Australia’s top woman engineer receives inaugural Ada Lovelace Medal

Women In Engineering Awards

Mary O’Kane, the NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer, receives the national Outstanding Woman Engineer award 

Mary O’Kane, the NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer, won the inaugural Ada Lovelace Medal.

Mary O’Kane, the NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer, has won the inaugural Ada Lovelace Medal for an Outstanding Woman Engineer, a new national award that recognises the contribution Australian women have made to the profession and to wider society.

“Mary O’Kane has made an outstanding and lasting contribution to Australia through her intellect, tenacity and commitment, and through numerous and diverse roles over the past 30 years,” said Mark Hoffman, Dean of Faculty of Engineering at the University of New South Wales, which created the award.

“She has been involved in many fields: from her original specialisation of speech recognition and artificial intelligence, to stimulating Australian innovation, national energy policy, higher education, international development, computing and the fostering of young women and early career researchers,” he added. “Her career shows what a vital contribution women can make to engineering, and to the nation, and we hope many more women will be inspired by her example.”

Richard Sheldrake, a former Director-General of the NSW Department of Primary Industries and one of the O’Kane’s nominators, said her “contributions have not only benefited the people of Australia, but also people in communities throughout the world. She is a remarkable Australian, and a truly worthy recipient of the Ada Lovelace Medal for an Outstanding Woman Engineer.”

The Ada Lovelace Medal is named for Augusta Ada Byron, later Countess Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician who worked on Charles Babbage’s revolutionary mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Her remarkable notes on the engine in the 1840s include what is recognised today as the first computer algorithm, making her the world’s first computer programmer. Her story reminds us that women have been in engineering for a long time, and making vital contributions.

The 80 mm by 4 mm medal is antique gold plated on a cast zinc-alloy base, its design is modelled on the Olympic medals. Weighing 140 g, it has a 3D engraved depiction of Ada Lovelace on one side and the Faculty of Engineering’s logo on the other.

The medal was presented at the annual UNSW Women in Engineering Awards reception held at The Mint, the elegant colonnaded coining factory that is central Sydney’s oldest public building.

Two other awards were the Judy Raper Award for Leadership, won by Athena Venios, Technical and Group Director at the engineering firm AECOM; and the Maria Skyllas-Kazacos Young Professional Award For Outstanding Achievement, won by Monique Alfris, co-founder and director of Pollinate Energy

Athena Venios won the Judy Raper Award for Leadership.

Athena Venios has worked on major projects in water and transport, holding leadership roles in transport and infrastructure programs for major sporting events, including the Sydney and Athens Olympic Games, the Melbourne Commonwealth Games and the Melbourne Grand Prix. She founded and chaired the KBR Women’s Professional Engagement group and has been vice-chair of Engineers Australia’s Women in Engineering Sydney Division. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from UNSW.

“Athena’s passion for excellence in engineering not only ensures that she excels in her work, but that she inspires all who come into contact with her,” said Alexandra Bannigan, Manager of the UNSW Women in Engineering program.

Monique Alfris co-founded Pollinate Energy, an award- winning not-for-profit social enterprise founded in 2012 that provides access to affordable clean energy to improve the lives of poor people living in India’s urban slums. Previously she worked to develop micro-financing in several Asian countries, and in a number of green building consultancy roles in Africa and Australia. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Photovoltaics and Solar Energy Engineering from UNSW.

Monique Alfris won the Maria Skyllas-Kazakos Young Professional Award For Outstanding Achievement.

“Monique’s work at Pollinate Energy has improved the livelihood of almost 60,000 people through the distribution of technologies  such as solar lights, cook-stoves and water filters,” said Darren Bagnall, Head of the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering at UNSW, one of her nominators. “Her passion to make a positive difference is only matched by her passion for the profession of engineering.”

The annual awards are part of concerted effort by UNSW’s Faculty of Engineering, by far the nation’s largest, to attract more women into engineering. It has more than tripled attendance at its annual Women in Engineering Camp, in which 100 bright young women in Years 11 and 12 came to UNSW from around Australia for a week this year to explore engineering as a career and visiting major companies like Google, Resmed and Sydney Water. It has also tripled the number of Women in Engineering scholarships to 15, together valued at $600,000.

UNSW also led the Made By Me initiative, in which eight top universities and Engineers Australia launched a song and music video by Australia’s twin-sister DJ duo NERVO to highlight engineering as an attractive career for young women.

Hoffman, who became Dean of Engineering in 2015, has set a goal to raise female representation among students, staff and researchers to 30% by 2020. Currently, 23% of first year UNSW engineering students are female (versus the Australian average of 17%), which is up from 21% in 2015. In industry, only about 13% of engineers are female, a ratio that has been growing slowly for decades.

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