STEM Story: Simone Bourke
1) Who are you? Tell us a bit more about yourself!
My name is Simone, I’m 30 years old. I love my job (probably too much if I’m being honest), spending what little free time I have with my family and friends, my two schnauzers Millie & Monty, and exploring the world.
2) What field of science are you in? What drew you to science in general?
I am currently working as a structural Project Engineer working in the construction industry, more specifically, in the delivery of major infrastructure projects.
I have always had an affinity to science throughout primary and secondary school; however, it definitely didn’t come easy to me. I was always inquisitive and loved figuring out how things worked, which also meant working my butt off when I didn’t understand something – I just couldn’t let it go.
3) How did you end up in your particular field?
I actually left high school with the intent to become a Pharmacist. I didn’t score highly enough in the UMAT (Undergraduate Medicine and Health Sciences Admission Test) which I believe has now been replaced with the UCAT (University Clinical Aptitude Test) and was DEVASTATED. Eventually pulled myself together and found another avenue to get in, whereby I would study Science with a plan to resit the UMAT the following year, PASS, and then transfer into Pharmacy the year after that.
I was accepted into an undergrad Science degree, where I was enrolled in a number of first-year pharmacy transferrable units; chemistry, biology & statistics, however, I also had the flexibility to pick from ALL the science units, so I picked physics & astrophysics – not to be confused with astrology. Turns out I HATED chemistry and biology, and LOVED my maths, physics & astrophysics.
Not wanting to throw away what I thought was my dream, I decided to apply for an internship at one of the major hospitals in Melbourne (which I got, yay!) where I rotated through a number of departments including, nutrition and dietetics, microbiology, reproductive services AND pharmacy. The experience was amazing, BUT it was also a pivotal moment for me in realising a career in pharmacy wasn’t for me.
I immediately dropped chemistry and biology and continued studying the areas I was interested in. It was in these classes I began to cross paths with Engineering students, sat in on a couple of their classes and decided that was where I needed to be. I transferred into Engineering and the rest is history.
4) What pathways did you take to enter the field you are currently working in?
My path wasn’t necessarily a conventional one, (see above), however, I eventually completed a 4 year Bachelor of Engineering degree majoring in Civil and Infrastructure. Which again, wasn’t necessarily easy for me. There were several turning points during my studies including deciding on an Engineering major, I was interested in all areas, so I decided make a strategic decision and enter into Civil as there were rumours we were about to enter a construction boom – and this eventually turned out to be correct. However, I initially had difficulties finding work placements, we were just coming out of a construction recession, and there were a lot of experienced engineers out of work, many companies weren’t in a position to take a risk on a grad or undergrad for that matter. I applied for at least a hundred jobs (not an exaggeration) to no avail, and started attending industry events where I made a heap of connections, one of which ended up getting me an interview with a major civil infrastructure company, it was a good cultural fit for me, and I was offered a position on the spot.
5) What does your average day at work look like? What does your job entail exactly?
A typical day for me starts on site at 7am for prestart, where the work force is briefed on the days planned activities, and identify any foreseeable workplace hazards and how they can be overcome with safe work practices.
After prestart I will generally go and get a coffee before heading out to site to check on each of my work groups. This involves talking to the tradesmen and labourers, and ensuring they have everything they need to complete the works assigned for the day, including; permits, drawings, consumable materials, etc.
We have a daily construction meeting with the site supervisors and engineers, where we go through the program of works planned for the next few days, book labour, material and haulage resources, and identify any potential issues before they occur.
This is where my day begins to vary – which I love. I could spend time working through a set of design drawings, procuring the consumables and look for any potential design clashes. I could be programming a scope of works and coordinating with other disciplines and stakeholders, i.e. civil, structural, utilities, traffic management, councils, the client, etc. I often spend time working through the monthly forecast and comparing it to the cost to date, assessing contractors monthly financial claims. And a huge part of my day is spent problem solving issues that arise on site, and working with my site engineers, knowledge sharing and career mentoring.
I always try to make it back out to site at least one more time before the end of shift, to touch base with each of my works groups, ensure adequate resources are booked for the following shift, and check how we are tracking to programme.
No two days are ever the same!
6) How has science impacted your life?
I believe my background in science and engineering underpins all my actions and inform every decision I make. To this day, I still love learning. I love being challenged (daily) – even though I may not feel that way in the moment and, I need to solve the problem at hand.
Right or wrong I question everything. I need answers, reasons and explanations, and if they don’t exist, I need to find them. This has impacted all decisions I’ve made in my life, from the path I’ve taken through my schooling, my relationships with friends, family and partners, and even in my career progression.
7) Do you feel like there is some disparity in terms of gender equality in your field?
Absolutely. At present, approximately 15 percent of engineering graduates are female, however, only half of them go on to work in the industry.
In my direct team at of 8 engineers, there’s only 1 female, me, and I’m also the most senior. Which is disappointing. I think part of the reason there aren’t as many females in my industry is a distinct lack of female role models.
8) Do you think society plays a role in women entering/not entering STEM related fields? If so, how do you think we can combat it?
I think the lack of women entering STEM related fields fundamentally comes down to visibility. If you asked me at the age of 12 what an engineer was, or what they did, I would have no idea!
We also need to be changing the way we sell engineering along with other STEM related disciplines and at what level. STEM shouldn’t only be marketed towards students who are naturally good at science and math as a potential career path. If students are exposed to a myriad of career paths from an early age, and they find a reason to work for or towards something, I believe they’ll surprise themselves in what they’re able to achieve.
9) How would you encourage young girls to enter a field like yours?
I believe the best way to increase female participation and interest in Engineering is to be seen. I never shy away from wearing my PPE (personal protective equipment) if I’m heading out after work – unless the even has a dress code. I’ll happily go run errands, pick up my niece from kindy, go to dinner, etc. And I’m always open to discussions with strangers about what I do. It seems to be a common misconception that the only females that work in construction are traffic controllers!
10) Who do you think is your [role] model in the science field?
There are a number of both males and females in my industry who I look up to. Many of whom I have had the pleasure of working with during my career, and others who I have had the opportunity to meet at networking events. I would consider these people to be role models for me in the science field, for one reason or another, whether that be personally, or professionally. Each one of them, has taught me something about myself, pushed me to work harder or smarter, want more and achieve more than I could have ever on my own. Some of them have even gone on to mentor me and advocate for me when going for a promotion. These relationships have been invaluable.
Whilst its great looking up to someone well know, I would recommend finding a role model who is assessable and relatable. They may be close than you think.