Executive Director of Robogals and 2012 Young Australian of the Year

Marita Cheng 

How did you first become interested in engineering?
I first became interested because I knew it was maths and science and I really enjoyed them in high school. I enjoyed them because they were very practical and useful. In high school I didn’t really know what engineering was until I went to an engineering camp in year 12. That’s when I really got a grip on what engineering is. It’s a set of skills you can take anywhere in the world.

My mum wanted me to study medicine and I studied really hard to get good grades. When I went for my interview I was given a scenario where a student really wanted to study history but his parents wanted him to study something else. I realised there and then I needed to do engineering. I think my mum just wanted me to be happy and to be sure of what I wanted to do. Once I knew I wanted to do engineering for sure, she was really supportive.

Why are there so few women in engineering?
I think there’s a lot of social perception about what an engineer looks like and who should be an engineer. People think it’s a really dirty job and women shouldn’t be doing it, but it’s a really practical job and makes such a difference in the world.

What do you think are the most interesting aspects of engineering as a career?
I think the fundamental thing is it makes such a difference and permeates everything we do. When you switch on a light, an engineer is behind that. If things go wrong we realise how important they are. It gives you a good skill set; there are so many things you can do with your degree. With engineering you don’t know where you’ll be in 10 years time, what technology you’re going to be working with, and that’s so exciting to me.

What inspired you to start Robogals?
I came from Cairns where three girls out of 200 graduating kids decided to do engineering straight out of school. I thought Cairns was a small place and when I got to Melbourne there would be more girls interested in engineering. But there were hardly any girls at all. In second year one of my professors said he was looking for some engineering students to teach robotics to high school students. I thought ‘wow this is a really powerful idea, we can make a huge difference on the number of girls in engineering’.

How do you balance being Executive Director of Robogal with other commitments?
From day one I recruited another three girls and planned lessons together. I delegated to the team. I learned a lot about time management in the last three and a half years. I think it’s about priorities, sometimes it means staying up really late and writing grant applications and strategies and proposals. But I’m always learning from it. If I wasn’t learning I don’t think I’d do it.

What do you do when you’re not involved at Robogals or studying?
I do a lot of travelling. I really love that. Seeing the world and trying new foods. I love Japanese food! There are a lot of really nice restaurants in Melbourne. I like hanging out with friends and I also think it’s really important to read.

Who was the biggest influence on your life?
My brother was a really big influence on me. When he was younger he was always very interested in the world. When I was four he sat me down and taught me to spell. He also created lots of cool artwork and displayed it in hotels around Cairns. I was the annoying little sister who always tried to get involved. He made me see that creating tangible things in the world was really exciting.

What have you been up to since being named Young Australian of the Year?
The day after Australia Day I flew to the UK and travelled for five weeks on the Churchill Fellowship. I studied strategies to get girls interested in science and technology. I’ve been flat out since doing heaps of things I’d have never imagined doing but have been really cool. For example, I had a Japanese film crew follow me around for two days and I spoke in front of 3200 young people at the National Young Leaders Day in Melbourne.

What advice would you give to young people wanting to start their own organisation or project?
The most important step is to start. The next important step is to keep going. When you start you have a blank canvas with all these opportunities, which is great but it’s also easy to procrastinate and not do anything. It’s so much easier to give up but if you keep going and push through all the difficult things, your organisation will grow, and that’s really rewarding because you’ve created something that’s making a difference.

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