Day In The Life: Nicola Halbrook, 24, NHS wheelchair designer

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The Independent Online


I was studying a degree in maths at the University of Birmingham when I realised that it wasn't what I wanted to do. Someone I was living with was studying engineering and I began to think that it might suit me. I started looking into engineering courses and developed a better idea of what was available. I have always been interested in medical studies but also academic stuff, so I realised that a degree in medical engineering was perfect. I switched degrees and graduated with a BEng after three years.

When I finished my degree I started to think about what job I would like to do. I was interested in working with people with disabilities; an interest that stems from a placement I did at a special needs school, during my year 10 work experience. I remember that one of the wheelchairs they were using was really awful; it had such small wheels that you couldn't get it over any bumps. It was really badly designed, and I just thought I could do a much better job.

I then decided to take part in the clinical science training programme offered by the NHS, which involves doing an MSc in biomedical engineering together with placements in hospitals. The NHS does a yearly recruitment for clinical scientists in engineering, which is how I got onto the training scheme. During the scheme you can work in different areas within clinical engineering. Although this may seem like a clear-cut career path, it took hours of reading through careers books to find out about it.


My training programme is based at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, part of the Oxford Centre for Enablement. It has been amazing. My main interest is in wheelchairs and rehabilitation, so I have been working in the wheelchair service and in the wheelchair rehabilitation department.

The department I work for supply different wheelchairs to a wide range of people, from your average elderly person who just needs a run-around wheelchair to a person who is severely disabled and isn't able use the standard equipment.

I have been working on loads of different projects here. I have made a custom wheelchair for a girl who had been bed-ridden for a year due to really limited hip flexion, which meant that she couldn't bend at the hip. I made her a wheelchair which was almost totally horizontal, more like a bed on a wheelchair. It was very complex to make. She was in a lot of pain, so we had to copy the position she was lying in and cut the foam to fit her shape. We also had to alter parts of the wheelchair to increase the stability, while making sure that the handles were in the right position for her to manoeuvre it.

I've also done some medical engineering design. I designed a scooter for children with problems of restricted growth. These children find that they can't use the ones in the shops because their legs aren't long enough and they can't reach the ground or the steering bar. I designed one that could be altered to different heights. I had that manufactured and took it out and tried it with one of our manufacturers, which was amazing to see!

When you are at university you are studying everything in great detail and doing loads of theoretical work. When it comes to entering the workplace you've got that all in the back of your mind - everything you're doing you are considering the things that you learnt. It is all about being able to put what you've learnt into practice.


I have wanted this job throughout the whole time I was at university; this is what I was aiming for. Being able to use my knowledge and everything that I've learnt, put it into practice and see it helping people is amazing.

I have found funding to stay on the training programme for the next two years, after that I will be looking for a job. The training scheme is great because it gives you all the skills you need to go out into the industry. You are developing skills in lots of different areas, which means that when you finish you still have a wide range of different options open to you.

In 10 years time I would like to be working in an NHS rehabilitation centre, like I am now, doing medical engineering design and making modifications for new products to help people.

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