Advice to Girls in STEM: Play with Barbies (if You Want to), Fight for Experience

    Dr. Rosemary Barnes is a senior engineer at LM Wind Power, working in Kolding, Denmark with a focus on ice mitigation. She has a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of New South Wales and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Australian National University. 

    Following the recent spotlights on her work – by Wind Systems Magazine and Australia’s STELR initiative – Rosemary reflects on the career path that brought her to LM Wind Power and her experience as a woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

    Q. Why did you decide to go into engineering?

    Growing up in Canberra, which is the capital city of Australia, I honestly didn’t know what an engineer did. There were certain subjects that I liked a lot in high school, though, like physics and math, so I figured I would become a physicist. Or maybe an astronaut, although Australia doesn’t have a space program, so I knew that might be problematic. I really wasn’t that locked down on what I wanted to do, but I don’t think you need to be when you first go to university. Just start out looking at what you really like. I decided to study those subjects that I loved and see where they would lead me.

    My dad guessed that I would probably like engineering. After my first year of university, I realized he was right.  Engineering is all about problem solving, and fixing things. It can be really exciting and creative.

    Q. It sounds like your father was a big influence on you. What did your parents do? 
    My dad is a mathematician. He loves math so much that his idea of fun, quality time with his children is to do math together, which I didn’t always appreciate at the time! But I really benefited from that because from a very early age I felt very comfortable with math, and found it fun and enjoyable. There was never any chance that I would have dropped the subject like so many girls do.

    My mum stayed at home while I was at school. Before she had children, she was an English teacher, and then after my little sister started school she went back to university and got a master’s degree and PhD in Australian literature. She lectured at university for a few years, and for the last decade or so she has been working in government. She has also recently started writing novels. She had her first one published a few years ago—a historical novel based on my grandfather’s diaries from World War II. An engineer in the New Zealand army, he worked with the Greek resistance, blowing up bridges and sabotaging the Nazis in various ways.

    Q. So you followed in his footsteps as an engineer! Back to your childhood: What kinds of toys did you play with? Anything in particular you would recommend to parents if they want to encourage their children along this path?
    I played a lot of Barbies! I made them clothes, and did a lot of other sewing as well. I think that is good training for an engineer, particularly working with composites, which are, of course, fabric. I also cooked a lot, read a lot and played music. Maybe that’s not what you would typically think of as good engineering training, but I think that anything that uses your hands and/or fosters creativity is a good background for an engineer. When I was older I started cycling pretty seriously, and worked part time in a bike shop, so I did quite a lot of bike repairs, which was good mechanical experience.

    One thing I’ve realized since I’ve been working is that extracurricular activities, hobbies and jobs really make a huge difference when employers are looking to hire engineers. This type of practical experience is much more important than your grades.

    Q. Once you moved into the engineering program at university, were there mostly men in your classes? Was that ever a problem?
    Yes, I would guess women only made up 15-20% of my classes at university. At times, this was a huge problem. Nearly all our assessments that weren’t exams were group assignments. I don’t think there was a single time that I was assigned a role in the group other than as the report writer. That meant that if I wanted to get experience in any of the “real” engineering—like design or manufacturing—I had to fight for it.

    I did fight, constantly! It was draining to start out every group this way, but my number one tip for girls who are about to start an engineering degree is to make sure that they do fight to get this experience, right from the start. If they don’t get into the workshop on the first couple of assignments, after that they really will be the worst in the group at the practical stuff, and it will only get harder and harder to catch up. I was lucky that at least I had good hands-on skills from working at the bike shop and doing a bit of woodworking with my dad, so I had the confidence to tell the boys that I was going to be part of the manufacturing process, and I knew that I wouldn’t mess it up.

    The best thing I did during university was to work on an extra-curricular project that involved a lot of design and manufacturing. I was part of my university’s team for the SAE aero design competition. The competition was held in the United States every year, and the goal was to design and manufacture an airplane that could carry as much extra weight as possible, within a set of design constraints. I got so much fantastic, practical engineering experience doing this project. I think over the five years I participated I learned more from that than I did in my engineering courses! I also gained a lot of self confidence in my engineering abilities, which I think is a huge benefit for a female engineer. It makes it a lot easier to deal with any discrimination you might encounter if you yourself feel sure that you are capable and competent.

    Q. What is it about the field that excites you?
    I am really concerned about climate change, and I really like the fact that in my job I am helping to solve this problem. I used to want to be an aerospace engineer, but I decided that I would much rather work in renewable energy than design missiles. I would still kind of like to be an astronaut, though … I wonder if it is not too late to change!

    Q. What about your job now in particular? What do you find most fulfilling?
    I like how quickly the field is developing. Compared to other engineering industries that use composites, like aeronautical or automotive, I think technology in the wind industry changes very quickly. Blades just keep getting longer, and the materials and structures must constantly be adapted to keep up. In my specific field of ice mitigation, things move even faster, I think. We are always trying out new improvements and trying to think ahead for what blades will look like in a few years’ time to make sure we are ready with the technology when it’s needed.

    Creativity is a really important part of being an engineer at LM Wind Power, which means the work is usually very interesting. It can be frustrating when you can’t think of a way to solve a tricky problem, but when you see your idea progress to a proven solution, it is very satisfying.

    Q. You seem young to have such an important role. How did that happen? Is that the norm?
    I don’t think I’m young for my position. I graduated from university 12 years ago, which was long enough to gain experience in a number of fields and get a few runs on the board with smaller projects.

    Q. What motivated you to move from Australia to Denmark?
    I moved for this job! Before that, I had traveled a lot in Europe, because I used to race mountain bikes internationally and I raced in France and Germany a few times. I also lived one year in California, when I did an exchange year at UC Davis as part of my bachelor’s degree.

    I’ve enjoyed living in Denmark so far, even though it has rained every day for the last two weeks or so. And it might rain for the next two weeks. That does not happen in Australia … I am starting to get nostalgic for the droughts back home! Other than my family and friends, most of the things I miss from home have to do with the natural environment. I miss going surfing on the weekends, and all the amazing animals and birds that are so common in Australia.

    But I don’t miss the politics in Australia, or the debate about renewable energy and specifically wind energy. I find that in Europe when people see a problem with a new technology they look for a way to solve it, whereas in Australia if there is a chance a new technology will cause problems they won’t even try it. So far, Australia has missed out on developing a modern industry around renewables. Other countries are already so far ahead that I worry we won’t be able to catch up.

    Q. Where do you see yourself in five years' time? 10? 25?
    I try to keep an open mind about my career path, and keep an eye out for interesting opportunities as they come up, so I don’t have any concrete career plans. But to take a guess, in five years’ time I might be working on the next big thing in ice mitigation, or perhaps I might have moved to a different technology in wind turbine blades. Ten years is harder to say. I doubt I will still be working on ice mitigation, but if there are still interesting and challenging projects at LM Wind Power, I might have moved to another role within the company. Otherwise, maybe I may have a totally different role in the wind energy industry.

    My current expectation and hope is that in 25 years I will be living in Australia again. Maybe I will have started an engineering consulting company, or maybe I will be working as a researcher at a university.

    Q. Any additional words of encouragement for young women considering a career in STEM?
    I mentioned the challenges at university, and there definitely can be gender bias, but things do get easier. Engineers are practical, and after you’ve done a few projects, you can distinguish yourself. They will focus on that, rather than on your gender, and your work will be interpreted for what it is. In other words, don’t quit a program because of gender bias. Thing definitely do get better, and you can have an amazing career. You never know, maybe you’ll even become an astronaut!

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