Orla Cussen tells all women in science to seek out role models and let nothing stop you

By Liza Laws

- Last updated on GMT

© Cognizant Orla Cussen
© Cognizant Orla Cussen

Related tags Women in Science Engineering Life sciences Manufacturing Research and development

Orla Cussen is associate director- engagement delivery lead, Cork, Life Sciences Manufacturing at Cognizant.

Coming from Donegal in the northwest of Ireland, where there isn't much industry to a more than 20 years supporting engineers, she explains how she got from A to B and the challenges and triumphs she encountered along the way.  

Could you give us an overview of your work?

I am the engagement delivery lead (EDL) for Cognizant’s Life Science Manufacturing Group  in Ireland, where I am responsible for managing key pharmaceutical clients across the country.  My role encompasses the delivery of projects, secondments and site services. It also involves resourcing new talent as well as developing our engineering team to ensure they are energised  and challenged in their roles.  I work very closely with the other Ireland EDLs to ensure we are delivering success for the business.

When did you realize you were interested in science - as a young child, teen, or older?

I have always loved maths and science and have a logical way of thinking. From a young age I would create spreadsheets for my birthday parties, on paper and pen of course, long before I had a computer. I was curious about how things work and why they behave the way they do, taking things apart and almost always getting it back together.  I was lucky to have supportive parents who encouraged my interests and provided me with opportunities to follow my strengths.

Coming from Donegal in the northwest of Ireland, where there is little industry, I wasn't sure where my path would lead me but I applied to the University of Ulster to study for a degree in electronics and computing which pulled on my strengths and started my engineering journey.

Could you describe your personal journey bringing us to where you are now?

As part of my four-year Honors program, I received a ‘Diploma in Industrial Studies,’ completing a 15-month internship as part of a software testing team for a telecommunications company.  While I enjoyed the classroom-based learning in college, I learnt a huge amount about how the real world works during my internship - meeting demanding deadlines, working as part of a team and delivering qualified software at high standards. 

I graduated in 2001 and was lucky enough to get a graduate-level role in Zenith Technologies. My initial role was junior CSV engineer working on system integration projects for the life sciences industry. It was all very new to me, but with a strong team of engineers and managers willing to teach me, I was given a great start to my career. 

I progressed over the coming years to senior CSV engineer, working on many different projects and site secondments as well as short-term travel opportunities to Singapore to deliver projects.

In 2012, the company started a new managed service for a key client in Cork, offering day to day support, small project delivery and on call support for the automation systems on site. I became the Lead CSV Engineer on this team. Over the next few years, the team grew exponentially and my opportunities grew with it. I progressed to Team Manager and then, in 2017, took over as Managed Service Lead for the teams across two sites.

In 2020, I applied for the Cork engineering manager role, something that had always been a career goal, and with support from my managers, I was successful. It was a great feeling to get such a promotion and become a female engineering manager, with great responsibilities and leadership opportunities.

When Zenith Technologies was acquired by Cognizant in 2019, this brought new challenges and opportunities for me to learn more.  Now in my EDL role, I am continually learning new aspects of the business.

What challenges did you face - as a woman or otherwise - along the way and what is the most valuable lesson you have learned?

I have experienced some difficulties in balancing my work and personal life. At one point, I was working full-time while also studying for my Masters and with three small children at home.  Looking back, I feel if I did that then, I can achieve anything I put my mind to.  At no point in my career have I ever felt I wasn’t capable of taking on new challenges and was always encouraged by my managers over the years to reach new potential.

Over my career to date, I have learned to be confident and assertive in my skills and opinions. I have also learnt to be flexible and adaptable to different situations and opportunities, and not to fear taking risks or making mistakes.

What ignites your passion in your current role?

I am a people person, so what ignites my passion in my current role is the team I work with every day.  While we have different clients to focus on, we work as one team and support each other.

In my 20+ years with Zenith Technologies and now Cognizant, I’ve been fortunate to shape my career through the learning and development opportunities offered to me. Because of this, I am passionate about supporting our engineers to advance their careers.  In our company we have an exceptional life sciences manufacturing learning and development team that provide our delivery team with the tools and resources to enable these opportunities.

Could you share some advice for young women starting to develop an interest in science or wanting to pursue a career like yours?

My advice for young women who are starting to develop an interest in science and engineering, or wanting to pursue a career like mine is to follow your passion and curiosity, and to not let anyone or anything stop you from achieving your potential.

Seek out mentors and role models who can inspire you, guide you, and support you on your own individual journey. Learn from their stories, challenges, and achievements, and don't be afraid to ask for help or feedback.

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