Kirsty Carlyle

See Yourself in STEM - Kirsty Carlyle

Tell us a little bit about you:

I am a first year PhD student at the University of Strathclyde. I graduated in 2020 with a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Glasgow. I was involved with the Female Engineering society at Glasgow and worked my way up to President and founded our international outreach collaboration with Malawi University of Science and Technology. Also, I am passionate about supporting and promoting girls and women in STEM. At weekends, I spend my free time watching football, going out a big walk, getting glam or socialising with friends. Some people think PhD researchers don’t have time to have fun, but I completely disagree!

What is your area of research and what project(s) are you working on now?

My area of research is Prosthetics and Orthotics. Specifically, I am focussing on partial hand prosthetics. My research involves looking at how people use their hand prosthetics and determining what designs or prescriptions work well, and what does not work well. I will develop an outcome measurement tool so we can assess how well the prosthetics actually perform in the real world. As I am in the early stages of my PhD, I have spent the last few months solidifying my knowledge in fundamental subjects like human anatomy, medical device regulations, biomechanics, health behaviours and physical activity monitoring. Next, I will research outcome measurement tools which are currently used to assess hand function so I can formulate a plan for how to develop a tool specifically for partial hand prosthetics. I’m looking forward to working with industry, prosthetics users and healthcare professionals throughout my PhD!

When was your interest in STEM/your field first sparked and why?

I have always been interested in STEM, however, after spending the majority of my life caring for my grandparents with a range of healthcare needs, I wanted to help people in a medical environment. At school, I thoroughly enjoyed Maths & Physics, taking both to advanced higher, as well as excelling at Graphic Communication, involving CAD work. I had initially wanted to be a doctor, as that was the only role I knew of that combined my medical and STEM interests. However, once I learned about Biomedical Engineering I have not looked back! I’ve witnessed first-hand the positive impact that advancements in medical technology has had on my relatives and it is exciting to be involved in that.

Who or what inspired you to stick with STEM when you were younger?

My parents have always given me support and encouraged me to believe in myself – often talking sense into me when I didn’t think I can do it! I was also fortunate to have a great physics teacher who believed in my abilities and answered the many questions I had about science, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. I took part in programmes through school where I visited the University of Glasgow to tour the facilities, take part in seminars and practice academic writing. These programmes helped me transition into university life and understand what studying would be like.

What challenges do you think STEM disciplines face with regards to issues of diversity and inclusion and what should a supportive, inclusive STEM community look like?

I believe STEM disciplines still face the challenge of stereotypes and misconceptions running from older to younger generations. STEM is diverse and so are the people who work in it. On a school visit made by the FemEng team, a young boy asked “can boys be engineers too?” as he looked at the all-women team in front of him. It’s important to showcase the diverse individuals who work in STEM so young people can relate to role models. This also runs true for STEM students and early career researchers – they need role models to look up to and mentors to guide them. People in STEM come from a range of backgrounds, with a range of skills and interests and have taken a range of paths to get to where they are now. I strongly believe that when this diversity exists in teams, there is more room for creativity and success!

In your career, what are the moments that have made you proudest so far?

My proudest moments have included achieving my Master’s degree. Like many people in STEM, there were moments where I thought to myself “I don’t think I can do this”, and I proved those negative thoughts wrong. I was also proud to receive a prestigious scholarship from the Royal Academy of Engineering. This achievement gave me a boost in recognising my qualities as an engineer and a leader. I sometimes take a step back and think about where I am today as I didn’t think I would be “smart” enough to be a researcher in STEM, and I thought that not having any family in STEM or academia to guide me would put me at a disadvantage, but I am happy to be wrong!

Since STEM career paths are rarely easy to navigate, what challenges have you faced along the way?

I first started off studying Anatomy at Glasgow because I didn’t know Biomedical Engineering existed. I didn’t quite know which area of STEM suited my interests best and was naive to how diverse STEM actually is. It’s okay to change your mind, or to learn along the way that you want to pursue a different path. An advantage about studying a STEM degree is that most of the skills and knowledge you gain are transferable across many STEM fields. I had ruled out doing a PhD until my final year of university, as I had my own misconceptions about what life in research would entail. After working in a research lab, connecting with PhD students and attending careers talks, my misconceptions were challenged and I am happy with my decision to pursue a PhD!

Where do you find support to sustain you in your current career?

I join networks of likeminded people to form a kind of support bubble. Whether that includes people who are further ahead in their career, people at the same stage and also people who are just starting out. I believe it’s important to seek out mentors but also to be a mentor for other people. Sharing experiences and advice from one another can be instrumental to your success. Attending conferences is a good way to meet people from other areas of STEM, or other institutions, to build up your network and make friends who are going through a similar process. Groups like Equate Scotland, WES (Womens Engineering Society) and The Institution of Engineering and Technology all host events, webinars, conferences and offer mentor support which can be beneficial whether you are an undergraduate student or experienced mid-career professional.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in STEM?

Ask many questions and push the boundaries – you might surprise yourself with what you can do and what you can achieve! I have learned over the years that there is no such thing as a stupid question, and people who are further ahead of you in their career are happy to answer your questions and act as a mentor. Like all things in STEM, the knowledge we have now is because people asked questions and were curious. There are so many more questions about the world we live in that have yet to be answered. There are many videos on YouTube and various websites which explain concepts to people who are new to learning about STEM, and there are many experiments you can do using materials lying around the house!

Fun question: Tell us two truths and a lie about you.

a) I’ve been on safari in Africa. b) I met Steven Gerrard. c) I have science themed tattoos.