Sarah Leahy
BEng In Design and Manufacturing Engineering graduate Sarah Leahy
Tuesday, 7 May 2024

High-performance Irish athlete Sarah Leahy graduated from the Bachelor of Engineering in Design and Manufacture programme at University of Limerick in 2022.

Now working with Winthrop Technologies, a company that specialises in Data Centre delivery in Ireland and across Europe. We caught up with Sarah to ask her about the course, her time at UL, and balancing the demands of study with a career in athletics.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself, your background, why did you choose UL?

Growing up in the picturesque town of Killarney, Co. Kerry, I was fortunate to discover my passion for sports at a young age. As a student, I was well-rounded, diligent, and consistently putting in the effort to excel without being academically gifted, while devoting much of my time to football and athletics. Representing various teams, including my local club, Killarney Legion GAA, and County Kerry, I found fulfilment and success on the field.

My journey in athletics during and after my undergraduate years at UL led me to remarkable opportunities, such as competing in the Women’s 4x100m relay team at the U23 level in Estonia and later participating in prestigious events at senior level like the World Athletics Championships in Oregon and the European Games in Poland. These experiences instilled in me a dedication to hard work and a drive to continually strive for excellence in both sports and academics.

While navigating through school, I faced the common dilemma of choosing a career path. It wasn't until my transition year at the age of 16 that I discovered my interest in engineering. Recognizing the need to balance my athletic aspirations with my professional goals, I was drawn to the world of engineering for its diverse opportunities and challenges.

I choose University of Limerick for the different engineering options offered in the General Engineering course. Opting for the flexibility of the General Entry program allowed me to explore various engineering disciplines before specializing. Additionally, UL's esteemed Aeronautical Engineering course captured my interest, further solidifying my decision to enrol.

Beyond its academic offerings, UL's vibrant sporting culture played a significant role in my decision. I played GAA football for my first two years at college and joined the athletics club in my final year. (Unfortunately the pandemic ceased my college sporting endeavours during my third year.) I am grateful for the enriching experiences and opportunities that both academia and sports have afforded me during my time as a student in UL.

Why did you choose the BEng in Design and Manufacture Engineering?

My decision to pursue a degree in Engineering was shaped by a pivotal moment during my transition year in secondary school. It was during a field trip focused on Aeronautical Engineering that I found my passion ignited. As I listened intently to the guest speakers, their words resonated deeply with me, leaving a lasting impression that sparked my interest in engineering.

Throughout my academic journey, I found myself naturally drawn to subjects like Technical Graphics, where I excelled with relative ease. However, I encountered a significant challenge when it came to mathematics, a subject crucial for pursuing a career in engineering. Despite facing initial setbacks, including not meeting the required mathematics grade for entry into the Engineering program, I remained determined to pursue my passion. Undeterred by the obstacle, I utilized the opportunity during the summer to prepare for and successfully complete the Mathematics Entry exam securing my place in the program. I share my experience for those who might find themselves in a similar situation and I hope it helps them to persevere in reaching their goals.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my experience in the General Engineering course at the University of Limerick was the opportunity it provided to explore various engineering disciplines in my first year. It allowed me to delve into modules spanning Mechanical, Biomedical, Civil, and Design & Manufacture Engineering, enabling me to gain insights into different fields and identify my areas of interest. Opting to specialize in Design and Manufacture Engineering from my second year onwards proved to be the right decision for me. Design and Manufacture Engineering differed from other engineering disciplines in its emphasis on design principles, which resonated with my passion for Technical Graphics. Additionally, it provided comprehensive instruction in manufacturing processes, opening doors to diverse and promising career prospects in the field.

What did you enjoy most about the course?

