So first off, we win at cheesy headlines. We were very lucky to have the chance to sit down and chat to Nickey Janse van Rensburg, the UJ Energy Movement Programme Manager. Nickey is a lecturer at the Mechanical Engineering Science Department at UJ. Her primary focus is on research in design and manufacture of light materials in alternative energy applications and engineering education. Thus our headline – a female engineer lights the way at UJ (it will make more sense when you the interview as well). Nickey also oversees industry and community engagement in the programme. She holds a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from NWU. We decided to ask Nickey a few questions about engineering, science and being a female in a male dominated field.
What made you decide to study Mechanical Engineering?
Growing up, I liked maths and science, which is basically problem solving and could be seen as my first introduction to engineering. My father and my science teacher steered me towards engineering and I just gravitated towards Mechanical Engineering. I like the mechanics of things, how things work and what makes them work. As I learned more about the field there was just no convincing me otherwise (despite some attempts from friends and family); I was going to be a mechanical engineer.
I noted you have a masters’ degree. Post grad courses seem to be losing their flavour as more people push the “Steve Jobs” mentality that you need on the job experience. What are some of the benefits of studying further?
I love the idea of learning and contributing to the scientific body of knowledge, contributing to what is considered state of the art or cutting edge. It’s the adage of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants; we discover new things based on the work of those before us. Post-graduate study gives you time to explore and develop in the field or industry that you have chosen. It creates an opportunity to build a network in a specific field where you can engage with scientific and industry leaders. And it’s fun!
Have you seen an increase in females taking up Mechanical Engineering?
There has been an increase in the number of women who enter the field, although we are still very much underrepresented. That does however make it easier to stand out in the crowd and make an impression. As a women in mechanical engineering, if you are good at what you do, people definitely take note of it and the opportunities are abundant.
As a woman – have you ever experienced sexism in your field or felt you were treated differently because you were a woman?
You are treated differently than your male counterparts, expectations of your performance are often not very high – which motivates you even more to exceed those expectations. I don’t like classifying it as sexism though, but gender does play a significant role when you are an engineer, and not just because of the numbers.
I do think when you are representing a minority in a certain role, you become more aware of the decisions you make, the impact of those decisions, your own success and the reputation that you are building. Even the small things, like how you respond to a joke or slightly derogatory comment, becomes more significant when you are a female engineer. You are always either building stereotypes of breaking down the barriers. Often being the only female colleague or supervisor or manager in the room, you are confronted with how different men and women are, but there are also some benefits. Being a female engineer (and academic), as opposed to a female accountant or lawyer has created, I think, more opportunities to excel, more drive to prove myself and more rewards.
What are some of the projects you’re working on now?
The most exciting project that I’m involved in is the UJ Solar Project. We design, build and race solar cars across South Africa and hopefully next year we’ll go to the World Solar Challenge in Australia. But it’s not just about building solar cars. The UJ Solar Project is part of the UJ Energy Movement, a programme that train engineers, promote research on sustainable engineering design and energy efficiency, promotes careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as well as industry participation. We’ve worked with more than 30 industry partners on this project, including our main partners, Eskom, Siemens and RS Components.
My research is on light materials and manufacturing, which has also given me the opportunity to work with partners in the bio-medical industry, like Southern Implants, specifically looking at titanium implants and the engineering that goes into that. Through this research I have had the opportunity to travel abroad and use amazing synchrotron facilities in Switzerland and Berlin, also locally getting to work with engineers and scientists at NECSA, the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, using x-ray and neutron diffraction techniques to evaluate residual stresses.
Any advice to girls wanting to pursue a career in mechanical engineering?
Mechanical engineering is a massively rewarding career, but it’s also very challenging. We have to figure out what we’re good at and what we want out of life. We need to know what skills we need to get what we want and then learn those skills to be great at it. Volunteering for everything, read everything, learn as much as you can of as many different careers as you can, know what to expect and then commit to it.
List the stuff you like doing, look at how you spend your time, and you’ll see patterns forming. We do the stuff we enjoy, more. Build a career around the things you like doing. And then, if you don’t plan it and start dreaming it, it’s not happening. Dream big and start making small practical moves towards those dreams.
I'd love to chat to you some more.
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