One To Look Out For: Catherine Burns’ Innovative Contributions to the Advancement of Systems Design Engineering

by Kassandra Burd, M.Sc. Cognitive Neuropsychology, University of Kent

Dr. Catherine Burns is a professor of Systems Design Engineering and Executive Director of the Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology at the University of Waterloo.

She does remarkable research as a principal investigator, which has applications in many diverse sectors, including healthcare, the military, power plant management, and oil and gas refining.

Dr. Catherine Burns has evidently made her mark in the field of Engineering and is currently making exceptional contributions to society as a result. With over 100 research publications and co-authorship on a book regarding Ecological Interface Design, it is no doubt that her contributions will help advance Systems Design Engineering in ways that have never been done before.

Here, I interview Dr. Catherine Burns about what has led her to this intriguing field, challenges she’s encountered as a woman working in STEM, and her future ambitions. It is in the hopes that many girls and women who are interested in entering various STEM fields will realize that their dreams are possible and that the obstacles they face along the way can undoubtedly be overcome.

You studied Systems Design/Industrial Engineering in your undergraduate years at the University of Waterloo. How did you first become interested in Systems Design/Industrial Engineering?

I became interested in Systems Design Engineering in high school. I knew I wanted the challenge and rigor of an engineering education, but I found the traditional engineering disciplines too limiting. I had a broad range of other interests like psychology and health. Systems Design Engineering presented that opportunity to have an interdisciplinary education that taught me an engineering problem-solving approach but left it open for me to apply to the problems I wanted to solve.

What does your average day look like as a professor and as a director of the Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology?

There is no average day! Every day is different for me. Sometimes I am focused on students, through teaching classes (I teach first-year Biomedical Engineering) or working with my graduate students as they explore their research. Some days I am hosting companies who want to meet with faculty and learn about their research programs, or how to build a business case for a research project. Sometimes I am at the hospitals, talking to people there about their needs, and what our researchers and students can do.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in pursuit of a career in your STEM field?

STEM is broader than people think and can really include a lot of different approaches. I think sometimes people have a very narrow view of STEM and don’t realize how interdisciplinary it really is. There are also challenges being a woman in STEM — there are very few role models at higher leadership levels and this influences what people expect of their leaders and your career path. This situation is changing, but slowly. In the context of STEM, women still stand out, which is both a challenge and an opportunity. There is an expectation that you will take a leadership or mentorship role.

What are some of the projects you’re currently working on?

At the Centre, we are working on really revolutionizing graduate education in biomedical engineering to focus on working very closely with clinicians and users. We believe that engineering solutions should develop from the needs of these users, and not develop from technology in search of a solution.

In my research we are working on people will interact with new technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and autonomous vehicles. How do we design these technologies so they are partners for people? We want these technologies to augment what people do, not replace people. Part of doing that involves developing technologies that communicate their intent to people and disclose their capabilities honestly and ethically.

What’s next for you? Any further goals you’d like to pursue?

The potential impact of technology in healthcare is a big interest for me. With societies getting older and government budgets shrinking, healthcare needs to be more affordable but also still effective. Technologies from home monitoring devices, more portable diagnostics, or data-driven approaches to drug discovery or therapeutic treatment personalization have tremendous potential. These are all game changers for healthcare.

Do you have any advice for girls and women who are working towards pursuing their dream careers in engineering, or STEM fields in general?

STEM careers can be fun and rewarding. STEM careers can really put you in a position to make differences in people’s lives and experiences and this is the best part about working in STEM.