Throughout the course, the diverse range of modules offered unique insights and practical skills essential for a career in engineering. One module that particularly stood out to me was ‘Product Design and Modelling’ which focused on SolidWorks, a powerful computer-aided design (CAD) software. Despite the occasional frustrations that come with mastering new technology, I found immense satisfaction in the process of learning and honing my skills in 3D design. The hands-on experience gained in this module, coupled with the guidance of dedicated instructors and helpful peers, not only enhanced my proficiency in SolidWorks but also deepened my appreciation for the intricacies of design engineering. The course included a recurring module on computer coding, where we learned various coding languages each semester. This provided us with a fundamental understanding of computer programming, complementing our studies in mathematics and other design modules.

Beyond specific modules, I cherished the collaborative learning environment fostered within the course. Engaging in group projects and laboratory sessions provided invaluable opportunities to collaborate with peers, exchange ideas, and tackle real-world engineering challenges. I made some great friendships and was lucky to have peers so willingly to help each other out when needed.

What did you enjoy about UL and what is student life like here?

One of the standout aspects of UL is its dynamic community of clubs and societies, which offer students a platform to pursue their passions and connect with like-minded individuals. During my college years, I had the pleasure of being involved in various clubs, including the Motorsport club in my first year, the GAA Club for two years, and the Athletics club in my final year. While the challenges of lockdowns during my third year temporarily disrupted my club activities, I found solace in my personal training regimen and cherished moments of social interaction. Navigating the balance between academic commitments and extracurricular involvement can be demanding, yet immensely rewarding. I encourage fellow students to explore the diverse range of clubs and societies available at UL, as they provide not only opportunities for friendship but also avenues for personal development and exploration of new interests.

Beyond club activities, UL has a vibrant campus culture with organized events and activities. From concerts and visiting DJs to quizzes, fun competitions, and more, there's always something exciting happening in the heart of the campus.

Moreover, the campus itself is a haven for students, offering all the amenities and facilities one could need within close proximity. With academic buildings, accommodations, sports facilities, shops, restaurants, and pubs all conveniently located on campus, UL embodies the quintessential college experience. The campus's accessibility, including convenient access to public transportation, further enhances the student experience, ensuring seamless connectivity for all.

Can you tell us a bit about your experiences as a high-performance athlete, how did you balance training and your study commitments?

In my first and second years, I juggled rigorous football training sessions with extensive travel for games, often requiring careful time management and prioritization. Initially, I struggled with planning effectively, which sometimes resulted in my academic work suffering. However, through practice and learning from my mistakes, I gained valuable experience that taught me to manage my time more efficiently. After two years of university GAA football, I returned to athletics and my childhood dreams came into light again. Balancing the demands of high-performance athletics and academic pursuits has been a challenging yet rewarding journey for me. Throughout my undergraduate years, I dedicated myself wholeheartedly to both training and studying, driven by a strong sense of dedication, commitment, and sacrifice.

However, as I progressed into my final year, the intensity of my academic workload significantly increased, with five to six modules per semester accompanied by a multitude of assignments and exams, including a demanding final year project. Despite the temptation to socialize and go out, I made the conscious decision to prioritize my training and studies, often foregoing nights out to ensure I remained focused and disciplined. My days were planned, filled with study sessions, workouts, and frequent naps to recharge. Maintaining a healthy diet was paramount, fuelling both my athletic performance and cognitive function. While the balance was not always perfect, and there were moments when I felt like I was missing out on social opportunities, I understood that sacrifices were necessary to achieve my goals.

Ultimately, it was about finding equilibrium and staying committed to my aspirations, even when faced with challenges along the way. After college, I balance a full-time job with unwavering dedication and commitment to my athletics training. This routine not only helps me maintain focus but also empowers me to excel in both my professional career and athletics pursuits

Where did you complete your Cooperative Education Experience?

My Cooperative Education Experience provided me with invaluable real-world insights and practical skills that have greatly enriched my academic journey. While the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted my initial plans for a placement in 2020, I seized the opportunity the following year to secure a placement at Tricel, an esteemed engineering company based in my hometown of Killarney.

Tricel's rich history and global presence in providing innovative solutions for the Water, Environmental, Construction, and Distribution Industries immediately appealed to me. During my time at Tricel, I immersed myself in the environmental and construction sectors of the company, gaining firsthand experience in various facets of engineering.

