Vicki Zhong graduated from the School in 2019 with 1st Class Honours in Bachelor of Materials Science and Engineering (majoring in Ceramics Engineering) / Masters of Biomedical Engineering. She was awarded the University Medal in Ceramic Engineering, one of the most distinguished awards to be gained in a student journey. Vicki is now a Graduate Systems Engineer for Thales.

Why did you choose to do a Materials Science degree?

I would describe myself as an analytical thinker who likes a challenge, which is possibly why I really enjoyed chemistry, physics and math in high school.  When I had finished, I knew I wanted to undertake a degree in science/engineering and had some interest in the healthcare field.  Materials was one of the degrees which could be taken with Biomedical Engineering at UNSW and Wikipedia had told me Materials Science and Engineering was a combination of chemistry, physics and engineering, which got my attention.  When I was offered a scholarship to study Materials Science, I took up the offer.  

What was your experience being a Materials Science student?

Our cohort was really close and we motivated each other at times to get through all the assignments and exams.  Apart from lectures, I was fortunate to be involved in some research within the school and abroad, so I could understand what academic research was like.  My thesis was on finite element modelling of braze component failure in Cochlear Implants.  In my penultimate year, I did my internship with Cochlear in New Product Industrialisation (NPI), where I was exposed to product development and the important role that NPI engineers play in bridging design and manufacturing.  Throughout my student years, I have been really fortunate to have come across great ‘teachers’ who have helped me to develop and encouraged me to grow. 

Where are you working now and what is your role?

I am currently a Graduate Systems Engineer at Thales, a multinational company that has business units spanning aerospace, space, defence, transport, digital identity and security. Even if you haven’t heard of Thales, you’ve probably used some technology that has been Thales-enabled. 

What does your current role involve?

I’ll try to use a simple example to explain systems engineering.  Imagine one day you approach me with the task of developing a mobile phone.  I would understand what your needs are i.e. what does this solution to your problem, which I will call ‘the system’, have to achieve – e.g. you might say “As the user, I must be able to make a call from the system”.  I would take your requirements and translate them into statements that are unambiguous, testable and often measurable so that in theory, the system that comes out in the end is likely to satisfy your needs, e.g. ‘The system shall support 4G’.  Now, I might break down this system into hardware and software components and possibly two teams could be developing these at the same time.  I could be involved in making sure that the subcomponents eventually work together, essentially integration.  I could also be involved in developing the test plan for how I would make sure our initial requirements are met, e.g. I might try to send a message from the final product over the 4G network and check that that message was successfully sent. 

These are just some of the responsibilities of a systems engineer. There’s some documentation, some analysis, some planning, a lot of communicating, coordinating and working in multidisciplinary teams (sometimes with the team spread out around the country or even the globe).  

After graduating, how did your career path evolve?

At time of writing, I have only just finished my last exams two months ago and begun my current role in Thales. This past month at Thales has been great so far, there is a lot to learn and I look forward to seeing how my career unfolds.

Do you have any advice for school leavers considering studying Materials Science at UNSW Sydney?

Studying engineering and science will provide you with good fundamental skills to grow your career.  I have certainly benefitted from the problem-solving mindset amongst many of the other skills I have developed over the years.  However, an important question to ask yourself is, when you finish what may be 18 years of education, where do you want to be.  It is probably hard to have a definitive answer right now and really easy to procrastinate thinking about the future but do give it some thought. Go and ask the people that you look up to about their journey, look into companies you have an interest in and the kind of people they hire. What doors will your degree open for you? 

No matter what you degree you choose, remember to:

(1) Be inquisitive.  There is no stupid question and you will not believe the help you can get by simply asking.

(2) Develop your communication and people skills (not easy but trust that you will benefit from this). 

(3) Get involved in whatever opportunities there are out there.  At the end of the day, you get out what you put in. 

Do you have fond memories you'd like to share? 

Studying with my cohort on Level 2 of the Hilmer Building and having academics ask us if we ever went home.