STEMinist Profile: Orla Kelly, Ion Optics Design Engineer

Orla Kelly

Ion Optics Design Engineer

University of Bristol and Photek (in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership)

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Even though the majority of my female friends in school studied things like ‘Health and Social Care’, I always wanted to do maths and science. I thought I would go on to become a civil engineer like my older brother, but he convinced me it would be too tough because I’m a girl! Although, I actually think he was worried that I would be better than him. I ended up choosing to study Physics and Applied Maths at university, hoping it would keep my options open for career choices later on.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project was during my PhD, where I used really powerful lasers to blow up molecules to see what they are made of. These lasers are so powerful, they can set paper on fire and cause sparks in the air. It was like magic being able to slice up these invisible molecules and detect the different parts. When I describe it using the scientific terms, it sounds a little less cool (electrostatic ion trap mass spectrometry using intense, femtosecond photoionisation). Now my job is to design the instruments to allow these experiments to happen, which is pretty cool too!

Role models/heroes:
This is a corny response, but my role models are the people I am surrounded by each day. At university, all my peers were doing cool, interesting projects that were really inspiring. And now in my job, I’m in awe of the people that have taken their scientific background and made a business out of it.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love the challenge, how every day can bring something new. I love how what I do is different to the norm. It is pretty fantastic being surrounded by clever people doing clever things, and I love that I am a part of it.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t let negative people put you down. Some people are rubbish and will stereotype you (like my brother did telling me I couldn’t be a civil engineer!). Keep doing what you do best, as that’s the best way to break stereotypes and change opinions.

Favorite website/app: for some humour to brighten your day (not that I always understand it…). Be sure to hover over the cartoon to get the alternative text too! has some great science blogs that entertain and inform (sometimes with great discussions from readers underneath too).

Twitter: @orlakellybell

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