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Shaohua (Ella) Zhang

Shaohua (Ella) Zhang grew up in China and was inspired to pursue engineering as her dad was an engineer. She saw him working on major infrastructures such as bridges and dams and never doubted that this was her future career. After moving to Australia to pursue her undergraduate and PhD at Monash University, Ella was inspired by her female co-supervisor, who mentored her while juggling a young family.

What type of engineer are you, and why did you choose engineering?

I was born in China, and my family were quite encouraging for me to pursue science because my dad is a groundwater and stormwater management engineer. All his colleagues and schoolmates would talk about engineering around me, so I saw how it worked and I knew what a dam bridge was as a very young kid.

When I told my dad that I was interested in an engineering discipline, he gave me an introduction in layman language. He asked: “What is civil engineering? What is architectural engineering? And which one is suitable for you?” He then said I'd probably be more suited to civil engineering from my description and imagination.

Were there many other women pursuing engineering when you were at university?

Oh yes, there were a lot in undergraduate. But there were not a lot of female engineers in civil, so if you came across a good female friend, you would work together. When I was in my final year at Monash, the co-supervisor for my project (Mahsa Mirmomeni) demonstrated how outstanding women could be in STEM. She is now a lecturer and part of the Women in Engineering Committee (VIC). She gave me lots of inspiration, encouragement and advice. She asked me, "Do you want to continue working in civil engineering, do a PhD or go into industry?" because she had both experiences.


During my graduate study, I used to work closely with some excellent engineers that were managers, team leaders and also mothers. They showed me how wonderful my life could be and that I could have that work-life balance.


Why did you go into bridge engineering?

It was during my final year that I thought, "I'm going to be a structural engineer”. When I joined my research group, I was inspired and learned a lot from my supervisor (A/Prof Colin Caprani) who is a researcher and chartered bridge engineer. After that, bridges became my top priority. Bridges are beautiful, unique, and complicated in terms of design, assessment, and maintenance. But I love that challenge. Every day I get to use my theoretical knowledge and analytics in a meaningful way to ensure these bridges remain safe.

What would you say to young girls who want to pursue engineering as a field?

Engineering is for everyone. Some people may think that this is a male-dominated environment, and they may be inspired to challenge it. But others will be worried that their achievements won’t be acknowledged by other people. And there are so many things happening in different engineering or science disciplines every day. Do what inspires you, and just be proud of yourself. If this has been a male-dominated industry in the past, it won't continue to be.

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