Introducing – Janet Van Jenkins

Tell us about yourself, and your journey into Tech/STEM.

My background is in arts – I was always an arts kid growing up, I did music and theatre and my favourite subject was English. But I was also a very destructive kid – I loved to take things apart, namely the VCRs, remotes and disposable cameras, I just loved to tinker and do stuff. 

My parents are refugees and so my mum sewed a lot of our clothes because we didn’t have very much money growing up. I loved looking at how she constructed and made things, and I’d try to do the same out of paper materials. 

I was really fortunate to have some amazing teachers throughout my life who recognised my skills and my talents and didn’t just write me off as a delinquent chatterbox, but actually helped me to channel that energy and need to understand ‘how things worked’ into something productive. 

I have a very distinct memory of being in year 7 and in my first ever science class. We were doing that food colouring and milk experiment, and remember finding it really neat. Something that sticks out was hearing words such as “hydrophobia” and hydrophilia”, which I thought sounded super smart and I knew that I wanted to be that smart – and that was my spark that made me think science is pretty cool, and here I am now!

Throughout high school I again had amazing teachers who directed me towards physics and  STEM, and then found myself in an engineering degree! I also did a mix of other things, and I never quite let go of my arts and performance side. So I did all of those subjects, and then once I finished my engineering degree I moved into a technical engineering pathway.

I worked with Fisher & Paykel Healthcare as a Product Development Engineer, and was really lucky to have a role that mixed my engineering skills with my love of theatrical gore and all things medical. I also had some other roles at a few different organisations, working on app design, user experience design and web design. I stayed technical for a while and then decided I wanted to pay it forward – I love engineering but I love talking about engineering even more – so I found myself a space in STEM outreach, moved into that, and I’ve never looked back!

Why did you choose to go into tech and/or STEM?

Honestly, the reason why I chose an engineering conjoint degree was because it was the hardest one by University Entrance points  to get into, and being the competitive person I am, I wanted to prove to myself that I could get in despite not actually knowing what engineering was. By the second week of lectures I realised it wasn’t so bad, in fact, it was super fun and decided to stick around. 

I’ve also been very privileged to have the right voices along the way guiding me. I did a lot of part time work, which often ended up being full time juggling three to four part time jobs at a given time. 

One of them was as a door-to-door salesperson for Vodafone when I was 16, and I was able to meet awesome people along the way, hearing about their stories and experiences. I happened to meet two different engineering lecturers while I was in that role – being 16, each of them asked me about what I was doing at school and what I enjoyed. They both told me based on my interests I should consider Engineering. I’d never heard of Engineering before that, had no idea what it was, and so fate in a way really helped me here!

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in along the way?

There’s probably a few different ones, and they’re not the ones you would usually expect. I don’t consider my struggles with maths papers and CAD modelling as my challenges.  

When I think of challenges through my study and degree, having those boxes of ‘what success looks like’ was a challenge for sure – like others, I was aiming for those A+ grades and First-Class Honours. While I did okay at uni, I was nowhere near the top of the class and struggled with solo projects and fitting into that box of what my achievements were meant to look like. I’m pretty chatty and love connecting people – and so working collaboratively was actually a really good thing for me, unlike many other students in the Engineering Faculty who often disliked group work. I also ran the Engineering Revue and while I wasn’t coding up the most amazing projects, I was helping to train lots of my peers in public speaking and performance, while building sets, working on TRON suits and more. 

It’s hard to fit into those arbitrary boxes of success, of what they say you need to be to be a good engineer. 

Luckily for me, because I loved collaboration and sharing of knowledge and skills, my peers were helping to teach me content I missed from lectures and prepare for exams and the quid pro quo was that I had a lot of work experience, CV knowledge and interviewing techniques, and so I would help them with that. That’s what I love about the engineering faculty – the genuine sense of Whanau there – they all helped me pass my degree.

The emotional and mental journey towards realising that success doesn’t always look the same for everyone is probably what my greatest challenge was. 

For a lot of people, finishing high school is a success, because they’re the first one in their family to do that, and for others it’s getting first class honours, it’s whatever success is to you. In my work now, I still face this challenge quite regularly as it’s a main challenge I see in society around STEM – that people think succeeding in STEM careers or interests has to look a certain way with certain steps in that pathway.

It’s something I want to fix, to click my fingers and it just be ok – to tell everybody “don’t worry folks, it’s going to be fine, and if it fails it fails, that’s at least how we learn! It’s not like it’s going to explode” (or if it does it’ll be contained!). 

Tell us about a highlight from your career and why it is significant to you...

One of the many would be performing as Nanogirl in Abu Dhabi at the Abu Dhabi Science Festival, as well as performing with the Nanogirl shows in Singapore. That was a total highlight because there I am, on stage, tapping into my theatre experience and my love of performing while still being an engineer and showing that girls can do some cool stuff as engineers.

