This Wednesday we are interviewing the inspirational Hemanshi Galaiya, the president of our society for the academic year 2018-2019. She completed her MEng in Chemical Engineering at the University of Sheffield and is planning on starting a PhD as well in the near future. She is currently taking her gap year during which is founded “Young Stripes”, a social enterprise with the goal to connect academia (schools and universities) and industry for the education on empowerment of the next generation of STEMists and leaders in Kenya.
- How has your gap year been and what are the main highlights of your gap year so far? In addition to this, how did you find the transition from studying to being a qualified independent Chemical Engineer.
Gap year has been chaotic and rewarding to say the least. Like most of the world, I have also been affected a lot by the pandemic but I would personally say it has been a blessing in disguise. The pandemic has allowed me to take a step back both personally and for my social venture (Young Stripes – more on which later). I’ve actually had an opportunity to better define and redesign my venture, connect with more stakeholders and identify new opportunities that I would have otherwise missed out on. On a personal front, it has allowed me to prioritise my mental health and wellbeing and to spend quality time with my loved ones.
The transition since graduation hasn’t been dramatic for me. I opted to use my gap year to setup my venture, travel a little and plan my next steps. What’s been amazing is that even after graduating, I have felt like a part of the Sheffield community. I got invited to speak as an alumna at the departments careers week and to new IEAs. I was also shortlisted for the Pam Liversidge OBE Engineering award at the Sheffield Inspirational Women Awards and my MEng research project report was recognised as a ‘Highly Commended Entry’ at the Global Undergraduate Awards.
I’ve also managed to have some amazing professional experiences during this time. At the start of my gap year, I was invited to be a member of the Electrocomponent Group’s Fresh Advisors Board (FAB15) along with 14 other brilliant young leaders from across the world. Having the platform to shape a company’s approach to youth empowerment as a young adult has been incredibly rewarding. I had the chance to travel to Germany for our first conference and managed to be touristy during that time. I have also recently confirmed to continue in this position for the next year.
Hand in hand, I have had the honour to participate in some phenomenal fellowships within Kenya, like, the Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI), METIS and Africa Yes which have empowered my leadership, educational redesigning and entrepreneurship capacity.
2. What motivated you to get into engineering?
I can’t say I always wanted to be an engineer. Throughout my life I have evolved from wanting to be a pilot, a toy maker, a celebrity chef and a President to dreaming about becoming a teacher and a doctor to eventually realising I wanted to be an Engineer.
I grew up loving Science and Maths, and Biology was a favourite. My brother and I were fanatic about understanding how things work and innovating based on our crazy ideas. We would open up random items to inspect their internal working, invent our own games using household items and observe different types of insects and birds. It was in high school that I realised my love for genetics and I wanted to become a genetic engineer. I often joked about creating a hybrid super animal and for those who have watched the movie Splice know how that would have ended!
However, when I was in school, we didn’t have sufficient careers guidance or female role models, engineering wasn’t a field many girls pursued and genetic engineering was unheard of as an option to explore. When someone told me I first had to do a degree in Medicine to become a genetic engineer, I was kind of crushed because I am squirmy around blood. However, through a lot of independent research, I learnt that was not true. I also realised that genetic engineering was not an independent degree and often a part of biological engineering and so I choose to do a degree in the department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Sheffield Uni.
During my research, I also learnt how amazing, diverse and versatile engineering is. I was especially taken away by how engineering innovations have played a big role in the betterment of our quality of life. The incredible examples of everyday applications of engineering, from electricity and aviation to bridges and processed foods were fascinating to say the least.
So I decided to be pursue engineering because of the shear desire to create change that would make me a better global citizen. I wanted to solve problems, lead as a woman in STEM and break barriers for future generations.
3. What helped you overcome challenges during your studies if you encountered any (e.g. dealing with the pressure of deadlines and exams)?
Inherently, studying engineering has lots of elements of independent learning. When I first came to the UK, most of my Western peers had already been exposed to STEM activities, like, coding, robotics, prototyping and CAD, among others. In Kenya, however, I wasn’t exposed to much practical learning. So this was the toughest part as I had to put in a lot of independent effort to apply my theoretical knowledge into practice and to acquire skills in practical engineering. What helped, was the amount of opportunities available on campus, from SURE placements and societies/ interest groups to STEM outreach activities.
An engineering degree is not easy or routinely; for me, every week was different: you might have a lab report due one week and three quizzes the next and have to catch up on 5 modules by mid-term because you didn’t understand the material in the first go. In fact, I had dubbed my third year as my personal hell and even told a lecturer that I’d rather give her both my kidneys than ever do a Design Project again. All banter aside though, engineering is a manageable and enjoyable degree if you plan ahead where possible – Google calendars to date is my favourite tool in this world.
