“I have really enjoyed my experience at UNSW and I’m so glad I took the unconventional leap to pursue a PhD. It has allowed me to work on what I am passionate about: solving global issues and improving sustainability in the waste industry”.
Meet Gwendolyn Foo, A PhD student with the the Sustainable Manufacturing and Life Cycle Engineering (SMLCE) research group at the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, UNSW. She won third place in the 3 Minute Thesis competition for PhD candidates, where she explained her thesis on sustainable ways for dismantling electronic waste using robotic systems. She spoke to us further about her thesis, why PhD projects are needed, and activities she recommends for UNSW students to get a well-rounded experience.
I’m finishing up my PhD with the Sustainable Manufacturing and Life Cycle Engineering (SMLCE) research group at UNSW. My PhD research aims to automate the dismantling process of electronic waste (e-waste) for sustainable end-of-life treatment. During my Master’s in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Western Australia, I realised that waste treatment issues surrounding sustainability were largely unaddressed so when I came across Professor Sami Kara’s work in robotic disassembly of e-waste, I immediately reached out about a PhD opportunity. Growing up, I didn’t know what engineering was, but I always enjoyed making things and figuring out how things worked. So, when I discovered engineering, it was an easy choice to study it at university. Through my engineering studies and career so far, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for all the mechanisms and machines that we’re so lucky to have access to today.
I have really enjoyed my experience at UNSW and I’m so glad I took the unconventional leap to pursue a PhD. It has allowed me to work on what I am passionate about: solving global issues and improving sustainability in the waste industry. My supervisors, peers, and everyone at UNSW has been so supportive throughout my degree, and as a result I’ve had the chance to win competitions such as Visualise Your Thesis and 3 Minute Thesis (3MT), I’ve been featured on ABC National Radio’s The Science Show, and I’ve published and presented my research at international conferences. My PhD continues to present opportunities that I never knew were possible.
I am so grateful to have been supported by the Women in Engineering Scholarship throughout my degree. It has meant that I can better support myself during my studies. Through the scholarship program I have also connected with other likeminded women who have been instrumental in guiding me through the many challenges that present themselves in this male dominated industry.
UNSW provides amazing opportunities for students – from social activities, great facilities like the maker spaces, mental health assistance, to financial help, and even providing free groceries (shoutout to Food Hub)! One of the best things about being a student is being able to take advantage of these. I’ve learnt how to knit and crochet from Knitsoc, how to compost and garden with the Producers, learnt woodwork and laser cutting at the Michael Crouch Innovation Centre (MCIC) Maker space, met so many inspiring researchers through the Postgraduate Council, and I’ve also learnt so much from teaching, demonstrating, and mentoring undergraduate students.
I believe that a PhD degree is increasingly useful in today’s climate as the skills developed such as independent research skills and highly specialised problem solving and knowledge are needed now more urgently than ever to tackle worldwide issues such as sustainability. Many PhD research projects are interdisciplinary and require project management to be exercised at a leadership level. I think it is important that PhD degrees exist to provide a structured and recognised avenue for driven individuals to think critically about the world and feed their curiosity.
At the moment, I’m looking forward to continuing my research in robotic disassembly of e-waste. I hope to take my research findings into industry to be implemented and work on improving other areas of waste treatment. My studies at UNSW have also provided opportunities for me to build and demonstrate science communication, research management, and specialised knowledge in the field, among other transferrable skills.
I think the engineering industry needs to recognise the value that typically feminine perceived traits and skills can bring to progress society towards sustainability. More women need to be in positions of power and actually have opportunities to influence and make a difference rather than just to tick off a diversity requirement. I think we need to learn to see value in all women – not just the strong, ambitious, assertive ones – and we need to continue pushing that agenda to the top.
Anyone that wants to excel in their PhD needs to think about why they are doing it. A PhD degree is generally not necessary for most people looking for a career in industry, so the core driver is a genuine curiosity and passion for the research you are undertaking.