my revelation.
I attended a talk by a biomedical engineer, which made me realise engineering is so much more than bridges and cars. He was talking about how you monitor the pressure on the head of a baby suffering from hydrocephalus, and I suddenly thought “yes, this is what I want to do”. So I applied to study mechanical engineering at university, which then led me into medical engineering.
What kind of work have you done in the medical sector?
I spent a couple of years designing a grinder to work inside a heart’s arteries to clear plaque – which basically meant receiving a lot of revolting, soggy things in the post to test my designs on!
I was also lucky enough to be involved in the development of the first ever human beating heart rig – a way of resuscitating a heart when it’s outside the body, and keeping it beating. Today it’s used a lot in transplant surgery to keep the donor’s heart beating before it’s placed inside the recipient’s body.
I worked for several different companies and then got a job in management with a company in Cornwall, and from there gradually took on responsibility for all engineering in the company’s medical division. I was running engineering teams in Puerto Rico and America, overseeing manufacturing sites across the world, and managing suppliers from China to the United States – all from here in Cornwall.
Why should parents encourage their daughters to take an interest in engineering?
Engineering skills are vitally important to modern society. Even without the coronavirus pandemic, rising populations, longer lives and higher consumption are all putting huge pressure on the planet.
Engineers who can take a rounded, ethical view are going to have to be at the forefront of moving the world towards a more sustainable future. There’s a real place for diverse viewpoints and a new generation of caring and engaged engineers to fix the world. We need them!
Find engineering resources for kids at Tomorrow’s Engineers
Engineering is behind everything we use in our daily lives. Find out more about becoming an engineer – and download fun challenges for 11-14 year olds – at www.tomorrowsengineers.org.uk.