I’ve had various temp jobs in and out of university from flipping burgers to landscape gardening, but as far as engineering is concerned, my first job was as a junior designer for a small start-up mountain bike company. I got to develop new bike frames, test bikes both in a lab and out in the hills and meet lots of interesting people. I then moved to my current job at Atlas Genetics where I have been working for the past two years.
Atlas Genetics Ltd
I work with a team of scientists to develop machines that can test a patient for infections in half an hour.
I’m a project engineer at quite a small company which means that I get to cover a lot of different areas of engineering and science, these are typical fields I cover on a weekly basis:
Microfluidics (dealing with fluids measured in micro litres!)
Design and manufacture
Testing and data analysis
For the past two years I was involved in bringing together the chemistry and biology that the scientists had developed and the prototype machine that engineers had developed, and making those two things work together.
This required lots of problem solving; when you solve one big problem, you see that a smaller one was hiding underneath it, and another beneath that one and so on, for me, these challenges are what makes engineering so interesting!
I also helped develop the machines that will mass produce the product once it is released.
Now my work involves testing every tiny aspect of the system to make sure it will never break or give an incorrect result for the patient.
How it works
Currently if a patient needs to be tested for an infection, it can take up to 10 days, delaying how long before medicine can be prescribed and risking spread of the infection.
Our product scales down the entire laboratory process and automates it, meaning a doctor can diagnose a patient in a single appointment just by putting a sample in and pressing go.
The process can be broken down as follows:
Extraction – here we take a sample like urine, chemically break it apart and remove everything except for the DNA
Amplification – there is far too small an amount of DNA in our sample to be able to read, so we must make more. A method called PCR thermocycling is used, which is basically heating and cooling over and over again, where we once had 1000 copies of DNA we now have well over trillions of copies!
Detection – Now that we have lots of DNA we use a special method of reading it called electrochemical detection. A voltage is passed across the DNA sample which has been mixed with some other chemicals, the current measured at the other end determines if the patient is positive or negative.
The system is made up of two main parts, a disposable cartridge:
The entire test is performed within this device and then it is disposed of to keep everything clean.
Fluid position within the cartridge is balanced between air springs and pressure provided by pumps.
It is made using lots of different processes such as:
Laser welding to keep parts glued together without using any glue.
Heat sealing, similar to how crisp packets are closed.
Injection moulding – squeezing molten plastic into a mould like playdough.
And a machine called the Reader:
The cartridge is inserted into the drawer like a CD and once inside, connects to some pumps, the air from the pumps control the cartridge, allowing it to move fluid around to different chambers during the test.
During the amplification step, the cartridge is heated and cooled using special heating plates in the reader called “peltiers” , these plates can change temperature incredibly quick, such as 40°C to 90°C in only a second!
The reader has metal contacts to measure the DNA during detection, the current is recorded in Amps and a program in the machine determines if the test is positive or negative, all the doctor or nurse has to do is press start and wait for the result.
The reader has lots of components inside, each will have been engineered themselves:
Computers to run the program
Motors to move the cartridge
Pumps to control the cartridge
Valves to control the pumps
A barcode scanner to determine which cartridge has been inserted
Peltiers to heat and cool the cartridge
Fans to stop the peltier making the rest of the machine too hot!
My Typical Day
Is a pretty even mix of experiments and tests in the lab and writing or data processing at my desk.
Like most people my day starts at my desk checking e-mails, or sometimes in a short meeting with the rest of my team, deciding our plan of action for the week.
If my day starts with a clean plate (it rarely does) then I will likely start by designing an experiment or test which needs to be conducted, once that has been signed off by my manager it’s off to the lab, some experiments are quick and take only an hour, some can take days if not weeks.
Once an experiment is complete it has to be documented and the data processed, this can mean plotting graphs to show a trend or deciding if the result is acceptable, or if the design needs to change to give a different result.
Afternoons are often dedicated to helping the science team troubleshoot their experiments and results if something unusual has happened with the machine or a part.
I will often talk with the company who manufacture our products, helping them make the parts more accurately, sometimes travelling to their factory to help first hand.
As Atlas is a development company I have very little routine, I have many different areas to focus on and which ones are most important changes on an almost daily basis so I’m never bored.
What I'd do with the money
I would like to donate it to an organisation that can help give schools hands on experience with engineering
If I won the £500 I would like to see it used to inspire young people through hands-on experience with engineering as I feel that’s one of the best ways of learning whether you would like to pursue something professionally.
To see this done most effectively I would donate the money to an organisation that is set up to make this happen. I am contacting several at the moment and will add more details here when I know exactly where the money would go.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Keen, friendly and relaxed
Who is your favourite singer or band?
I couldn’t possibly choose a favourite, but I am a big fan of Eric Clapton.
What's your favourite food?
Fresh pastries, preferably for breakfast!
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Racing mountianbikes in the French alps.
What did you want to be after you left school?
I wanted to work in the motorsport industry
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Occasionally, usually for not paying attention
What's the best thing you've done as an engineer?
Designed the geometry and kinematics (suspension) for a mountainbike, hearing the positive responses from everyone who tested the prototype was very satisfying.
If you weren't an engineer, what would you be?
I love making things and playing guitar so perhaps I would combine the two and become a Luthier.
Tell us a joke.
Two parrots were sitting on a perch. One says to the other, ‘Can you smell fish?’