Course studied: BSc (Hons) Laser Physics and Optoelectronics, 1992
Position at time of writing: Chief Operating Officer, National Manufacturing Institute Scotland
Interesting fact: 28 years after graduating from Strathclyde, Sarah accepted a position to head up the National Manufacturing Institute for Scotland
Tell us about your background
I grew up in Ayrshire, went to Ayr Academy, and then on to Strathclyde for my degree (Laser Physics & Optoelectronics) and Heriot Watt for my Masters (Laser Engineering).
When I finished studying I started work as a Laser Engineer at Thales in Govan for seven years. In 2000 I moved to a small start-up in Dunfermline called Optos as their Senior Optical Engineer. I worked on improving the design of their novel ultrawidefield retinal scanner so it could be more easily manufactured, and before I knew it 20 years had passed (more like evaporated!). I had a number of different roles at Optos, including managing manufacturing engineering and research & development, but I was able to really indulge my passion for manufacturing in my role heading up the manufacturing facility in Dunfermline for 10 years. I finished my time at Optos as Senior Director of Manufacturing in January 2020, when I took up the role of Chief Operating Officer at the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS).
"In addition to the job that I was paid to do during my career, I have also been fortunate to have the opportunity to be involved in a number of other initiatives. I had the privilege of representing our manufacturing organisations on various Boards and Committees, including the Board of SMAS (Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service) for a total of seven years, five of which were as Chair."
I have also had the opportunity to work with young people at both primary and secondary schools, supporting a wide range of events to promote careers in manufacturing, engineering and science. It has been my honour and privilege over the last couple of years to be mentor to a young lady called Ema Devine through the Career Ready programme. When we met, Ema didn’t know what she wanted to do, and she is now studying for a manufacturing apprenticeship with Optos. In between times she has won the regional Career Ready Student of the Year 2020 for Fife and the Scottish Final. I am so proud of Ema and her achievements so far, and can’t wait to see what she goes on to do in her career.
Why did you choose Strathclyde?
I’ve chosen Strathclyde twice in my career, so there must be something special about it for me! The University has always had an excellent reputation in Science and Engineering, and so it was definitely at the top of my list when deciding what to do after school.
I knew I wanted to go on and study some sort of science or engineering, but the only way it got any more specific was to know that it would be nothing biology related as I am very squeamish! I went to a number of open nights to help me decide and when I went to the one in the physics department and felt the energy and enthusiasm that Ivan Ruddock conveyed as he leapt about the lab, I thought “I want to do that!”, and so the decision was made.
The second time I chose Strathclyde was even easier than the first. Through my involvement with SMAS, I had been involved with discussions around creating a National Manufacturing Institute, and I knew from the start that I would take any opportunity I could to be involved in it, so when the roles were advertised it was a no brainer for me to apply! I’d had a job at Optos for 20 years that had given me the chance to make a difference every day, both to our customers and our team, and a platform to make manufacturing important in our community, and NMIS is an opportunity to do this on a much bigger scale.
Do you have a highlight from your time at University?
I loved my time at Strathclyde, I lived in Baird Hall on Sauchiehall Street for the first three years and made a great group of friends that I am still in touch with today. I guess there are many highlights or memorable moments but one of the things that I loved was the ability to get involved in so many things. I was a member of the physics club and the debating society (a club for talking, ideal for me!). I also got involved in student elections every year, and was Campaign Manager for a couple of the successful candidates (Mark Covell and Alison Keith).
What has been your most memorable moment from your career so far?
I love the roles I’ve had have allowed me to make a difference to both customers and my team, that makes it easy to go to work every day. As I said I have had the honour and privilege of representing our diverse and vibrant manufacturing sector, alongside working with our young people and hopefully encouraging them to pursue a career in manufacturing. Being recognised for some of these things has been a pleasant surprise, and therefore memorable. I was awarded Strathclyde Alumna of the year in 2018. It was so unexpected and such an honour, I will never forget it.
What is the best part of your job?
I love that my new role allows me to be involved with all different types of manufacturing organisations at different stages of their journey, but the best part of my job is being able to give other people opportunities to thrive and seeing them embrace them and succeed. Most people are capable of so much more than they give themselves credit for, and all they need is someone to believe in them and support them. I’m lucky that I get to do that almost every day.
What are your ambitions for the future?
On a personal level I’ve never had a career plan, and I don’t consider myself to be ambitious, although I know that many people find that hard to believe. That said, I am competitive and I hate to lose, so my current ambitions are to help to create the best National Manufacturing Institute there is, that we set and then raise the bar. I want any manufacturing company that walks through our doors, regardless of their size or what they manufacture, to recognise themselves, but also to think “I wish I was as good as NMIS”. Those are two very difficult things to achieve, that every manufacturing organisation feels comfortable and that they are part of something, but at the same time that we make them feel uncomfortable and raise their ambition, but the team that we have in place are up for the challenge and I am looking forward to it!