With backgrounds in ballet and fashion design respectively, Rebecca Leith and Chloe Chang never imagined that one day they’d find themselves on a path to Mars, but the Monash University students are headed for the stars, and they want other women to come along for the ride.
Rebecca and Chloe are the Co-CEO’s of Monash Nova Rover, leading a team of 100 students who will compete against the top 37 universities in the world at next month’s prestigious University Rover Challenge at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.
The Monash Nova Rover project brings together students from all faculties, establishing an end-to-end business that raises funds, markets and promotes, and ultimately builds a high-tech lunar rover that can withstand conditions on the Moon and Mars.
On the face of it, the project offers students the chance to put their skills to the test in a competitive process, building career-readiness, professional networks and industry partnerships, but for Rebecca and Chloe it has offered so much more.
The team has coloured their Mars vehicle a striking hot pink as a way to spotlight what women can achieve via a career in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics arena.
“We want the pink rover to be a conversation starter. It’s an opportunity to create an environment that is welcoming for girls and encourages them to look at STEM as an option. Neither Bec or I ever imagined that engineering could be so much fun and so creative. We want to say to girls, ‘come and join us and take a look at engineering’,” Chloe says.
Women remain under-represented in STEM professions, making up just 27 per cent of the workforce in the sector and 36 per cent of enrolments in university STEM courses, according to the Department of Industry, Science and Resources.
Ballet-dancer Rebecca Leith began her studies enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts/Science at Monash University with a view to moving into psychology or anatomy to work with her fellow dancers, but almost by accident she found herself studying chemistry, a subject in which she surprisingly thrived.
“It’s a long way from ballet!” she laughs.
“I never imagined that STEM would be my thing. I thought about doing some biology subjects but to do so, I had to also enrol in chemistry. I was really annoyed because I had no interest in chemistry, I thought it would be horrible and hard, but I ended up loving it and dropped all of my other subjects to major in chemistry.”
She topped her class and is now studying for degrees in science and engineering.
Chloe had a similarly unconventional pathway into engineering. A passionate artist and fashion designer, she always had a fondness for maths due largely to her maths-tutor grandfather in Malaysia, who taught her during her summer holidays, but didn’t see it in her future career.
On weekends Chloe and her sister spent time at their Brisbane home designing clothes, making patterns and sewing garments. They created their own formal dresses and when her sister setup an online ballgown business, Chloe pitched in. In year 12, she was focused on a career in fashion, until a chance opportunity came by at a careers expo.
She was inspired by an ad for Aerospace Engineering she saw in the Monash University course guide.
“I thought ‘wow that’s cool!’ I’d never heard of such a thing but it sounded interesting. I did some research and learned it was about building aeroplanes and rockets and I thought to myself ‘imagine if I could build my own rocket one day, that would be cool.’ I wanted to go on an adventure and try something new, and engineering offered a good blend of math and art for me.”
Chloe made the move to Melbourne, with scant understanding of what engineering really was, but a willingness to give it a go. In her first year, she spent most nights up until 2am studying to catch up with the students who had done more traditional STEM subjects, such as coding, and her efforts paid off.
“In my first year I discovered robotics and fell in love with it and enrolled into a mechatronics degree. Then I joined the Monash Nova Rover team, this was a pivotal moment for me because it was when I became sure that engineering was for me and I developed a love for mechanical and robotic systems.”
The University Rover Challenge is the world’s premier robotics competition and pits elite student teams against one another in the desert of Hanksville, Utah, in hostile conditions similar to those the vehicles are likely to encounter on the red planet.
As Mars astronauts will do one day, the students must remotely operate the rover they have built from scratch over treacherous terrain. There’s no doubt Monash’s bright pink rover will stand out in the red desert dust.
“Women have the skills and the potential, but often we lack the confidence, and often women are much better than they give themselves credit for. We want the bold pink rover to encourage others to be bold, and have a go.”
For both women, the unexpected path to STEM has proven hugely successful. Rebecca is looking at establishing her own engineering business when she graduates in two years and Chloe has recently accepted a role with space-tech company Lunar Outpost working on a rover that may one day go to the moon.
“It’s humbling to have happened upon engineering but I wish I was introduced to it earlier and I hope that education will evolve so that young girls in the next generation get the equal opportunity to become engineers,” Chloe says.
The University Rover Challenge runs from May 31-June 3.