A day in the life: engineering

We talk to three engineers working in different jobs across industry and academia


Engineering: without it, we’d have a hard time applying all the brilliant maths people do to the real world, and an even harder time pronouncing “Stem”.

But what does a career in engineering really look like? How much maths does it involve? Is it really just emails?

Fear not: Chalkdust has the answers. In this issue’s edition of our day in the life series, we hear from three people who put engineering mathematics into practice in their daily lives:

  • Isobel Voysey is a PhD student at the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics.
  • David Fairbairn is a mathematician at Tharsus, and a PhD student in Durham University’s department of mathematical sciences
  • Kirsten Ross is a design engineer, specialising in building service design.

From designing heating systems for schools to helping robots avoid crashing into each other, they’re all working on real-world problems every day. Read on to find your new dream job…

Isobel Voysey

Hi, I’m Isobel! I studied engineering at Cambridge University and I’m now a final-year PhD student at the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics. For my PhD, I’m working in partnership with the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to develop a robot for their animal welfare education programmes.

I work from the uni a couple of days a week but today I’m working from home. One of the benefits of being a PhD student is flexibility in how you manage your time, so sometimes I’ll go for a swim in the morning and start my day a bit later, but otherwise I try to sit down at my desk by 9am. Once I’m at my desk I do a quick skim of my emails to start the day and then leave any difficult ones for later. I can get overwhelmed when I have dozens of unread emails, so I whittle down the vast number of emails I receive each day to the most relevant.

Isobel demonstrating how best to use chunky textbooks

At the moment I’m working on writing and editing a couple of papers. Today I’m focusing on redoing the figures and condensing the text so it fits the page limit for the conference I want to submit it to. I use LaTeX for typesetting, which is a nerdy joy of mine, so I probably spend longer than is strictly necessary on defining a new pattern for the bubbles in a mind map. The paper I’m working on has involved a hefty chunk of qualitative data from a workshop where participants designed their own zoomorphic robots. Analysis of qualitative data was not something we did in my degree, so it was a new skill to develop and an interesting challenge!

The morning is punctuated by multiple cups of tea and a break to do some puzzles. I also tend to take quite a long lunch break—I cook a meal for myself, procrastinate a bit by doing the washing up, and finally force myself back to my desk to deal with the emails I put off in the morning.

I’m trying to improve my ROS skills (ROS stands for Robot Operating System and is middleware for robotics that is used by lots of programmers), so in the afternoon I work through exercises on an online course. Most of it is done in simulation, but you also get to test your code remotely on a real robot. The hours fly by when I’m coding so before I know it my flatmate gets back home, and I start to wrap up my work for the day. On days when I work from home, I can go many hours without talking to or seeing another human, so I try to have a social activity in the evening.

Tonight, I’m heading to a fringe show with some friends, but sometimes I just make dinner and watch TV with my flatmate.

David Fairbairn

My name is David Fairbairn, a mathematician at Tharsus, a robotics, engineering and technology company in north-east England.

I spend a day each week at Durham University, where Tharsus sponsors my part-time PhD. When I’m in the office, my typical day begins at 8am, analysing overnight simulation results and setting the day’s agenda.

We like your keyboard, David

At 9am, our software team gathers for a stand-up meeting, discussing progress, plans, and any hurdles. This team comprises software and firmware engineers, and mathematicians, all working together to create the logic which drives our robotic systems.

At Tharsus, I lead the algorithm development for planning, scheduling, and optimising multi-agent systems. This is the same area as my PhD research, which delves into the multi-agent pathfinding (MAPF) problem—finding collision-free paths for multiple agents in a graph. Algorithms which solve the MAPF problem can be applied to various fields, ranging from PCB design and computer games to gas pipeline routing and, of course, robotics.

Within Tharsus we use MAPF algorithms to solve the problem of automation within logistics and warehousing. Our agents are robots, and the graph is the warehousing environment in which they operate. Each robot needs to complete a set of tasks, which can be simply moving to another location or more complex tasks such as retrieving a specific item from a shelf and delivering it to a packing station by some deadline. All robots work cooperatively with each other to minimise the time taken for them all to complete their tasks—and to avoid bumping into each other. Such systems require scalable algorithms which can handle the coordination of thousands of robots simultaneously. However, MAPF is a NP-hard problem to solve optimally, necessitating research and development of algorithms which can produce good solutions to the problem in a reasonable timeframe.

Tanks for the memories

Post-meeting, coffee in hand, I collaborate with fellow mathematicians, breaking down simulation results and troubleshooting. This often leads to new ideas and enhancements to our algorithms and simulation methodologies. The ensuing hours involve coding, drafting algorithms, or establishing mathematical models to unpack our problems in a more analytical manner. Once we’re satisfied with our simulation outcomes, we translate our findings into stakeholder-friendly reports and fine-tune the algorithms for production integration. Often, we showcase our results to customers and stakeholders, demonstrating the algorithm’s performance and comparing it to competitors.

Aside from my daily duties, a small but significant part of my role includes university collaborations. I work with universities on grant funded research projects and outreach activities and supervise placement students within Tharsus. The research projects take up a few hours per week and involve reviewing the work of academics and students and ensuring that the project is on track to meet the deliverables. Outreach activities happen a few times per year and involve giving talks to students and academics about the work that we do at Tharsus and the research that we are involved in. We have also hosted students for work experience, summer internships and year-long placements within Tharsus which has been a key part of my role to coordinate.

My day wraps up around 5 or 6pm and I spend some time relaxing in the early evening, after which I dedicate some hours to reading and writing for my PhD.

Kirsten Ross

I’m Kirsten and I am a design engineer in building service design. I work for an engineering consultant, and my specialities are mechanical and sustainability design. I studied architectural engineering at Heriot-Watt University and I’ve always enjoyed the design of buildings. During school, I enjoyed maths, physics, and graphic communication subjects and that is why I went down this route.

I arrive at the office around 8am, and spend an hour going through my emails and making a to-do list for the day. This varies a lot, depending on the types of building projects I am working on. Whether buildings are used for healthcare, education, housing, offices, or as industrial areas, and whether they’re new builds or refurbishments, makes a big difference to the work they need. I typically have a few projects at different stages: some require more involved design work and sometimes I’m on site to see how construction is going.

Today I have a meeting starting at 9am to go over the current design stage of a school project. We’re working with team members in India, so these meetings happen in the mornings to account for the time difference. Afterwards, I have a digital design team meeting with colleagues from our offices across the UK. We get an update on the design software we use, which has been going through digital development cycles.

At 11am, I set off for my biweekly visit to a laboratory being refurbished in central Manchester. It’s close enough to the office to walk, and I take lots of photos while I’m there to include in my site report. As I make my way back from the site visit, I grab some lunch and eat it with colleagues in the breakout space in the office.

Kirsten takes safety seriously (She’s making lunch)

Afternoons are more relaxed timewise, as I usually have fewer meetings. I write up the site report from the morning and then get stuck into some design work for the school project. Currently, I’m running analysis on the design of a new primary school to work out what its heating and cooling requirements will be. I’m using a combination of our design software and a good old Excel spreadsheet to check the calculations are correct. I typically finish up around 4pm, checking my emails and using the last hour before 5pm to write up part of my chartership report for the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, which I am hoping to submit next year.

More from Chalkdust