Monthly Profiles

Dr Kylie de Jager

October 2014 | Postdoctoral Researcher, Biomedical Engineering, UCT

Dr Kylie de JagerI work as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Cape Town (UCT), based in the Biomedical Engineering (BME) department.
BME is a cross-disciplinary field. Many different types of engineers (electronic, mechanical, civil, software) work in the field alongside healthcare professionals (doctors, nurses, anatomists, physiologists, etc.) In a broad sense the aim of BME is to combine engineering skills like design and problem solving with medical and biological sciences to help advance healthcare treatment (diagnosis, monitoring, and therapy). Biomedical engineers can be found both in academia and in industry, most often collaborating with clinics and hospitals, while trying to solve a healthcare concern.

1) Briefly describe what your job involves.
I'm a researcher, which means I study what people have previously done and try to learn from their experiences. I can then either improve on their methods or incorporate their findings into my own projects. My background is as an electronic engineer, so my work often involves designing and building apparatus to capture recordings from people, an example of this is measuring the electrical activity of muscles during movement. These signals can then be used to better understand how the body works or to control "intelligent" prostheses.

2) What would a typical day at the office entail?
My daily activities can be very varied.
For instance when starting a project there is a lot of background reading to do (journal articles, books, patents, online sources). I'll also meet with collaborators to discuss how we're going to carry out the research. Mid-project my task is more concentrated on gathering data. This includes designing electronics, building apparatus and carrying out studies with people during which we record data. These recordings are then analysed which means writing software code to process the data and generate outputs in the form of tables, charts, etc. This gives a concise way of presenting the findings.
Towards the end of a project I'll mainly focus on writing papers for publication in scientific journals and preparing presentations for scientific meetings (conferences). This way we are able to communicate our findings to other researchers who evaluate and consider our work.

3) Can you describe the most exciting part of your job?
There are lots of aspects I enjoy:

  • I get to build cool stuff and see it work. Things like muscle stimulators, EMG amplifiers and automated microscopes;
  • I'm exposed to cutting edge technology, particularly within the university environment;
  • There's lots of variety which I love;
  • I get opportunities to travel when attending conferences; and
  • I'm in the medical profession so the outcome of my work has a direct impact on improving the quality of people's lives.

4) What are some of the challenges you had to face and overcome as a woman in your career?
Engineering is a predominantly male environment, which means that often you'll be the only woman working on a project. However, nowadays there are more and more female engineers and I do find that this is especially true in the biomedical engineering field.

5) How did you make your career choice?
I enjoyed maths & biology at school. However I wasn't sure what to study after matric. I went to a few university open days and was particularly interested in the engineering exhibitions. So I decided to study electronic engineering, which I thoroughly enjoyed. During my postgraduate studies I looked for ways to incorporate engineering with my love of biology, which led me to biomedical engineering.

6) What qualifications do you require to work in your field?
I have a Bachelor's degree and a Master's degree in electrical and electronic engineering, with a PhD in Medical Physics and Bioengineering. The UCT BME program is offered as a postgraduate course and the students we have come from a broad range of science fields: mechanical, civil and & electrical engineering; computer science; physics; etc.
I'd recommend a science degree for your undergraduate studies, but it doesn't have to be engineering. BME is a multi-disciplinary field, so there are many routes that can be followed to get here.

7) Can you describe the most important skills you require for this work environment?
An enquiring mind, attention to detail, love of science.

8) What does leadership mean to you?
Working towards a goal and not being dissuaded from your dreams; setting an example for others.

9) What advice would you give girls who are considering a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematic (STEM)?
Lay good foundations, this is a career path that does require you to do maths at school. Pursue your interests, find something you enjoy doing and then work towards that. But don't worry if your ideas change along the way, it's all about the journey.