Aoife Ahern is a professor of engineering at UCD where she is also Dean of Engineering and College Principal for the College of Engineering and Architecture. Passionate about highlighting the contributions women are making to advances in engineering, Aoife is keen to encourage more women to consider a career in STEM. Here she takes us through what her job entails.
Did you always want to be an engineer?
I was always good at maths and science and my father is a civil engineer, so engineering was always on my radar. However, the career guidance teacher in my school kept telling me I should do accountancy or medicine – but I’m glad I didn’t listen and made my own choice to study engineering.
My most formative work experience was… that’s a hard question! I think my most formative work experience has been the job I’m in now. I’m the Head (or College Principal) of the College of Engineering and Architecture in UCD, where we have 2,500 students and 450 staff. The challenges that I face in that role are different to anything I’ve ever envisaged and very quickly I’ve had to learn how to be more than an academic and a civil engineer. I’ve had to learn how to manage people, finances and strategy, but without training in those areas. It’s been a steep learning curve, but very exciting.
My first real job was… I was appointed as a lecturer in Trinity College Dublin at the age of 22 years old, so I was lecturing to students who were the same age as me. What was great about that was that I was young enough not to have any fear and to have the confidence that only a 22-year-old can have. Not sure this would happen today!
The most invaluable thing I learned early on in my career was… be brave, grab opportunities when they come and realise that sometimes opportunities come at a time that is not in your predetermined timeline. When I started out in my career, I used to sit down and have timelines of where I would be in three, four or five years, but then the opportunity for a promotion to a leadership role would come up and it wouldn’t fit with my plan… so, do you go for the role even if it’s not quite when you want it or do you wait? For me, the right answer has always been the former, as my plan might not fit with the plans of everyone else around me. Be flexible!
A common misconception about what I do is… that academics just teach and research and that we are off all summer. The role of academics nowadays is much more wide-ranging than just teaching. Teaching is a really important part of what we do, but we are also running large organisations, which run all year. Depending on the area you are in, you might also be playing a role in influencing government policy. We also take on roles that might surprise others outside the university. For example, UCD is a big place with over 30,000 students and 5,000 staff, so we need a lot of committees and groups to look after our community. So I chair the UCD Dignity and Respect Oversight group, which plays a role in ensuring we deal with bullying and harassment appropriately. This is not something I thought I would ever be doing when I first studied engineering, but as you move into management, especially for an organisation as large as UCD, these things become more important and part of your everyday job.
My main responsibility in work is to… run the College of Engineering and Architecture in UCD; the largest College of Engineering and Architecture in Ireland. I need to ensure our programmes in engineering are delivering what is needed for our students and for the profession. I work to develop our long-term strategies to determine how UCD Engineering and Architecture can educate the engineers and architects that the Irish economy needs. I also have to ensure that our staff and faculty are looked after, that we have the appropriate policies in place to protect them and to enable them to continue conducting cutting-edge research. On top of that, I also need to do my own research. I work in the area of transportation engineering, with a focus on how we can build and develop infrastructure that allows for a just transition from carbon-intensive transport to active travel and sustainable modes. That means making sure we reduce car use, ensuring that we have better access to good public transport and that the poorest and most challenged in society are not disadvantaged by the move to more sustainable transport. This is a really important part of my job as it’s absolutely vital that we move away from car dependency, but that can only happen if we put the right infrastructure in place. It’s my job to help decision-makers to realise that and to make the right decisions that enable all of us to reduce our carbon emissions arising from travel.
Do you have a career mentor or someone you look up to/seek advice from?
Not now- but at various times in the past, I have. I also did some coaching when I was first in management which was invaluable in talking out problems and issues.
The biggest risk I have taken in my career so far is… to go for the role of College Principal of Engineering and Architecture and Dean of Engineering nearly four years ago, especially as the first woman to hold this role in UCD. I knew if I was successful in getting the role that there would be more eyes on me than a male in the role.
I wake at… 6:30am every morning.
The first thing I do every morning is… check my emails (a terrible habit I know!)
My morning routine is… check emails, shower and dress, breakfast, get boys to school and then start work.
I can’t go to work without… a coffee first.
I travel to work by… car.
On an average workday, I… I don’t have an average work day, but every day I will have at least three or four meetings, as I sit on a lot of management groups. I will also try to set aside two hours a day to catch up on tasks and I set aside Friday afternoons, if I can, to catch up on research.
I start my working day at… 8am.
The first thing I do at work is… turn on the computer, check my calendar and work out where I need to be. UCD is a big campus, so I might have a lot of running around to do.
I usually spend the first portion of the day… checking if I have any deadlines that are coming up so that I can prioritise work, and reading documents for my first meeting.
I break for lunch at… this varies but I usually take my lunch sometime between 1pm and 3pm. I take half an hour and eat a sandwich.
The most useful business tool I use every day is… email. I can’t keep in contact without it.
I rarely get through my working day without… at least two coffees!
The best part of my day is… last thing in the evening, when I can turn off the computer and realise that it was a good day.
The most challenging part of my day is… first thing in the morning when I’m trying to get a household organised and ready before heading out to work.
I know it’s been a good day if… I feel that I’ve achieved something and if the tasks I set out in the morning are done, and nothing is hanging over me for tomorrow.
I usually end my day at… 11pm.
I switch off from work by… reading, going to the gym, walking the dog, and watching TV. I love going to the theatre, and go at least once a month too.
Before I go to bed, I’ll… have a glass of water, check that everything is locked up and that’s it.
I often prepare for tomorrow by… getting my outfit ready so I don’t have to think in the morning.
After a long work week, I destress by… having a glass of wine on a Friday night, going to a movie or the theatre if I can.
The accomplishment I’m most proud of is… being in a position where I might be able to inspire more women to get into STEM.
If you want to get into my line of work, my advice is to… choose to study maths and don’t be scared of it. It’s not as hard as people pretend! Work hard, and be flexible and open to opportunities.
I’ve just finished working on… putting together a proposal for a research project to look at retention rates of women in engineering careers. At the moment I’m working on interviewing PhD candidates for a project on electric vehicles and their impact on carbon emissions.