One highlight of my experience was the opportunity to work with Autodesk Inventor, a leading 3D modelling software, to design and develop solutions tailored to the company's needs. Additionally, I had the privilege of engaging in hands-on tasks on the production floor, witnessing firsthand the manufacturing processes that I had studied in theory. The skills and knowledge I learned from this work experience were invaluable as it instilled me with more self-confidence as I was about to start my professional engineering career after graduating.

 How did UL support you throughout your studies?

One of the highlights of UL's support system is its array of learning centres catering to various subjects, including the Maths Learning Centre, Science Learning Centre, and ICT Learning Centre. These centres provide assistance and guidance across all modules and years of study.

One piece of advice I would offer to new students in science or engineering courses is to actively engage with tutorials for their modules. These sessions proved to be very beneficial, offering invaluable insights and step-by-step guidance on tackling complex questions, particularly in mathematics modules.

In addition to academic support, UL offers a student-led initiative 'First Seven Weeks' program, designed to assist new students in acclimating to college life and navigating the transition to university. Located conveniently in the student courtyard, this program provides resources and peer support to help students settle in and thrive.

UL offers medical and counselling services through its dedicated medical centre. Knowing that these support options are readily available within the main building provides reassurance and peace of mind to students, ensuring they have access to the assistance they need, whether academic or personal.

Can you update us on your career, does it still hold relevance to what you would have studied in UL?

As of 2024, I am currently midway through my two-year graduate program at Winthrop Technologies, where I serve as a Building Information Modelling (BIM) technician. Winthrop Technologies stands as a premier Data Centre delivery partner, specializing in providing turnkey solutions to clients across Europe, with headquarters based in Dublin.

In my role, I primarily work with essential computer software such as Revit, Navis, and occasionally AutoCAD. Drawing from my academic background in Design and Manufacturing Engineering at UL, I have seamlessly transitioned into this role, leveraging my prior experience with SolidWorks and AutoCAD. This familiarity with similar software platforms has facilitated my rapid adaptation to new design tools, allowing me to contribute effectively to the BIM process. Furthermore, the foundational knowledge in computer coding has proven invaluable, particularly in understanding and utilizing the 'Dynamo' language within Revit. Dynamo serves as a powerful tool for streamlining the design and coordination processes within the Data Centre environment. The collaborative and problem-solving skills acquired through group and individual projects at UL have also been a huge help in the workplace. Whether tackling complex tasks or seeking assistance from colleagues, these skills have equipped me to approach challenges with confidence and creativity.

I am grateful for the opportunities to connect with prospective employers at the UL Careers Fair during my final year. Securing a position at Winthrop Technologies was a testament to the value of networking. I applied for a few jobs  as a result of the Careers Fair and I am very fortunate to have gotten the job I wanted. I am proud to now represent the company at career fairs, sharing insights into the work we do and the diverse career opportunities available. While not all aspects of my college education may directly translate to my professional endeavours, the foundational skills and experiences gained at UL continue to serve as pillars of support and guidance.

Do you have any advice for other women considering a career in engineering?

Absolutely, my advice to any woman considering a career in engineering is simple: go for it! Don't let anything hold you back from pursuing your passion. Whether you excel in mathematics or find it more challenging like myself, know that hard work and determination can lead to success in this field. Embrace your unique strengths and weaknesses, and remember that diversity in skills and perspectives is what makes engineering teams stronger.

As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, it's essential to stand tall and be confident in your abilities. Don't allow preconceived notions or stereotypes to dictate your path. Instead, let your work speak for itself. Focus on being the best engineer you can be, and don't hesitate to advocate for yourself and others. I personally think it’s very important to enjoy your job to make your life easier and more enjoyable. Even if its tough, this can be for you if you want it to be.

So, to all the aspiring female engineers out there, Go For It! Work hard and do your best in everything you do.