Silent flight and equal rights

Women in Engineering scholarship winner Anna Koefer shares her twin passions

2015 Sydney Division Engineers Australia Women in Engineering Student Scholarship winner Anna Koefer.

There is nothing more satisfying, perhaps, than a profound belief in the importance of the work you’re doing. Now imagine that doubled! Anna Koefer has not only found a research field that ticks all her boxes, but her infectious enthusiasm for promoting equity and diversity in engineering recently gained a new and powerful outlet when she won a Women in Engineering scholarship from Engineers Australia.

Graduating with a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering (Honours) from Adelaide University, Koefer followed in the footsteps of her supervisors Associate Professor Con Doolan and Dr Danielle Moreau to join UNSW’s Flow-Noise Group to undertake her PhD. The Flow-Noise Group is a troupe of researchers investigating how fluid flow creates sound and novel ways to control it. The group is quartered in the brand new Ainsworth Building, home of the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering.

Koefer shares more about her twin passions in this illuminating Q&A:

What’s your PhD research topic?

I’m looking at how owls can fly quietly. The technical name of my PhD is Experimental Investigation of Trailing Edge Serrations, but basically we’re looking at how you can use biomimicry of owls to reduce trailing edge noise.

Owls can fly silently in the hearing range of their prey, and that’s the hearing range at which humans are most sensitive. So, we’re looking at a feature of their wings called trailing edge serrations that we think helps them fly quietly. Once we understand how they work, we can design serrations to reduce the trailing edge noise common in wind turbines, aircraft engines, fans and propellers to reduce noise pollution.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m in the first year of my PhD so have spent most of my time understanding the problem and designing experiments. I’ll be ready to start conducting experiments using the wind tunnels in our Aerodynamics Laboratory in the next month or so. The laboratory facilities are incredible and include five subsonic wind tunnels, one supersonic wind tunnel and a shock tube rig. It also has a wide range of equipment to measure air velocity, pressure, force and flow visualisation.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

I love learning and doing a PhD means that I get to come to uni every day and learn about something that really interests me. Knowing that I’m working towards something that’s going to benefit society is really important to me. And, of course, it’s fun – I get to be creative and solve problems.

Congratulations on recently winning the 2015 Sydney Division Engineers Australia Women in Engineering Student Scholarship. What does the scholarship entail?

I applied for that scholarship because I wanted to be an ambassador for women in engineering, and in particular encouraging girls and females into STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).  

I already volunteer with several organisations to promote STEM, but I thought the scholarship would give me a better platform to make more of a difference. The scholarship involves attending Women in Engineering committee meetings, and I will be an ambassador or ‘voice’ for the students. I’ll be involved in outreach events that promote engineering to high school students, to girls in particular. That’s my main agenda.

We’re straying into philosophy now, but why do you think equity and diversity is important in engineering?

Engineering is all about solving the world’s toughest problems, and it’s all about innovating change

UNSW PhD student Anna Koefer

Engineering is all about solving the world’s toughest problems, and it’s all about innovating change. To do that we need to have diversity of opinions contributing to it. It’s essential that females and minority groups have a say in what’s happening, and bring fresh ideas to the table.

What is Power of Engineering and what’s your role there?

Power of Engineering is a fantastic organisation that aims to inspire young people, particularly girls and rural students, to consider engineering as a career. We run workshops and industry experience sessions for year 9 and 10 students and want to change the perception that many people have about engineering: that it’s all about maths, complicated equations and hard hats, and that it is only for men. These stereotypes deter girls from pursuing careers in STEM. I am treasurer and have volunteered for the organisation for half a year.

What has been the biggest challenge in your career to date?

I’ve been really fortunate, I’ve had so many opportunities, and it’s hard to know how to frame this response, but I think the one major challenge you’re always up against, as a female engineer, is being heard and taken seriously.  I’ve heard the same from many other female engineers but I can definitely see change happening in Australia, which is really exciting.

What are the best ways to challenge these stereotypes?

You can start really small. Talking to your family and friends about what you do and how cool it is can make a difference. But it’s also up to leading professional bodies and universities to take the initiative to promote engineering and STEM in a more positive light and shift community perceptions of the engineering profession. 

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