My name is Alexandra Price and I am a graduate power engineer at Energex Limited, an electricity distribution company in Queensland, Australia. Currently, I am working in the Future Network Technologies group where we are evaluating smart meters and distribution STATCOMs. I have been an IEEE member since 2008 and have been actively involved as an IEEE volunteer since 2010.
I recently arrived back home from working in the United Kingdom for six months as part of the E.S. Cornwall Scholarship which is designed to enable power engineering graduates from Queensland to gain work experience abroad. During this time I was working at UK Power Networks on their Low Carbon London programme (lowcarbonlondon.info) which broadened my perspective on the operation of distribution networks and the integration of new technologies.
My first memory of electrical engineering was in second grade when my dad, a marine engineer, helped me pull apart my solar powered calculator to see how it worked. This was the beginning of a family tradition whereby any electrical equipment that failed was subject to a full post-mortem (much to my mother’s dismay as we typically dismantled equipment on the kitchen table). My dad’s father was another positive engineering role model; he was an electrical engineer at English Electric when they first expanded into Australia, and told stories about having to redesign transformers from scratch if it failed impulse testing.
I was privileged to attend an all-girls high school which instilled the belief that ‘girls can do anything’. Rather than learn how to cook and sew in home economics classes (which in hindsight might have been useful too), we had design and technology classes where we designed and created wood puzzles, clocks and moulded Perspex. Physics was by far my favourite subject at high school and something about electricity intrigued me as I couldn’t see what was actually going on in the wire. As a result, I applied to study a dual degree in electrical engineering and science, majoring in physics and mathematics at the University of Queensland, Australia.
Going from an all-girls high school to male dominated engineering classes was surprisingly easy and I enjoyed being able to spend most of my time doing technical related classes. In my first year I received an Australian Power Institute Bursary (similar to the Power Academy program IEEE PES has for US based students), which gave me the opportunity to undertake paid work experience in power engineering companies from the end of my first year at university. My first placement, at Energex, secured my desire to continue pursuing a career in power engineering as I was exposed to the practice (which made the university theory ‘real’). I learned about: the distribution system, planning, the vast array of power engineering related acronyms and how big power transformers and switchgear really are. In later years, I undertook placements with Powerlink, a transmission company, and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), where I worked as student engineer in the electricity market modelling group for 18 months while studying.
Having been exposed to the power industry through the scholarship, at the end of 2009, I decided I wanted to start a power engineering student society at my university with the aim of providing learning opportunities for other students. When I spoke to my professor he suggested I start an IEEE PES Student Branch Chapter. This was formed in early 2010 and I received the IEEE Queensland Section Volunteer of the Year award in 2011 for my work as the UQ student branch PES chapter chair. Since then, I have held a range of roles in the IEEE including IEEE PES University of Queensland student branch chapter chair, secretary of the Queensland Section PES Chapter and I am IEEE Queensland GOLD Chair for 2013. I have also been fortunate to receive IEEE support for attendance at a range of IEEE conferences: the IEEE Australian and New Zealand Student Conference (ANZSCON) in 2010, IEEE Region 10 Congress in Auckland, New Zealand in 2011 and the Region 10 PES Chapter Chairs meeting in Tianjin, China in 2012. Through these events, I have met many other enthusiastic IEEE volunteers.
In 2011, I also attended my first IEEE PES General Meeting in Detroit where I presented two papers which I co-authored, as part of my undergraduate thesis, in collaboration with Zenergy Power, a company specialising in superconducting fault current limiters. Attending the General Meeting, I was amazed at how many people from all over the world gathered to network and listen to each other’s ideas. I was also a little star struck to meet some of the authors of my textbooks. Sharing a room with a female graduate student gave me a glimpse of life as a US power engineering PhD student.
During my studies and employment as a power engineer, almost all of the engineers I have met have been very encouraging and supportive. Like many women in engineering, I have encountered engineers who have told me I “didn’t seem like the engineering type”. I’m not entirely sure what an ‘engineering type’ is, or whether I fit the model or not, but I do love what I do and I would like to think that this is reflected in the quality of my work. I completed my dual degree in 2011 graduating with first class honours in electrical engineering, a number of prizes and a university medal.
My advice to any girls considering studying engineering would be to ‘go for it’ and not to be afraid to stick with it when it gets tough (as most things in life do at some stage). Quite a few girls who started electrical engineering in my year ended up dropping out (quite a few guys did too). Engineering is not an easy course. There will be times when you wonder why you’re putting yourself through it, but this is an experience common to all new learning. I find power engineering a very rewarding career as you have the opportunity to work in a wide range of areas, get paid reasonably well and develop transferable skills. For females, I believe that being a minority is advantageous for job prospects and networking as people tend to remember you and I have come to realise that success in engineering is dictated not only by what you know but who you know (and who knows you). IEEE PES is an excellent platform to develop a network of power engineering professionals and academics from around the world which will stand you in excellent stead, as will some industry mentors.
Currently, I am undertaking 6 month rotations in a variety of departments in the distribution sector as part of a four year graduate program. However, in the future and after some hard saving, I hope to complete a power industry related PhD overseas, to come back to Australia to teach part-time while working in industry and to continue volunteering for IEEE. Outside of work and IEEE, I play field hockey, enjoy baking, and like a true engineering geek, programming my raspberry pi.