Since high school, Dr Hansi Weeratunge was fascinated by the power of science and maths and complex problems they could solve. She's now applying that curiosity at CSIRO's Data61, where she's developing robotic solutions that could improve farming techniques and manufacturing processes.
We sat down with Dr Weeratunge to discuss her latest work, career journey, how the tech industry can improve the gender imbalance, and her advice to girls and young women exploring a career in STEM.
Welcome! Tell us about your role at CSIRO’s Data61 and what attracted you to the position.
I'm a postdoctoral research fellow in the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Group. As a CSIRO researcher, I work on cutting-edge research projects with world-class researchers and have access state-of-the-art facilities and equipment.
The opportunity to develop my research skills and work independently and collaboratively at CSIRO is a career highlight.
What’s your professional background and the areas that you specialise in?
I graduated with a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Melbourne (UoM) in 2020. I joined a next generation technologies fund project managed by Defence Science and Technology at UoM as a postdoctoral fellow.
My main research interest is using optimisation and machine learning techniques in renewable energy applications and material design.
What made you want to pursue a career in tech?
Since high school I've been interested in the connection between mathematics and science and its role in describing the world around us.
Its power to create real-world solutions to important problems in healthcare, education and environmental issues intrigued and inspired me.
From the beginning, I knew engineering was the field where I could make a positive impact on the world through technology.
Is there a current project you're excited about and why?
I'm developing better soft robotics grippers, focussing on creating algorithms to optimise the design of experiments.
Our team has the most diverse and rapid prototyping capability in Australia. Having the opportunity to work with the state-of-the-art equipment is fascinating.
In your opinion, what’s the single biggest change that needs to happen to encourage more women to pursue careers in tech?
Creating a more inclusive and supportive environment within the tech industry is a must. This includes eradicating gender bias and discrimination, both of which discourage women from entering and staying in the industry.
There are several changes that need to happen to encourage more woman to pursue careers in tech. The most significant is changing the perception of what a tech career looks like and who it's for.
The tech industry has long been dominated by men, and tech workers are often portrayed as young, male, coding geniuses. This narrow perception is intimidating and off putting to women who do not fit this stereotype.
To encourage more woman to pursue careers in tech, a concerted effort to promote a more diverse and inclusive image of the industry is needed. This can be achieved by highlighting the range of roles and skills required in the tech industry.
Another crucial aspect is giving women more opportunities to develop their skills and gain experience in tech. This includes mentorship programs, internships, and apprenticeships specifically designed for women. Providing access to training and professional development opportunities also helps women build the skills and confidence they need to succeed in tech careers.
What advice would you give to women and girls wanting to pursue a career in tech?
Believe in yourself! You can be successful in any field you choose, including tech. Don’t let stereotypes or self-doubt hold you back. Be confident in your abilities and pursue your passion.
There are many different roles and specialisations in the tech industry, and you can find the area that interests you the most. Whether it's coding, user experience design, data analysis, or project management, find it and start exploring it.
Pursuing a career in tech maybe challenging, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. Don’t let any obstacle or biases hold you back, believe in yourself, and work hard to achieve your goals.
How can colleagues, organisations and industries within tech better support and enable women?
Many women are forced to choose between their careers and family responsibilities as they often have caregiving responsibilities. Offering flexible work arrangements such as part time or remote work options can help women to balance work and family responsibilities.
In addition, women in tech often face a gender pay gap and are underrepresented in leadership positions. Organisations can take steps to address these disparities by offering equal pay for equal work and providing opportunities for women to advance leadership roles.