Helen grew up in a remote mountain village in southern Siberia. She walked 10 kilometres each day to school and back, sometimes in freezing temperatures and snowy conditions. She enjoyed learning and was encouraged by her mother – who had no scientific qualifications – to apply herself to learning as much as she could about the world through science.
Gradually, Helen’s interest in science blossomed into a childhood dream to become an astronaut working for NASA. And again, her mother’s advice proved useful.
“Mum told me there may be aliens but no jobs in space. So instead I enrolled to study mechanical engineering and finished with a PhD at the University of Sydney,” Helen said.
Now recognised as Australia’s 2019 Professional Engineer of the Year, Helen volunteers her own wisdom through our STEM Professionals in Schools program.
Understanding the value of STEM
After graduating, Helen accepted her first engineering job in the mining industry. Here she quickly learned how engineering can make a difference. She solved a years-old problem involving 280 tonne caterpillar trucks breaking down at high altitudes. She was able to find a solution within 10 days.
Since then, Helen has gone on to work a varied career. She served in the Australian Defence, where she was deployed as a science and technology liaison officer in the Middle East, and as a senior technical advisor to the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Today, she leads projects to deliver leading edge technology capabilities for the Australian Navy.
“All of my jobs have been very interesting and meaningful. My mother used to say to me ‘science can save the world.’ I can see now that she was right,” Helen said.
“She also said to me ‘if you can’t understand science, you won’t understand the world.’ And I know she was right about that too.
“That’s why I think it’s so important STEM industries support the Australian education system and its teachers in showing young people how valuable science, technology, engineering and maths can be.”
Sparking students’ curiosity in STEM
As well as receiving her mother’s encouragement to pursue science education, Helen also had the opportunity at a young age to visit a university lab where her uncle worked.
“That was a real eye-opening experience for me and it helped set me on the path I walk today. I want to do the same for young people, especially for young women, who benefit so much from seeing role models in these industries,” Helen said.
“Australia has more than 100,000 engineers in its workforce and only roughly 10 per cent of them are women!”
Helen has remained a committed advocate for science and engineering. For years she has been a volunteer in our STEM Professionals in Schools program. This program supports partnerships between teachers and STEM professionals to bring STEM learning to life.
Through the program, Helen and her teacher partners have created and delivered a variety of activities. These include classroom experiments, such as measuring electron speeds while microwaving chocolate, and observing Bernoulli’s principle involving flight and air properties by levitating a ping pong ball above a hair dryer.
“Once I spark the students’ interest in an activity, they are naturally inquisitive to learn how it works. I can then tie what we have learned to an application in my work. Or to an application in life in general,” Helen said.
“I tell the students engineering is exceedingly useful. If you can figure out how something works, you can figure out how to fix it if it breaks. Or even design it better.”
Making a difference with an engineering career
In her current teaching partnership, with a year one teacher in Canberra, Helen has enjoyed sharing a personal passion – sustainability.
She shares with the students a green composite engineering innovation that transforms waste plastics into building materials. The students have been able to hold samples of the recycled building materials themselves and see pictures of potential homes that can be built in developing countries using those materials.
“My teacher partner is a sustainability teacher, so my invention ties in perfectly with what she is already teaching in class,” Helen said.
“I was able to show exactly how my engineering expertise addresses something that matters to me – reducing the environmental impact of waste, and increasing housing affordability simultaneously. I told the students it’s just another example of how useful and rewarding engineering can be.”
Helen recently spoke at a panel event for STEM Professionals in Schools. She shared more about her career, engineering advice and her interest in advocating STEM. Watch the video to learn more about Helen’s career.
1st February 2021 at 11:18 am
I love the idea of transforming waste materials into something useful. Is there any interest in trying the technique in remote areas of Australia, to iron out any manufacturing issues, before rolling the idea out to developing countries? There are certainly plenty of housing affordability issues in remote communities all over the world.
3rd February 2021 at 12:15 am
Yes, yes Jill. That is my plan in next 3 years. Let’s work out how we can do it.
29th January 2021 at 12:29 pm
Thank you Helen for sharing your fabulous career journey story with us. You are truly an inspiration to young women considering career in STEM.
31st January 2021 at 1:00 am
Thank you Maria, I wish I could spend more time with these young students. However my current work commitments to the Defence takes priorities. I will try hard whenever I can to engage more with the schools.
It’s very rewarding to see young students taking up science and engineering career due to our influences.