It goes a bit deeper than it just being my “Greatest Showman” moment – this was also a career highlight because what I was doing by being a woman of colour engineer on stage in front of thousands of young people is so important for representation in STEM.

I learned pretty late in life how important representation is. Having a high level of confidence (and competitiveness) meant I didn’t really need to see who I wanted to be – I was going to chase down my dreams regardless. 

I actually learnt about representation at my friend’s 21st, when in one of her stories it was mentioned how she always wanted straight hair. Now, she has the most beautiful curly hair, almost like a goddess from a romantic oil painting, but as a kid all she wanted was straight hair because of the Disney princesses we grew up with. 

It was super sad to hear, but I asked which Disney characters I liked, I realised that my favourite Disney princess was Mulan – a movie where the story really resonated with me – the cultural references, and that sense of Asian pride, saving face and honour, and so there must have been something deeper at that level I connected with. 

I then thought about when I was even younger – Teletubbies! – at 3 years old I was not making a conscious decision about representation, but Po was always my favourite teletubby. The reason? Po spoke Cantonese like me, so I connected with her. Whereas most people didn’t even realise Po spoke Cantonese, but to this little Asian kid, it mattered.

Reflecting on these experiences made me realise that representation must matter, because as a toddler I didn’t make a conscious decision, but I clearly found it familiar enough to identify with. 

So when I was doing those shows in Singapore, I found a huge amount of pride in what I had achieved so far – being an Asian female engineer in front of a largely Asian audience, and I was being a bit of a badass. This is a crowd that is generally quite fearful of hazardous activities – yet here I was with a 200L steel tank and a flamethrower, heating it up to crush it. This was my Mulan moment – I was being a total badass, and representing so many people. 

Similarly when performing in Abu Dhabi, it was a really cool moment in my career to really showcase to young future engineering girls how much fun we can have with STEM and breaking stereotypes.

What are you working on now?

I’m organising the VEX IQ and VEX Robotics Competition National Championships (note this interview was recorded before lockdown). At those championships we bring together all the different teams in what I call the ‘Olympics of robotics’ from all across Aotearoa.

All the junior teams from primary through to junior high school compete in December in Palmerston North with robots they designed and built. In February we have the high school and university competition, which feature larger, faster and generally more hardcore robots. It’s a super fun event to plan, because it’s a really cool thing to put on for all these kids. I would say what they are doing in their early teens is even harder than what I was doing in my third year of engineering!!

Why do you think we need more women in tech and/or STEM?

There are two key things that come to mind. One is representation – this is a chance to really break the cycle of intergenerational underrepresentation. We know that there are so many people who go into engineering that know someone else who has done it, or had role models along the way that helped them recognise the opportunity. If we don’t have enough women to be that role model for others, it’s harder to build an inclusive space that is welcoming in the future for our young women. 

So we need more women in tech and STEM, because if you can picture the impact of it like that diagram showing COVID-19 spreading in branches – one person can make a massive difference to a whole community just by being that woman in tech to others and continue building up other role models to continue spreading it.

The other reason, which I think is very important from my own experiences, is the diversity of thought that comes from having both women in tech, but also everybody involved in STEM. 

You can see this from a product development point of view – when you have people who represent different body shapes, different body sizes, different ways of doing things, you suddenly get products that are actually designed for real people. For example, cars & seatbelts with airbags that will actually save and protect us as opposed to crush us because they have traditionally only been designed for ‘the average’ man’s stature. 

Diversity of thought also leads to innovation becoming a lot faster and more effective. I think this was demonstrated when I was working at Fisher & Paykel healthcare – myself and another female colleague needed to create a model for keyhole surgery. This had been worked on in the past with hard plastics to try and make the correct pressures inside the plastic cavities. 

What we did was to try to use leathers and other different materials that we were familiar with. We didn’t know how to assemble them using big machinery, because we hadn’t used CNCs and welders before – we’d learnt about them academically, but had never used them in a practical context. So we brought a sewing machine in to sew the cavity together and piece it together with laser cut parts. 

It didn’t seem like a weird thing for us to do, but it apparently was! It was weird enough that one of the male managers came over, and said “I’m really sorry to ask, but are you guys sewing a bra?”. Obviously, that was not the case, but we’d just never thought about it – how what we were doing looked really innovative to them, because we were just relying on our talents and strengths. We hadn’t considered how what we were doing looked really bonkers to them – it shows you what a diverse pool of thoughts and experiences have to offer. 

That’s how innovation is born – it’s born out of people doing things differently, and you’re not going to get that when you don’t have enough range of non-binary folks, trans folks, women, indigenous groups, physical abilities, you get my jist. 

In tech and STEM it’s so critical because it’s at the forefront of change and what the future looks like – tech is what makes humans survive, we used to live for 40 years, and now we live for 100 because of advances in science and technology. Making sure that all humans are a part of the design process means that us women can actually be included in that future, whereas if we’re not part of that, the future’s a bit bleak!

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