It’s time to get inventive with Design Engineering student and Academic Mentor, Alana Bralsford.
Science. Creativity. Innovation. Alana Bralsford combines all three whilst designing beautiful yet functional inventions for the greater good. Having always been eagerly curious about the natural world, Bralsford entered engineering with an aim to better it, and bring about positive change. Her designs revolutionise the human experience, and the world is taking notice, with her team having won a DESIRE Award at her university, Imperial College London, and her internship trusting her with huge responsibilities. Her passion for her craft was palpable as she spoke about her strong desire to give back to the community that gave her direction, and despite her age, she’s become a role model for many.
Bralsford has faced a lot of trial an error during in her life in terms of both her inventions and her career, but if there’s one thing for certain it’s that it’s only the start of her extraordinary journey.
Have you always known you wanted to go into engineering?
I've always loved like making and creating things, but I never knew it was called engineering. I was very artistic and hands on from a young age, always doing experiments at home and building things. I remember when I was in year eight, and in a physics class (I was very good at physics), my teacher asked me ‘Have you ever considered engineering?’. And I was like, ‘What's that… you just make stuff for a living? That’s literally everything I’ve wanted to do!’. So I think I always knew this was something I wanted to do, it just took time for me to find out it was a real job.
What was your first invention?
When I was around seven I built a non-electric doorbell for my bedroom door, and it’s something my parents still talk about now. I made this cardboard contraption where after pushing a button, a marble would drop down and run along some tubing I made out of this hard plastic material, into a tub that had a coin in it, which would then make a sound. That is the first thing I can remember ever making, but I’m sure I made things before that as even I was always creating things. I remember doing a lot of school projects that people loved and doing well in competitions!
In your opinion, what role does engineering play in society in terms of the kind of responsibility it holds?
Honestly, everything. I think it really does shape everything in society. I think there can be some pressure to stick to what we know and keep to the old ways of doing things, but I think if you’re in engineering there’s a responsibility that comes with that to do as much good as you can. And I think that’s every engineer’s responsibility. Once you get your degree in engineering you should do something good with it, because the knowledge you have gives you so much power, and you have the qualification to back it up. I’m also a very climate anxious person, and I want to do what I can to help mitigate climate change. When we’re inventing things at university, we aren’t allowed to label our projects as sustainable solutions, as they emphasise that sustainability should be a given – it shouldn’t be a selling point. My degree makes you climate focused and green focused, we shouldn’t be making anything that will have a negative impact on the environment.
Speaking of sustainability and the environment, what led you into this field of interest?
So, on a personal note, my stepdad came into my life when I was around three. Like him I used to get up really early in the mornings, and so we bonded by watching David Attenborough together until school would start. Since I was young David Attenborough has really impacted my life, and I think everything he done is incredible. I've always loved nature – I’m a member of the RSPB, I enjoy bird watching, and some of the best memories I’ve got are experiences I’ve had with animals, so I’m passionate about saving the natural world we live in. The more I learned about it, the more I realised how important it is in terms of human survival and sustainability, as well as the importance of saving endangered species and doing something to help. As humans, we have the advantage. We are also the ones causing climate change, no animal has ever caused climate change or global warming! I think with that comes a responsibility to try and protect those that didn’t cause it, and don’t have the means to save it directly. So David Attenborough was definitely one of the reasons I got so interested in conservation and sustainability.
Would you say David Attenborough is one of your biggest inspirations? Who else has inspired you?
Definitely! I actually handwrote him a letter when I didn’t get into Cambridge, just to tell him about how he's inspired me my entire life, and also asked if he had any advice as I was kind of at this crossroad. He replied, sending me back a handwritten letter that contained what was probably the best advice I've ever been given. He thanked me for the letter, but then told me he couldn’t give me any advice, because he didn’t know me. I read it and realised how true that was. Only I can be the person who knows what’s right for me. From that I tried to do what I thought was right. I found my degree and my direction, which was everything I’d ever wanted, and worked really hard to get there.
In general, a lot of my inspiration comes from those around me. I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by very successful people, like my mum, for example. She's an amazing businesswoman, and seeing all the connections she’s made, the way she carries herself, the way she talks to people, is incredible. I've always aspired to be like that when I meet new people and network. My boyfriend and all of my friends (most of who are on my course) are incredibly smart at what they do. Sometimes I can’t even comprehend the things they’re saying, but the ideas they have and the way the see the world is amazing.
On the creative side there’s Thomas Straker, a chef. I love cooking, and I’ve followed and watched as his popularity grew. I also got to meet him at a pop up in London once, which was amazing. The artist Justin Bauer also really inspires me, and I even based an art project on in school. He actually ended up following me on Instagram after I sent it to him! One of my goals in life is to own one of his paintings. Another artist is Daniel Arsham. I love the way he disrupts art by taking old pieces and making them his own, whilst also putting a modern twist on them. I actually own a piece of his work, which is part of the fractured region of his Pokémon cards!
What is your design process like? How do you bring your ideas to life?
