You might be asking yourself where a career in Engineering could take you. Maybe it could be a space station sending rockets into the universe or hundreds of kilometres underground working in a mega-mine.
For Robert Makepeace, a UNSW engineering degree has led him beyond civilisation to one of the most far-flung places in the world – Antarctica. In a remote camp surrounded by snow, sea ice, penguins and seals, this UNSW alum works for the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology as an Engineering Technical Officer. As one of just 25 people at the Davis Station, Robert is proof of how far a UNSW degree in Engineering can take you.
Robert studied a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering (Honours) at UNSW and graduated in 2014. We spoke to him about his time at UNSW and what life in one of the most remote places on earth is like.
What led you to study at UNSW Engineering and why did you choose your particular degree?
Growing up, I was always curious about how things work and got excited by solving different problems. I choose to study at UNSW Engineering because of their highly regarded academic program and their strong focus on developing practical skills. I studied electrical engineering as it empowers you with skills to work on anything that uses or creates electricity from tiny computer microchips to massive power stations.
What have you done since graduating from UNSW?
I worked for a control systems company that work on critical infrastructures such as power stations and wastewater treatment plants. I’ve worked all over Australia from commissioning software upgrades to Snowy Hydro’s hydroelectric turbines to designing and commissioning networks on a new efficient gas power station in the Pilbara.
Tell us about your current role.
I work with the Bureau of Meteorology as an Engineering Technician at Davis Station in Antarctica. Davis Station is an Australian year-round scientific research station.
Antarctica is a challenging environment with extreme climatic conditions, limited equipment/spares with only one opportunity for resupply a year. Over winter, there are 25 of us at the station, from the chef to the doctor, tradespeople to keep the station running and scientists.
My role is to participate in the observation program; launching weather balloons to monitor the atmospheric conditions, ozone hole monitoring experiments and aviation weather observations.
I’m also responsible for maintaining and upgrading all the equipment onsite including hydrogen gas generation, weather satellite receiving station and weather observations equipment.
What are some of the best parts of being an engineer in Antarctica?
The best part of working in the Antarctic is the beautiful environment; saying hello to the Elephant Seals and Adeli Penguins on my walk to work or taking a breathtaking Aurora Australis photo from my office window.
I recently got the opportunity for a helicopter flight around the surrounding area saw stunning views of the Vestfold Hills around the Davis station. Soon I’ll be going on trips around the local area supporting scientific studies, counting wildlife and monitoring sea ice.
How did studying engineering at UNSW help you in your current role?
Engineering at UNSW helped me develop my problem solving and communication skills. In Antarctica, diagnosing and fixing technical issues is very important to ensure our scientific observations can continue successfully.
UNSW taught me to be an adaptable learner in quickly taking responsibility for new equipment and new scientific processes. My role requires me to take initiative, identify problems and develop creative and efficient solutions which my degree prepared me for.
What did you enjoy most about studying at UNSW?
UNSW has a diverse and inclusive culture that fosters learning and development. UNSW has close links to industry to ensure the degrees have the necessary skills to succeed in the workforce. I learned a lot from the UNSW Coop Program that I still play a role in today.
Student projects and extracurricular activities were opportunities to have fun and complement the academic skills learnt in the classroom. These student projects were the most enjoyable part of my studies where I could independently bring a concept to life.
What extra-curricular activities did you get involved in during your time at UNSW?
At UNSW, I was involved in Sunswift, the UNSW Solar Car Racing team that designs, builds and races a solar-powered vehicle in the World Solar Challenge from Darwin to Adelaide.
Sunswift taught me to work collaboratively in a team on a large complex project, how to effectively troubleshoot technical issues and how to manage my time.
I also went on an exchange semester to McGill University in Montreal. This was an amazing experience; meeting students from all over the world and learning new things on the other side of the world.
What advice do you have for students who worry their choice of engineering discipline will lock them into a particular career path?
Focus on developing some core engineering skills and following your interests when you’re choosing engineering disciplines. Most real-world engineering projects and jobs are multidisciplinary are require collaboration between different engineers and ongoing professional development.
Many engineers will work across multiple engineering disciplines in their career and even across broader roles such as finance, computing, medicine, etc. The engineering analytic and problem-solving mindset taught by UNSW Engineering is a highly desired skill set. You’ll have numerous opportunities to develop new skills and tackle new problems throughout your degree and your career.