Varuni Fernando

MIEAust

Senior Systems Engineer

Resmed

Varuni Fernando is a Senior Systems Engineer at ResMed Ltd, working on the next generation of devices for the treatment of Sleep Disordered Breathing (SDB). She completed her bachelor degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of New South Wales. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Systems Engineering from Johns Hopkins University.

Varuni co-founded Experience It! with Annette Au in 2014 as student ambassadors for the Sydney Division, Women in Engineering committee. This events brings together around 200 girls in years 8-10 for a day learning about the different types of engineering through a collaboration between industry, universities and Engineers Australia. From 2014, Varuni spent 5 years on the Women in Engineering committee, serving as the Chair between 2017-2018 and has been recently elected to the Sydney Division Committee for 2019-2020.

How long have you been a member of Engineers Australia?
8 years.

Why did you pursue a career in engineering?
I always enjoyed the sciences and maths, and I wasn’t keen on pursuing a career as a health professional, so engineering seemed like a good way to learn more science and maths and apply it to solving problems for society. My dad is also a systems engineer with an electrical background, so the combination of my academic interests and growing up with an engineer as a father drove me to pick this career.

How can Australian communities/people/society benefit from your work now and in the future?
I work on the next generation of PAP (Positive Airway Pressure) devices which treat sleep apnea. The global prevalence of sleep apnea in the adult population is estimated to be almost 1 billion people. This condition results in patients stopping breathing or having partially obstructed airways during the night. This lack of airflow leads to carbon dioxide retention which results in arousals from sleep. This highly disrupted sleep, prevents patients from reaching the stages of sleep that are required for restoration and development. The devices we develop treat this condition by providing pressurised air to patients to keep their airways open during sleep, allowing for more consolidated sleep.

Sleep is fundamental pillar for health, it’s the thing that ensures our bodies recover, our minds learn and build connections and that we are able to carry on with our lives in safe and effective way. Working in this industry and seeing how much difference our devices make to our patients’ lives is the thing that keeps me enjoying my work every day.

What is the most challenging or interesting project you’ve ever worked on to date?
One of the most interesting projects I’ve worked on is the development of the smallest CPAP machine in the world, the AirMini. This was the first PAP device I was part of the development for and got to see through to its launch. Recently I had the opportunity to visit customers who have been using this device, hearing their feedback and how much they’re enjoying using the product I was part of developing makes all the technical challenges worth it.

What do you see as one of the biggest issues facing the engineering profession?
I think one of the key issues facing the engineering profession is our lack of gender diversity. The numbers are stark, less than 13% of the Australian engineering profession are female. Whilst our universities are reporting female student intake as being >20% in some cases, the retention of our female engineers is a challenge. The benefits of gender diversity across all industries has been widely published on, and for an industry that relies on innovation and solving problems for the communities we live in, the diversity of thought and representation of those who form more than half the population is of extreme importance.

What excites you about the future of the profession or what opportunities do you see for the future?
The thing that excites me most about our profession is its evolution with our increasing capability of gathering, storing and processing data from all facets of our lives. The ability to connect the dots is what drew me to engineering and technology is enabling this to happen at a scale we never really imagined was possible.

Who is your engineering hero?
My engineering hero is my dad, Nihal Fernando. He’s been working in the field of electrical and systems engineering in the defence industry for my entire life. He was the one who organised for me to do my year 10 work experience at Garden Island, see what engineers could create and showed me through life itself, what a career in engineering could bring. He was the one who helped me with the most difficult maths and electronics problems throughout my education, and has supported my career thus far, but most importantly, his engineering skills and enthusiasm for building things was the reason my science projects were always elaborate, educational and methodical.

Image source: courtesy of Liam Holley.