I had the honor of interviewing Michelle Low, a lecturer, PhD candidate, researcher, engineer and co-founder of EWB-SA. She is also fondly known as the Backstage Queen by those in the EWB-SA family. Low is one of the phenomenal women who are part of the EWB-SA team and is the perfect person to interview for Women's Month.
She loves to learn and help and can hardly tolerate it when she is not contributing to the greater good. She makes undefinable things happen at EWB-SA, her work can scarcely be placed into a specific category; such is the range of her skills and interests. Her tagline is #BeHappy and her optimism is reflected in all that she does.
Low is able to find the work-life balance, that we all strive for, between her academic career at the University of the Witwatersrand, her work at EWB-SA and her personal life. Her maturity, sensitivity, knowledge and skill are reflected throughout the entire interview and her words of advice are not be ignored.
1) Describe your engineering journey.
I am at the part where I am lecturing at the School of Chemical and Metallurgical engineering, while pursuing my PhD in Chemical Engineering both at the University of the Witwatersrand, Wits. Thus far, my engineering journey has been more on an academic level and imparting what I know to students. I still have much to learn, although it has been enjoyable even though there are challenges.
2) What prompted you to start EWB-Wits and subsequently to co-found EWB-SA?
In 2010, David Ming sought a way in which student engineers could use their skills to serve local communities. I went to the SAWomEng conference that year and had learnt that there was a student chapter at UCT. David then decided to start one at Wits. I assisted from day one because we wanted to make a space where student engineers can apply what they have learnt, and at the same time help uplift developing communities. EWB-SA was a result of wanting to ensure that there would be a common organization for all of the student chapters, such that they would belong to one body, not operate by themselves, and to learn from one another. The energy from Wiebke was contagious, and gave me the drive to see EWB-SA thrive.
3) Describe what your work at EWB-SA entails.
I have been involved since its inception; my role is actually embedded into many places and no distinct place. If you had to put it in a box, I assisted with the administrative backbone of the organization. Currently I am on the Annual National Leadership Summit Team, assisting with organizing the venue and programme.
4) What sparked your interest in community development?
I might be making a hasty generalization, but I believe that everyone has an interest in giving back and in community development. Given the time in your life, opportunities come up and you take them. I saw that David wanted to start EWB-Wits and I believed in its vision to want to help grow the organization into one that could develop communities using engineering skills.
5) How have you been able to utilize your skills as an engineer to assist/ empower communities?
My skills have been more on a problem solving aspect with respect to the administrative issues related to EWB-SA since its inception.
6) What do you feel you have acquired/gained (both for your professional and personal development) through your association with EWB-SA?
I have acquired a sense of pride, seeing the whole organization grow, and that is a result of working in a team, a team in which I could trust and believe in. There are many nifty little things that I have been exposed to working with different people, from hiring of employees to social media.
7) How do you maintain a balance between the work at your day job and your work at EWB-SA?
Academia is quite flexible; sometimes you do have time to set aside, time in which you are not researching, lecturing or attending to administrative duties. The balance is that one should always see to getting things done, including “me-time”, and determine what is urgent and important, or just urgent but not important. Therefore, you will catch me on weekends doing either academic or EWB-SA work.
8) How would you describe your experience as a woman in the engineering space?
In the engineering space which I have been in, that is in academia (research and lecturing) and in the non-profit space, to this date it has been positive. There is support from both female and male colleagues, it really feels comfortable.
9) Are there any interesting projects that you are working on currently or in the near future?
On the administrative side, I am assisting EWB-SA with their annual national summit. Every year it becomes interesting and it keeps on getting bigger and better.
10) What advice would you give to aspiring engineers?
As a student in engineering you will be challenged; challenged to think abstractly, challenged to push your understanding. Once you graduate, the subject matter may change over the years, however, that thinking, that limit pushing perseverance are qualities which you take with you. Don’t let your degree title or your job descriptions define you, you never know what type of career path you will take. However, you will be a problem solver and implementer. Bear in mind that you also need to understand what the problem is and at the same time design it with what is actually needed than what you think is wanted.
Michelle Low interviewed by Dhruti Dheda