Written by Deanna Hood … Inspiring Stuff
In 2006 I was faced with a pretty big task for a 14 year-old: to choose my career. Having accelerated through high-school, my youthfulness may have been exaggerated more than for some; but regardless of age, this is no easy task for a Year 12 student. Like most, I made the best guess which I could by taking into account my longest-lasting interests: for me, my love of mathematics. Having time up my sleeve, I chose to study a double bachelors which led me to settle on engineering also. Never having heard of engineering and faced with yet another decision of what major to choose, it came as quite a relief that the default for a maths/engineering double degree is electrical engineering. This is because if you like maths, you’re probably going to like electrical.
And right they were: I can confidently say that it was the perfect degree for me, and I have gone from never having heard about engineering to one of its passionate supporters. But it wasn’t as straightforward as it may seem. You see, I had a friend studying to be a medical engineer which caused me to second-guess my choice of major every time I heard about her medical projects and their life-changing potential. I loved *studying* electrical engineering, but wondered if I could last working in an industry that didn’t seem to be able to hold my attention if I was just working to make money, not a difference.
This feeling changed in 2011 when I learnt of the method to give completely paralysed patients, ‘locked-in’ to their own body, a method of communication with the world through brain-computer interfaces: developed by *electrical* engineers. This occurred while I was completing my final-year thesis of implementing a brain-controlled driving simulator interface using EEG electrode technology, and as a result I came to realise that a person in any discipline, not limited to those traditionally associated with humanitarianism, can work towards improving the lives of others in unique ways. With this, my confidence in my career path was restored.
Since graduating from QUT I have taken a position working on a project at the University of Melbourne to develop low-tech tools to assist healthcare workers in the developing world diagnose pneumonia in children. We are developing a USB stethoscope that can be plugged into outdated mobile phones that the healthcare workers now have at their disposal in order to obtain the respiratory rate: the sign used for diagnosis that is often skipped because healthcare workers don’t have the time to manually count the number of breaths in one minute. By making the three minutes of the consultation time really count, and giving the healthcare workers the tools that they need, a correct diagnosis can be made, and a child’s life saved. This is an application of electrical engineering that was all too easy for me to overlook as someone who had been conditioned to focus on creating technology that’s always bigger and better than before, when on the other end of the scale there’s an opportunity for even the most outdated technology to be life-changing. It’s safe to say that my interest in electrical engineering is now truly a passion.
It was mostly by chance that I chose to complement my maths degree at university with an electrical engineering degree to then discover that electrical engineering is what I was born to do with my life as a career. Furthermore, I believe that it took far too long for me to eventually discover that I can make a difference with my career as an electrical engineer. I am not satisfied that there is a possibility that when high-school students, particularly females, think about how they want a career through which they can help people, that engineering won’t come to mind. For this reason, I now dedicate my time to attending various public and QUT events as a student ambassador, high school outreach peer mentor, and guest speaker, so that other students may learn about engineering possibilities and not become as close as I came to not discovering their ideal career.
The experiences that I am able to draw upon during these presentations and events include those of my successful work-life-play balance as demonstrated by my achievement of a grade point average of 6.9 out of a possible 7 and complementary portfolio of extra-curricular activities. This is in addition to my very unique experiences that I have gained as an accelerated student 2 to 3 years junior to my classmates. The decision to accelerate through high school and graduate two weeks after turning 15 is a decision that I credit as one of the most influential of my life. It was a decision that was fully supported by my family and high school after we returned from living in America for three years, but with implicit hesitation for obvious reasons. I felt confident in my academic and social capabilities however, and went on to graduate as Valedictorian of the school and furthermore in the top 0.5% of my graduating university-wide class at QUT, proving to others, but particularly myself, that I have the ability and determination to excel in my own endeavours.
One of my non-technical life ambitions is to be seen as a role model for other females undertaking study and research in engineering, as I am acutely aware of how successful women have inspired me to continue in my studies during times which I have felt outnumbered in the traditionally male-oriented discipline. I have been working towards achieving this goal through a number of avenues, in particular participation in the QUT Women in Engineering Club as the current President and the 2010 Events Co-Ordinator, during which time I have increased the active member base four-fold, aided by the fortnightly dinner scheme which I established in addition to the 25+ social events held per year to help strengthen the social network of undergraduate female engineers.
My proudest achievement in this capacity is the establishment of the Big Sister – Little Sister group-based peer mentoring program which I personally founded in 2010, and which has since helped over 150 female engineering students develop a support network of friends with mutual interests and a genuine “oh my gosh, I know, right?” understanding of their experiences. I am especially proud of the initiative that I have displayed in identifying and then addressing the need for helping undergraduate females adjust into university, as I believe that this is a personal characteristic that I have developed since attending university; in contrast to my academic capabilities that are now second-nature.
My promotion of engineering has been assisted by a television segment of my undergraduate thesis and a TED.com talk of my work at the University of Melbourne, which QUT and the University of Melbourne have been using in their outreach activities. Additionally, since my presence on the cover of the 2012 and 2013 QUT engineering prospectus, with a full-page personal story inside; in video profiles on the QUT website of myself and the Big Sister – Little Sister mentoring program; and in print advertising campaigns promoting engineering study to females, I have had a number of students approach me to tell me that I was the reason that they chose to do engineering. I aspire to do many great things during my lifetime; to date, I regard these conversations are my most rewarding achievements.
Throughout my five years of tertiary education at QUT, I was involved in a wide variety of extracurricular activities within the university community in addition to those previously mentioned. I have acted as a student representative to the Student Guild, chaired the Engineering Systems Student-Staff Liaison Committee, been president of the Maths Student Society, held numerous volunteer and paid tutoring positions, and ongoing student ambassador and high school outreach positions. All of these involvements have enabled me to simultaneously utilise and strengthen my leadership capabilities and organisational skills, which has given me the confidence to take on bigger challenges.
Since graduating from QUT, I have become involved with the global student-run organisation Robogals which aims to encourage girls to consider engineering and technology careers. Since moving to Melbourne, I have visited as many schools as possible on behalf of Robogals to share my story and passion for engineering as I wish someone would have done at my school when I was studying. My outreach efforts, however, have physical limits. This is why this month as the manager of the Robogals Rural and Regional program I organised and hosted an interstate 3-day high-school outreach training weekend for young women from universities across Australia: strengthening teams of female engineering students to support my outreach efforts and create a nation-wide change.
To me, hard work is intuitive, but my friends could never understand the point: they just scraped by and received very comfortable graduate salaries. Only now do I have a response that they will accept: as a result of all of my hard work, I was awarded a full scholarship as the first Australian to study the Erasmus Mundus European Mobility Masters of Computer Vision and Robotics, in France, Spain and Scotland. This is not something which I was working towards for years, but when I discovered it I knew that it was what I wanted to do. Now I realise, and want others to realise, that the reason for working so hard is that when perfect opportunities present themselves, people believe that we deserve them. I am extremely excited to embark on the next phase of my life by immersing myself in unfamiliar cultures, developing my technical capabilities, and advancing humanity through technology.