In celebration of International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) on 23 June, the Faculty of Engineering would like to highlight the accomplishments of our phenomenal female engineering students as we work towards creating a more diverse and inclusive industry.
In this article, we invited six of our international postgraduate female students to share their achievements, challenges and advice to aspiring female engineering students.
⭐Grace Chidavaenzi from Zimbabwe
Master’s student; Department of Industrial Engineering
Grace is passionate about healthcare accessibility for Africans and initially thought about becoming a doctor before realising it wasn’t for her. “I discovered Health Systems Engineering under Industrial Engineering and knew I wanted to be there,” she says.
Currently, she’s building a tool for developing an outcome-based model. “The designing aspect has been challenging. This big lump of knowledge has been difficult to break down. I have learned to work consistently, step by step and eat the elephant one bite at a time (even when I don’t know what part I’m eating!). I am starting to see results,” she says.
Grace wants to inspire future engineers to explore and be open-minded by being a polymath and consciously exposing herself beyond engineering. “As engineers, we can solve world problems creatively and better if we take the time to understand that world through various lenses.”
She advises aspiring female engineers: “Firstly, believe in yourself. Secondly, try again.” She adds: “I remember getting 14% for Drawings in test week, repeating two modules in final year and failing to register for master’s, but an inner belief within me fueled me to stand up and try again, and here I am!”
She ends with the quote: “She believed she could, and so she did”.
⭐Darne Nunes from Botswana
Master’s student; Department of Chemical Engineering
Darne finds research “very exciting and fulfilling” after the support and supervision she received during her final-year project. “This experience strongly influenced my decision to pursue my postgraduate studies at Stellenbosch University (SU).” She is currently busy with research in Bioprocess Engineering, focusing on large-scale microbial oil production and improving the economic viability of the process.
Her journey was not without challenges, though. Because of Covid-related travel restrictions and a busy schedule, Darne, who is very close to her family, could only go home after graduation. “However, being surrounded by supportive friends gave me a lot of comfort and helped me get through it. I also had academic challenges, but it taught me to be kinder to myself, take breaks and find reassurance in myself, which helped a lot,” she explains.
Darne wants to uplift women and “be the cheerleader we all need in challenging times”. She says fields like engineering can become very competitive, “but we’re all working towards the same goal”. “I would just love to see more women thriving in engineering.”
Her message to aspiring female engineering students or engineers is to believe in yourself and to remember why you wanted to pursue engineering in the first place. “Burnout is also a real and unnecessary thing – take the breaks you need and prioritise yourself,” she advises.
⭐Fiona Gombami from Zimbabwe
Master’s student; Department of Civil Engineering
Fiona decided to pursue her postgraduate studies because she wants to be part of finding creative solutions to meet challenges faced in the different specialised fields of civil engineering. “The Department of Civil Engineering undertakes impactful research applicable to the real world, thus adding value to the industry.
“My research is based on modelling significant factors that influence environmental sustainability on construction sites. The construction industry significantly contributes to global emissions, so it is essential to find solutions to mitigate the industry’s negative impact on the environment,” she says.
Fiona says using Civil 3D to design a national game reserve was challenging. “I created the model using spatial visualisation and critical thinking skills to apply various design principles.”
She says a career in engineering is fulfilling as it enhances people’s lives and makes a difference in society. “There is a need for female engineers as our perspectives and innovations will provide an invaluable contribution,” she says.
Fiona wants to positively influence and participate in mentorship programmes for girls interested in engineering while passionately advocating for sustainable engineering practices and developing sustainable solutions for the construction industry.
Her advice to future female engineers is: “You are capable. Nothing is off-limits. Don’t disqualify yourself and don’t let gender stereotypes limit your career choices.”
⭐Fama Jallow from the Republic of Gambia
Master’s student; Department of Mechanical & Mechatronic Engineering
Fama decided to pursue her postgraduate studies in engineering at SU due to the university’s “exceptional combination of academic excellence, diverse programmes, cultural immersion, and stunning natural surroundings”. “The multitude of remarkable opportunities offered by the university was simply too enticing to resist,” she explains.
She is deeply passionate about sustainable engineering, with a specific focus on Aerospace Engineering, in which she got a degree in China. “I am currently exploring the fascinating intersection of additive manufacturing and green hydrogen. This research area allows me to delve into new frontiers that closely align with my interests and open doors for me to be able to contribute to the advancement of sustainable practices in the aerospace industry.”
In pursuing a career in engineering, she wants to positively impact the field and inspire future generations of female engineers. “I am dedicated to fostering greater participation of African youth in the field of space, enabling them to be part of the global space race. Through my work, I aim to inspire and empower young individuals, especially young women, to pursue their dreams and reach for the stars. Through my efforts, I aim to create a legacy of empowerment, diversity, and innovation in the engineering field, ultimately inspiring future generations of female engineers to reach new heights and make their mark on the world,” she says.
Despite having perfectionist tendencies, she has learned that failure can be the greatest teacher. “It is crucial to embrace failure and see it as an opportunity for growth and learning. Despite the demanding nature of engineering, it is important not to shy away from challenges. Instead, embrace them as chances to develop and strengthen your skills and resilience. Each hurdle overcome is a step forward in personal and professional growth.”
⭐Rue Munemo from Zimbabwe
PhD student; Department of Civil Engineering
Rue says her decision to pursue her PhD stems from her thesis research on 3D concrete printing, from where her passion for the topic grew significantly. “The decision to pursue my studies here at SU was effortless, given the esteemed reputation of the academic staff. Additionally, I have a great rapport with my supervisors, who are very supportive of my research endeavours.”
She calls working in the Structures Lab a challenge, “considering everything there is heavier than me by a long shot!” She adds: “The biggest challenge (apart from load shedding) has been when I have prepped and executed a test numerous times and it continues to fail. It is physically and mentally draining, but I have been able to find ingenious solutions.”
Rue hopes to be a positive representation as she believes that the more young girls see women in engineering, the easier it is for them to visualise themselves in the field.
Her message to the future generations of female engineering students and female engineers is to be resilient and back yourself. “Engineering is extremely challenging, but do not let setbacks deter you. Recognise your worth and capabilities and trust that you have the skills and potential to succeed in engineering because you have the power to make a significant impact in the field.”
⭐Polline Mwambe from Uganda
PhD student; Department of Industrial Engineering
Polline finds industrial processes, production systems and additive manufacturing fascinating. “The university has a great reputation, research supervision from renowned and experienced professors, and availability of well-equipped research laboratories. This presented me with a great opportunity to pursue my research ambition.”
She considers her postgraduate journey as a way forward to advance her knowledge, develop new skills and abilities, and give exposure to advanced manufacturing. “I look forward to a future where I will mentor many young researchers and women in engineering to undertake research practically geared towards solving problems of our growing industries,” she says.
She advises aspiring female engineers not to be limited or confined within the space of their acquired skills “because there is always something new to learn“. “Pursuing higher education or a career presents a great opportunity for mastering independence at innovation and creativity within your field of specialisation,” she says.
(left to right) Grace Chidavaenzi, Fama Jallow, Prof Celeste Viljoen, Vice-Dean: Teaching and Learning, Darne Dunes and Fiona Gombami
(insert images) Rue Munemo and Polline Mwambe
Article by Amber Viviers