In celebration of National Women’s Month 2017, the NRF is paying to tribute to our female researchers at the NRF managed National Research Facilities. We thank the ladies for volunteering to tell us a little about themselves and the work they do.
1. What did you study and where?
BSc and MSc Mechanical Engineering, both at the University of Cape Town.
2. What made you decide to choose your field of study? Is it what you envisioned for yourself while growing up?
My dad is a marine engineer and sailed in the merchant navy as a chief engineer for many years before coming ashore and working as a ship repair superintendent. Growing up, I would go to work with him, and we’d clamber around ships, drydocks and container yards. It never felt unnatural, so I guess I just ended up working in the ‘family business.’ It never occurred to me that I would be anything other than an engineer.
3. What are your responsibilities at your place of work and how long have you worked there?
I joined SKA SA in March 2015. My role has predominantly been as a project engineer for the construction of HERA, a low-frequency experiment based in the Karoo. Up until recently, this included fulfilling a project management role, as well as being responsible for localising the HERA concept for construction in South Africa and generally championing the construction effort. These days, I’m more specifically focused on the technical delivery of the instrument and its integration with other supporting site systems.
I have also played a supporting role on the AVN project as a structural mechanical engineer, performing stress analyses for new or modified structures and components on a 32m satellite dish being converted into a radio telescope in Ghana. A very cool part of this was going to Ghana to see the installation of the new sub reflector support structure – which I promised my boss wouldn’t break. I think I took about eight breaths the entire day!
4. How do you think your work can benefit/impact South Africans and/or the world?
The HERA experiment aims to detect the signal coming from a time in our universe’s history just after the first stars and galaxies formed. This signal hasn’t been detected yet and would be an amazing scientific achievement, opening up the potential to answer questions on why those formations happened and how we came to be.
The cool thing is that, when this happens, it would have been made possible using structures built with locally sourced materials, constructed by people from the Karoo region, some of whom had never finished high school. I see HERA, aside from its exciting scientific merit, as a demonstrator for making accessible the kind of industry that is usually only available to people with a tertiary education. This amazing crew can hopefully tell their children about how they built the structures which enabled a discovery that no one had made before.
Similarly, the AVN project aims to bring the field of radio astronomy to eight African countries which, in turn, will develop local scientific, technical, and operational skills associated with this field. These skills, together with the radio telescopes being converted or built in these countries as part of the programme, means that these countries can contribute to the global radio astronomy arena, enabling them to participate in global projects such as the SKA and other long-distance/global radio astronomy endeavours.
I am happy to play a small part in enabling both of these scenarios.
Secretly, I also think antennas are kind of fun, and the more people who get to play with them, the better.
5. What obstacles did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?
I’ve thought about this quite a bit. I am not an example of overcoming obstacles (external ones at least – we humans are very good at creating internal obstacles!)
But there is something to be said here: Never once during my upbringing did my parents, especially my engineer dad, let on that my desire to be one was anything other than absolutely, completely, normal. I didn’t understand that gender bias existed in STEM fields until I was explicitly informed later in life, and while that is kind of sheltered in itself, I am incredibly grateful to my parents that I didn’t go into this field with the idea that I was doing anything unusual. I wish that for other girls as well.
6. What makes you get up every morning?
My pre-schooler, who plods into the bedroom holding his blanket, asking his dad to make him something to drink.
7. Who has been your greatest inspiration? Who saw your potential/encouraged you when the going got tough?
Oh man, I have so many heroes! I pick them up like new gadgets. I can’t pick just one to describe here, so here are a few.
Obviously, my dad is my first and biggest inspiration!
My university supervisor, who is an expert in a field that I fell in love with (fracture mechanics/failure analysis, or ‘CSI for machines’). He always treated me as independent and trusted me to do what I thought was right during the two research projects I did with him.
My mentor/boss from my first job. In addition to teaching me the nitty gritty of structural analysis, he modelled the kind of engineer I wanted to be in terms of integrity; being methodical; how it’s okay to question yourself, and how to productively learn from failure. I am the engineer I am today because of him.
The two people I have worked under while at this job in SKA SA on the two projects I’ve been involved with. With this being the first role I’ve had where I’ve been wholly responsible for the consequences of my engineering judgement (or lack thereof), I have been ridiculously lucky in being able to work with and learn from two very knowledgeable mentors – who are also supportive of me finding my feet and learning how to be a better human.
8. Is there any female role model(s) in the science industry that you look up to?
This is going to come off as really cheesy, but there was this point in late 2014 where I saw the line-up for a “Women in Engineering” conference. Anita Loots (associate director within SKA SA) was giving a talk on managing mega-projects, using AVN as a case study, and I wanted so badly to go and hear her speak. Here was this high-powered, successful woman who was heading up this ridiculously cool project which let her climb all over antennas in African countries. Life goals! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend that conference. The upshot of this story… I now report to her!
9. Which of your academic achievements are you most proud of?
I don’t know that I’m proud of any achievements. I find pride a difficult thing. I’m happy that my dad is proud of me.
10. What is your vision for the future – what do you hope to achieve in the next ten years?
I’d like to be good at what I do. I’d like to have become competent enough in my chosen activities to be a source of knowledge and mentorship for baby engineers. Perhaps that’s true already, but in the next ten years, I’d like to feel that it’s true.
11. What is your advice for young women who want to pursue a career in STEM?
1) There is nothing in these fields that you are better, or worse at, than the next person due to your gender.
2) You do not have to pursue something just because other people think it’s better for you or more suited to you. Stay true to yourself and pursue the thing that you want to do.
3) Don’t get too hung up on academic aptitude. I was a terrible maths and science student. If I did what I was competent at in school, I’d be doing something with words. But I didn’t want to do something with words, I wanted to do something that was full of machinery and grease and building stuff. So I ignored my seeming lack of talent for maths and science and went for engineering anyway (my marks were just good enough to scrape a place at UCT). What I found is that if you’re curious enough about something, the methods and theory stick eventually.