PhD student Miriam Tawk and Associate Research Fellow Grace Kennedy are advancing the rail industry with their research, heralding The Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Miriam won the coveted 2019 Australian Geomechanics Society’s Young Geotechnical Professional Award.

Her research into minimising track damage caused by heavy haul trains travelling at elevated axle loads and speeds could offer industry cutting-edge scientific advancement in the field of rail technology.

Miriam was also offered a scholarship in a reputable university in the United States, but choose to pursue her postgraduate studies at UOW’s Centre for Geomechanics and Railway Engineering (CGRE) because of the quality of research.

“Most importantly, I was interested in the research projects at the UOW more than the other university.

The culture at UOW and in Wollongong is very welcoming and friendly. That made it much easier for me to adapt to a new lifestyle and overcome the emotional challenges that every international student goes through when they leave home and have to start a new experience abroad.”

Who acts as your mentor and why?

My mentor and inspiration is my father. It might be a bit too personal but I think his personality traits are essential for anyone wishing to follow a successful path in life.  He works very hard for what he wants and never escapes his responsibilities.

He is determined, focused, persistent, patient and ethical. Most importantly, he does not give up no matter how hard he hits the bottom. In my view, these traits are key to overcoming the many difficulties and obstacles that everyone has to face in life.

PhD studies are a life experience just like any other and to be a successful PhD student requires a lot of hard work and dedication. When I look back at my father’s life and all the difficulties he had to overcome, I find that very inspiring and it gives me the will to accept challenges and never give up.

What are you aspirations?

My aim is not very different from that of many other women in STEM. I aim to become a successful women and by successful I mean a woman with values and a woman with vision. I want my career to be meaningful and fruitful. I aspire to leave a positive impact and contribute to the ongoing progress of the geotechnical profession not only from a technical point of view, but also from a “public-spirited” perspective that serves society.

What was most the valuable experience for you growing up that led you to choose your degree?

There isn’t really a single experience that led me to choose civil engineering. It was the result of many small events and experiences.

I was passionate about all STEM subjects in school but I had the chance to observe some real-life civil construction projects. I always liked to watch the huge machines on construction sites performing very hard tasks and engineers inspecting the work and giving their feedback. As a young girl I perceived it as a very complicated process that requires a lot of expertise and I wanted to have that knowledge. That’s why I decided to study civil engineering, but now my perception and my goals have changed a bit.

What are the practical applications that could come from your research, and what impact could this have not only for the rail industry but also for other industries?

Industries generate millions of tons of waste each year and it costs millions of dollars to landfill these waste materials. This waste fills vast areas of usable land, and the natural quarries that are needed to obtain construction materials are causing irreversible damage to the environment.

My PhD is focused on reusing coal wash and rubber in transportation infrastructure projects. If we use these waste materials as alternatives to natural materials in engineering projects, we can save the environment and we can save money not only for the rail industry, but also for the mining industry and for industries generating rubber wastes. Active industry collaborations include Roads and Maritime Services (NSW), Department of Main Roads (Queensland), and Australian Rail Track Corporation to name a few.

You can find out more about the Centre for Geomechanics and Railway Engineering (CGRE) here.

“Through my research, I am trying to promote the concept of sustainability in transportation infrastructure projects and at the same time find solutions for industrial waste disposals.”

Tell us something positive about your experience so far as a PhD student?

What I really appreciate in my PhD studies is the opportunity to specialize in and contribute to the development of a field of study that I like, which is geotechnical engineering.

I have the chance to apply what I learned as an undergraduate student and add to that existing knowledge to solve a certain problem or prove a new concept. My PhD experience teaches me how to be an innovative professional where I need to think outside of the box, make decisions and take responsibility for those decisions – lessons for life.

What was your inspiration for studying a STEM related field?

I always admired those female scientists I used to read about in old school books. Their contributions to science are overwhelming and the impact they had on the development of all STEM fields is huge. They are a constant inspiration.

I wanted to have the knowledge and the capacity to influence change where change is needed or to improve existing practices to meet human needs more effectively and efficiently. This can be achieved in all fields of study, but I was interested in physics and maths since my early years at school and choosing to study within a STEM field is my gateway to try and achieve all that.

What was your pathway from school to now?

I completed my primary and secondary education in Bcharry, my hometown in north Lebanon. During my final high school year, I applied for a scholarship program that allows students to study in two of the most prestigious universities in the country. Luckily, my scholarship application to study civil engineering at the Lebanese American University (LAU) was accepted and this started me on my academic pathway.

My undergraduate studies and the extracurricular courses and activities that LAU offered to its students, encouraged me to break out of my shell and engage in challenging experiences.

