Laboratory for Dynamic Imaging
Our fourth profile is on Melissa Preissner, a powerhouse PhD student in the Mechanical Engineering department here at Monash. I met Melissa at a conference a few years ago, and had the lovely surprise of learning she was working on cool stuff on the same floor in the same building, just a few steps away. Chatting with her over our candidatures has been a real eye opener - I don't know how she does it! She always has a smile and a kind word for everybody, all the while staying motivated with her very involved work, and a demanding life as a mum of three.
She started off at Monash with a double degree in Mechanical Engineering (First Class Honours) and Arts (German and Philosophy). She went on to work at Ford as a mechanical engineer, before jumping ship completely to work in Switzerland for a few years! Along the way she's been involved in lots of community work, starting with her involvement in the Monash University German Club, Mechanical Engineering Club and later on working with Engineers without Borders and the Equal Opportunity for Women Committee (representing HDR students). Currently she's in the middle of her PhD, and has already published and presented (TSANZSRS 2017) widely. Check out some of her work; here and here. She also works with the Self-Assessment Team at Monash, a committee responsible for driving progress towards achieving the Athena SWAN objectives (a layperson's guide to Athena SWAN will be published here soon).
What is your involvement in engineering?
I'm currently doing a PhD part-time at Monash, while balancing family life with 3 young kids. My PhD is on x-ray images of lungs, using 4DCT and velocimetry in order to investigate the effects of mechanical ventilation on the lung tissue, the airways and the pulmonary vasculature, for instance, in intensive care or surgical settings. My day-to-day as a PhD student is fairly solitary; I sit in front of a computer and process images and mainly work with a (Linux) terminal command line working with large files and running scripts on a super-computer. I do some coding (in Python), which I've found challenging, but really enjoyable (surprisingly!). I've worked briefly in industry as a logistics engineer as part of the Ford Australia Graduate Program (many, many years ago), but then I moved overseas to Switzerland with my husband, where I ended up working for a Swiss bank, and then at the University of Zurich / ETH Zurich in grant management. Our 3 children were born there and then we moved back to Melbourne about 4 years ago, and shortly thereafter, I started my PhD.
What inspired you to go into your field?
My high school Physics teacher. She encouraged me to apply for the National Youth Science Forum (held in Canberra each year), and I did, and I got in. It was two weeks of STEM with other students from around Australia at the ANU in Canberra, held during the summer break before year 12. It gave me a broader perspective on science and engineering. I got into engineering at Monash and took the mechanical stream. It was (very) challenging at times, and I often wondered whether this was really for me, but I realise in hindsight I was attracted to the discipline because of things like learning how to problem-solve, use logical thinking, and strive for automation and efficiency.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEMM?
Myself! No, really, sometimes I think I'm my own worst enemy. My undergraduate years in engineering at Monash were great; the guys and girls I studied with were very supportive and many are now life-long friends. The lecturers always had time for my (millions of) questions, and I got involved in many social and sporting activities at Monash. Likewise for my PhD; the people in the lab are great to work with, supportive and helpful and always have time for my (millions of) questions. I'm the first in my family to finish high school, to go to university, and to do a PhD, so I suffer from "imposter syndrome". Although, I imagine that females in non-traditional areas (e.g. trades, construction), as well as minority groups, and perhaps males who are the first in their family to go to university all suffer from this to some extent. I'm also now aware of the additional challenges women in STEM face, things like "unconscious bias", subtle exclusion behaviours, teaching methods, mentors (or lack thereof), as well as the "scissor graph" challenge women in academia face in trying to progress from PhD to professorial level.
What advice would you give to young women in STEMM?
Be aware of things like unconscious bias and sexism, but don't let it stop you from doing the things that you love. If you (unfortunately) do encounter such behaviour, call it out, or (in extreme cases) report it. Put your hand up, "lean in", and grab those opportunities, because they are there for the taking. Perhaps we should also start encouraging and supporting our male partners, colleagues and friends to take extended leave to care for a young baby, or to look after their kids during school holidays, work flexibly or part-time, so that the balance can be restored...
Finally, what's something (unusual) that keeps you going every day?
Coffee :) I think we're living in a fantastic era; yes, there are a lot of challenges, but there are also a lot of opportunities for STEM industries and for women in STEM. I'm grateful for my supportive husband, my gorgeous kids (all boys!), and that I'm fortunate enough to be living in Australia, where, as a female and mother, I can "do it all". That really does keep me going every day.