‘Engineering is as much about working with people as it is with machines’

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Kate Madigan, a senior equipment engineer at Amgen, has been building things all her life. She got her first cordless drill when she was just three years old and spent a week in a syringe-filling plant as a teenager – an experience that cemented her decision to become an engineer.

Here, she talks about her career path so far and why she is enjoying every minute of it.

‘It’s challenging, but if I knew everything about my job then I would probably find it boring’
– KATE MADIGAN

What first stirred your interest in a career in equipment engineering?

My parents are a large part of why I studied engineering. As a child, I was encouraged to build things; to take things apart and put them back together. I got my first cordless drill when I was three years old – a rite of passage in our house – and there was always a puzzle on the floor.

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While still in school, I attended a course in ESB promoting women in engineering. This changed the mental image I had of an engineer being a mechanic leaning over a car and allowed me to see this role as an option for myself.

I did one week of work experience in a syringe-filling plant when I was 15. I was blown away by the scale of the operation, the clean rooms, the equipment and the importance of the drugs being manufactured. It honestly left a lasting impact on me and I returned as a graduate engineer seven years later.

What experiences led you to the role you now have?

I went to an all-girls secondary school, which didn’t offer physics as a subject. When I got to first year of general engineering in college, the learning curve was steep. I chose to specialise in chemical and bioprocess engineering, thinking there would be less physics. But I was very wrong.

After college, I was accepted into a graduate programme in a biopharmaceutical syringe-fill finish plant. I was rotated around different equipment as a system owner (parts washers, autoclaves, clean-in-place systems, fillers, inspection machines), so I got great hands-on experience before choosing to stay in the inspection area.

My current role is an equipment engineer for strategic projects. I work on a few projects at a time, including equipment upgrades, new product introductions and new equipment procurement.

What were the biggest surprises or challenges you have encountered on your career path and how did you deal with them?

Working in a male-dominated field, especially as a recent graduate where my team were a lot older than me, felt quite isolating.

In Amgen, there is definitely more diversity and a wider age range. Working on a projects team means I interact with lots of people from different teams each day.

I still struggle with imposter syndrome. Over time, you build confidence that you can find solutions to ambiguous and complex problems. It is challenging, but if I knew everything about my job then I would probably find it boring.

Was there any one person who was particularly influential as your career developed?

Starting out, there were two engineers in particular who really took me under their wing.

Their encouragement, even in little things like directing attention to my point in a meeting, reviewing and critiquing my work or going along with my ideas, had a massive impact on my confidence and competence as an engineer.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I like working on projects because they end. You get a sense of satisfaction from completing out all tasks on the job. It’s rewarding to be able to physically see the new equipment and hand it over to the end users. Every day is different, I am constantly learning and I have a certain amount of freedom to choose what I work on day to day.

The site in Dún Laoghaire is going through a lot of development right now. We have so many new products and equipment being introduced, so it’s an exciting time to work in projects.

There is great work-life balance, I get to travel to vendor sites and the compensation and holiday package is really competitive.

At the end of the day, in a biopharmaceutical plant your work actually matters because you are making medicines that directly impact people’s lives.

What aspects of your personality do you feel make you suited to this job?

I get on well with others and I’m enthusiastic, especially when I get to start a new and exciting project.

I work with all functions of the business – supply chain, quality, maintenance, utilities, external contractors, machine manufacturers and more – and I enjoy getting to rally the troops to make things happen. 

How did Amgen support you on your career path, if at all?

I started in Amgen as a contractor and they supported my transition over when a full-time position opened up on my team. Amgen has continued to give me incredible opportunities to develop new skills. I was surprised by how dynamic the environment is, but also how focused it is on your own individual needs.

Every month I get honest feedback from my boss on my performance, which allows me to improve. I get to choose what areas I want to develop in and I get put on projects in those areas. The culture on site is really collaborative and conducive to asking questions, so starting a project on systems I am not familiar with is not the uphill slog it could be.

Amgen values everything I do best; building relationships, understanding systems and solving problems.

What advice would you give to those considering a career in engineering, or just starting out in one? 

Engineering is as much about working with people as it is working with machines.

It’s very rewarding to see the results of your work in the short term, and with a career in biopharma you know that you are also impacting patients’ lives in the long term.

If you are a young woman considering studying a STEM subject, I highly recommend looking at engineering as a career. Engineers build and shape the world around us, from the products we use, the cars we drive and the food we eat to space exploration, energy production and more. We need more female voices included in these conversations.

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‘Engineering is as much about working with people as it is with machines’