I decided to specialise in geotechnical engineering during my last year at LAU when I worked on a geotechnical design project. The next milestone was to complete postgraduate studies in this field but at the same time I wanted to be connected to industry.

I found the perfect opportunity at the University of Wollongong. I am currently pursuing a PhD on the reuse of waste materials in engineering projects. My PhD involves a lot of theoretical and experimental work but I also engage in industry projects where I get the chance to look at things from a practical point of view.

“This is what I have always wanted, to contribute to the geotechnical engineering profession through my research.”

Who do you admire in the field?

There isn’t a specific professional that I admire but I appreciate the efforts of the early geotechnical engineers who founded the concepts and standards that we still use today. They didn’t have the facilities we now have to deal with the complicated and challenging nature of soils and foundations, but they were dedicated and their impact on the geotechnical field led to many of the current innovations.

If you’re looking for grand statements from Grace Kennedy about the need for women to pursue a career in engineering and the sciences, you’ll come away frustrated.

Perhaps it’s a measure of how far we have come, that for the UK-born Associate Research Fellow at SMART, working as a woman in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences is really no big deal.

The landscape has changed since 1997, when she first became an engineer.

In those days, engineering was seen as a traditionally male occupation, associated with the grease and oil of mechanical engineering, or the high physical labour involved in male-dominated trades engineering.

In her early experiences as an engineer she says “it was not uncommon to see inappropriate images of women posted on walls, and it was sometimes difficult to feel a valued part of the team if you weren’t “one of the lads”.”

Kennedy joined UOW in her current role a year ago.  From her recent experience working at UOW, gender has been “mostly a non-issue”, this is however not reflected in industry more widely.

According to Engineers Australia, the proportion of women in the field is still only 12 per cent – compared to 35 per cent in Europe.

This, despite the fact that females make up 70 per cent of all STEM graduates.

Kennedy saw this first-hand when she graduated from her all-girls school in the UK and found to her surprise that only a handful of her cohort elected to study engineering at university, with some highly talented mathematicians and scientists going on to study non-STEM subjects such as politics, philosophy or law.

“The issue is about getting equity for women who would otherwise have been at least equally capable if it were not for discouraging views from society, peers, family and negative experiences” she says.

“Every time that you build some kind of unnecessary division – in this case on gender – you risk creating inequity.”

“In the end, it’s really just about respect for every person as an individual irrespective of any labels.”

She offers four pieces of advice for those wanting to enter the field: “to be professional”, “to work hard and work smart”, “to strive to be your best”, and “to bring value to your team”.

So what value does she bring to the team led by Professor Peter Campbell and specialising in systems engineering?

“I don’t think there is anything separate that I bring to the team, purely because I am a woman. I just want to be classed as an individual,” she says.

But as a professional engineer?

“I work hard, I have the ability to analyse information quickly and I am well organised. Like most engineers I am inquisitive and relish problem-solving.”

It may be no coincidence that the field where Kennedy works is one of the more recent branches of engineering.

Systems Engineering began around the 1940s but really took off in the post-space era becoming more mainstream from the 1980s and 1990s.

A system can be defined as “a number of different components that interact and are working towards a common goal”.

“As technology has advanced and systems have become more complex, systems engineers have become essential in managing and integrating the various facets of engineering in order to develop systems that are on-time, within cost, have the required functionality and meet the customer’s acceptance,” she says.

So her work in SMART is in Model-Based Systems Engineering for the Australian Rail industry.  Her team develops models of the technical and organisational aspects of systems.

The applications are varied: from assessing organisational change for digital transformation; to exploring the impact of new technology introduction on human factors; to measuring the reliability and integrity of railway system assets.

The ultimate aim is to support the rail industry by providing new and innovative insights into what organisational changes will be required to support modern train technologies that will increase the capacity of the rail networks, improve the reliability of the system, and provide a better passenger experience.

Kennedy is hopeful for the future of women in engineering.

“We need to combat the negative stereotypes around women in engineering, provide exposure to opportunities, and we have to encourage all capable students, particularly girls, who are interested to widen their horizons and ‘have a go!’,” she says.

“And we have a need to provide positive role models.”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution – marked by cyber-technical systems such as artificial intelligence and machine learning – is developing technology at a rapid pace which will be pervasive in society.

Kennedy predicts that the jobs of the future will require people in STEM to understand and develop these new systems.

“As a society we need to be increasing our STEM capabilities and the size of our STEM workforce,” she says.

There are already shortages of engineers in many industries, so why limit the future to just half of the potential pool of capable engineers?”

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