I would describe my degree as an inventing degree, in that you learn all the fundamentals of engineering, they give you a title or a problem, and then you invent something to fix it. The main thing I’ve learned about inventing things is that people buy the why, not the what. You can’t make something specifically for one person because it’s not going to do anything. So, a big part of the design process is getting people to try it out, getting feedback, then making iteration after iteration until you’ve got a product people actually want. And then you have to look at graphics and CAD (computer-aided design), which is so important and can put you steps above the rest. A lot of my time is spent focusing on graphics, and making it look appealing and desirable. I’m currently interning at a start up company, where they’ll work on some really big projects and give it to me near the end to make it look pretty. When I add in the graphics the team love it, and have even decided to include one of the presentations I worked on in the investor deck! To sum up, it’s about understanding what your target audience wants, not what you want, and tailoring it to them.
You’re not one to shy away from leadership roles, as seen with your position as an Academic Mentor for ESM Prep, and Activities Manager for the Design Engineering Society at your university. What attracts you to these kind of roles?
Regarding university leadership roles, part of the reason was because we’re a very close-knit group, and especially after COVID, I wanted to keep everyone together and promote bonding. It’s such a positive environment to be in and organising these activities is a great way to bring everyone together and maintain traditions. So I love it in that sense, but regarding leadership in general I want to inspire the next generation. I’ve been tutoring since I was around 16, and I love it. It feels like something I’m good at and it shows, as the kids I’ve tutored have done incredibly well. I love to see the cogs in their brain turning as they make sense of things! I think the fact I’m quite young helps, as we can understand each other a little more and chat about what’s going on in their lives. When my tutees do well or when they get a better grade, I’m so excited for them. I've been so lucky in my life to go to good schools and get into a great university, and have people around me who inspired and helped me, so to be able to give back and see younger people succeed in the same way is incredible, and I get even more inspired.
What would you say is the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome, and on the other side of that, your greatest achievement?
I think the biggest thing I’ve had to overcome, especially since COVID and over the past few years in university, has been mental health issues. I’ve felt a lot of pressure to do everything all at once, and believed there was time to do everything all at once. Before university I went to the gym around three hours a day because I loved it, but after coming to university I realised that you really don’t have all that time. And I then had to face the mental stress of gaining weight and not being as fit as I used to be, and wondering why I couldn’t keep up. Eventually I realised that I can’t be a chef, engineer, fitness guru, the cleverest person in the room, and a social butterfly all at once. I had to overcome that way of thinking and take more time for myself. I can’t go to the gym for three hours everyday and do my degree, as I’d quickly burn out, so I spent some time becoming more in touch with how I’m feeling and taking more time for myself. I’ve learnt to accept the things that have changed, especially since COVID. I’ve lost a few friends, but I’ve kept the best people. If my social battery drains quicker than before, that’s okay – I’ll say no, stick to my gut feeling, and do what’s best for me. I’ve spent the last few years learning about myself and trying to overcome that.
My biggest achievement would be my internship, and the fact I’m doing it alongside my degree! I’ve been given huge responsibilities, even doing things like sending reports to governments. After being surrounded by so many incredible people at university I’ve experienced imposter syndrome, but to leave that space and find that people appreciate me for what I’m worth, is amazing. I’m also extremely proud of how well I’ve been doing in my degree, and how I’ve maintained my social life. I feel a lot happier with the way I deal with things now, which I’m proud of. I don’t do things for the sake of it or because it’s what society thinks is right, but instead do the things that are right for me and my mental health.
What are your future goals?
Firstly, I want to be a successful entrepreneur. I want to own companies, and have shares, and have my hands in loads of different pies. I’ve always loved watching these films where, for example, Iron Man has his own lab where he just invents stuff – that’s what I want to do, it looks like so much fun (I like to say that if I could be a mixture of Iron Man, Bruce Banner, and Black Widow, that would be incredible. I just want to be able to invest in a variety of things and make not only good but sustainable inventions, and have a positive impact, whether it’s big or small.
I also want to inspire not only girls but people in general and show them that having a career in STEM is achievable. I went to an all-girls school, so I grew up without that stereotypical idea that men are better at science. I can’t really speak on that dynamic too well but say girls are put off by it, I want to provide experiences that can steer them to STEM, or even to other subjects they want to explore but feel afraid to pursue. If I manage to get people and girls to take those first steps, whether its into STEM or other subjects, then I’ll consider myself successful.
And finally, one of my main goals is to host my own annual gala dinner. I would invite all the important people in my life, as well as other people who have inspired me or who have been inspired by me, create a menu filled exclusively with dishes I’ve curated (cooking is one of my love languages), and raise money for charity. It’s gotten to the point where I can envision what I’m wearing and how it’s decorated. I think that would be like a mark of success for me, creating this prestigious event that acts as a food experience, raises money for charity, and a place of inspiration.
You can find out more at:
ESM Prep Mentoring: https://www.esmprep.com/mentors/alana-bralsford