Sophie Edgar: Voices of Penn Engineering Master’s Alumni

Sophie Edgar graduated with a master’s in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) in December 2015. Sophie is currently working as Manager, Engineered Solutions at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc., a consumer division of Johnson & Johnson based in Skillman, NJ, developing medical devices for the consumer marketplace.

My journey is a little different from that of the typical Penn graduate student. I came back to school to do my master’s as a “mature,” part-time student. In fact, I attended my graduation ceremony just two weeks shy of the 10th anniversary of receiving my undergraduate degree.

I grew up in the rural Highlands of Scotland, in a small town called Inverness — famous for the Loch Ness Monster but not for being a hotbed of industry in the ’90s. Throughout high school, my interests were split between creative and technical subjects and I was very relieved to find a way to continue this path at university. I studied for my bachelor’s in Product Design Engineering, a course run jointly by the University of Glasgow and the Glasgow School of Art that encompassed classes in Mechanical Engineering and Product Design (also known as Industrial Design here in the U.S.).

After completing my undergraduate studies in 2006, I started what has become a long and varied career at Johnson & Johnson. Johnson & Johnson appealed to me due to their focus on healthcare; I wanted my work to play a role in making people’s lives better. I first joined their medical devices division, working on blood glucose monitors for people with diabetes. In those first few years I was responsible for the mechanical engineering and eventual oversight of the industrial design of our products, launching five of them.

After five years of increasing responsibility, I decided I needed a change. I took advantage of Johnson & Johnson’s multinational presence by applying for a newly created position in suburban Philadelphia. This new group was tasked with operating like a startup, identifying unmet needs, and exploring new technologies and applications within the diabetes space while also delving into adjacent fields. Like in any regular startup, my responsibilities were varied and encompassed user needs identification and user experience, but also working on business cases and determining new business models for the opportunities we identified, stretching my design and technical skills into the business realm.

It had always been my intention to get my master’s, but having become focused on career development, it took a friendly reminder from my mentor that a technical master’s would still benefit me, even with a few years’ experience in industry. Knowing that the Northeast had such a strong academic history, I began my search for the master’s that was right for me. I was looking for a university with a program that would stretch me beyond what I had learned in industry while also aligning with my chosen path of healthcare engineering.

With such a strong history in engineering, I decided Penn was the school for me. The clear connections that the MEAM department had with Wharton and the School of Design were further incentives, as they would allow me to continue leveraging my background in consumer products. I started at Penn in the fall of 2013 and immediately loved being back in campus life, even if it was only on a part-time basis. The atmosphere at Penn and within the School of Engineering is one of optimism, determination and exploration, which was infectious and a great motivator when I was already working 40+ hours a week. I enjoyed throwing myself back into learning the course material and often re-learning principles I hadn’t used in a few years.

During my second semester at Penn, I was offered a role in Johnson & Johnson’s internal Design Office (J&J Design) in New York City. It was an opportunity of a lifetime that I just couldn’t say no to, even though the timing was bad. So I moved to NYC to work, while continuing my part-time studies at Penn. I was very fortunate in the support I received from my company and my new manager, who enabled me to make the most of my time on campus while still meeting my work obligations. Additionally, both faculty and students were open to understanding the challenges of my availability. They continued to support my studies by being flexible about meeting me when I was on campus or utilizing technology when I couldn’t meet in person.

In my new role at J&J Design, I supported Johnson & Johnson’s Pharmaceutical division, working on combination products — things like injectables, inhalers, transdermal patches, and sprays — for their portfolio of drug products. I continued to build my skills in uncovering unmet needs and working with Engineers & Industrial Designers to develop novel solutions to problems, but I was also introduced to the importance of Graphic Design, Instructional Design and Digital Design in the development of patient-centered products.

During my time at Penn, I enjoyed a mix of classes with subjects I’d had experience of in industry, like Design for Manufacture, and other areas I’d no prior exposure to, such as robotics. I used my electives to continue to explore my multifaceted interest in engineering, taking Creative Thinking & Design (IPD511) and Innovation (OPIM614) at Wharton. I was also able to complete an independent study, under the guidance of MEAM faculty memeber Katherine Kuchenbecker, combining my newfound knowledge of robotics with my design and human factors experience to consider the role of haptics — touch feedback — in robotic surgery.

After graduation I continued to apply the lessons I learned to my work at Johnson & Johnson Design, bringing my engineering execution skills to the fore. My responsibilities included ensuring that our designs were feasible while encouraging our engineering partners to stretch the possibilities to provide the best solutions for our patients. In January of 2018, I took on a new role as Manager, Engineered Solutions within the Consumer division of Johnson & Johnson. I am now leading teams in the development of consumer devices that are classed as medical devices, such as the Neutrogena Light Therapy Acne Mask.

My new team is set up to work entrepreneurially by delivering the best products to market; it’s an opportunity to apply what I learned from my Engineering Entrepreneurship class. Our vision is much broader than one would imagine for devices that are considered consumer facing, a principle that holds true to J&J’s vision of blending heart, science and ingenuity to change the trajectory of health for humanity. Leading the teams through these projects requires me to have a cross-disciplinary mindset that can jump between detailed and big-picture thinking, from identifying user needs, risk assessment and project planning/oversight to detailed in-depth development conversations with engineers and designers of different backgrounds, something that my studies at Penn have greatly helped me with.

Aside from the academic benefits of my two and a half years at Penn, there were personal benefits too. Meeting talented, driven female engineers is something I’ve always been inspired by and I found myself in the company of many at Penn. I also came to realize that my boundaries are set only by myself. I often look back and wonder just how I managed to work full-time, commute more than four hours twice a week, and study for my master’s, but I did. I found that I was able grow to meet what was needed of me.

I continue to champion strong female engineers and designers through Johnson & Johnson‘s “Women in STEM2D” initiative, which focuses on STEM education while adding Manufacture & Design. Whenever I talk to future STEM students, there are a few key messages I share that I’ve learned along the way: keep your options open and be open to new opportunities and challenges; leverage learnings from previous experiences but stretch outside them too; and you don’t have to work in a startup to get a wide range of exposure, experiences, innovation and life opportunities. And finally, I’ve learned that there is nothing wrong with spending some time in industry before determining whether a master’s (or even which master’s) is right for you. That industry experience will change your perspective and give you the tools to take something very different away from your time at school.