Not taking life too seriously was also a great way to get through university. As an International Student, cultural shock was a definite challenge. In fact, all the Northern accents were especially difficult for me understand. I remember just smiling and nodding every time my manager at work would say something and hoping that he wasn’t scolding me. It was also sometimes difficult when peers made assumptions about my abilities, simply because I came from Kenya. However, ‘just keep swimming’ was a great way to break these stereotypes while not getting hurt or getting affected by it.
One thing that I did learn through all the challenges was that having a great support system of peers and friends is essential. Not only does this keep you motivated but also helps you to not lose your sanity. My friends and I tried meeting once a week and this would range from playing games, cooking together or just hanging out and bashing about our workload. I also learnt, the hard way unfortunately, to prioritise my mental health. When things did get really hard, I gave myself pep-talks, encouraged myself to be unashamed of the struggle and even seek help if needed. Luckily, I also had a lot of support from my personal tutor, other mentors and the department especially in the latter years of my degree.
4. You are a 25 Under 25 Young Achiever and took part in many programmes such as SELA during your studies at The University of Sheffield. How did you find the drive to go beyond academia and gain valuable skills other than technical skills and how important was this in terms of opportunities presented to you?
Indeed, besides being a member of SELA, I was an ambassador for many schemes like the International Engineering Ambassadors and Science and Engineering Champions; I also was a departmental ambassador, worked multiple part time jobs and was in the Women in Engineering Society. I sometimes wondered why I paid rent when I basically lived in university buildings!
As an extroverted person, I get energised from interacting with people, going out of my comfort zone, trying new things and making new friends and connections. So, going outside my academic circle was second nature to me.
I’ve always been of the opinion that one needs to have a holistic and all rounded education. Most companies today weigh the experiences outside your degree equally as your academic qualification – in fact, some have even done away with using degree classifications as essential criteria. Engineering (or any STEM field for that matter) is an interdisciplinary field in the real world. Hence, I always knew that the ability to empathise, collaborate and innovate with diverse people would be paramount for a fulfilling engineering experience – and that ability is gained more from experiences outside the academic zone than from within a small academic bubble.
In terms of opportunities as well, professional skills have helped me build networks, join international platforms (like the Young Achievers Program), become a part of a global community of change-makers and allowed me to mentor and support many young adults. Through diverse activities, I learnt to think differently and to innovate and problem solve with new and out-of-the box solutions. Through SELA for example, I learnt that I love working in interdisciplinary teams and solving big challenges and I also discovered my passion for promoting leadership education. Through WiE, I realised my desire to work with young adults and promoting STEM education – and all these realisations, helped me create my own career path as a Social Entrepreneur rather than a traditional engineer.
5. Please tell us more of your Young stripes programme, your interests outside of engineering and your goals after your gap year.
Young Stripes is a social enterprise that aims to connect academia (schools and universities) and industry in order to educate, empower and incubate the next generation of STEMists and leaders in Kenya. We aspire to raise the personal, academic and professional portfolios of young people by opening the world of STEM for them. With a special focus on gender equality, we especially aim to support young girls by exposing them to more careers options and tackling the biases and stereotypes against Women in STEM professions. Ensuring young adults have proper access to quality education and resources will enable them to pursue a wider range of careers. Eventually, we wish to impact the entire STEM ecosystem in Kenya to create and retain a pipeline of talented young adults that contribute to the socio-economic development of the nation.
Outside of engineering, my passion lies in working with young adults, travelling and meeting new people. Most of what I have learnt about the world has been through interacting with people from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences. I am very fond of cooking (hence the childhood dreams of being a celebrity chef) and I’m a potterhead!
My gap year has turned into two years thanks to the global pandemic. At the end of this period, I plan to pursue a PhD in bioengineering. I’m especially interested in synthetic biology. Currently, I have applied to my dream university in the USA and am looking at options in Australia as well. At the same time, I plan to continue supporting Young Stripes even while I am away and develop it into a self-sustaining initiative.
6. What advice would you give to current undergraduates, post-graduates and young girls considering taking on a STEM career?
My advice to aspiring and current female STEMists is to do it for themselves and only themselves, to do it regardless of the stereotypes, to do it despite the ‘taboo’ and to do it purely for the fun of it. Changing the world and creating innovations for society can come next but paramount to all of it is becoming a STEMists because you love being a STEMist. The beauty about being young is also the power to take risks (here I am again, talking as though I am 60-years-old!). Trying new things, both within and outside your academic discipline will be more rewarding than that first class honours we all aspire to get. Your experiences will speak volumes louder than your degree in the real world. Also remember, being a STEMist isn’t a life sentence but venturing into STEM is great cause it will teach you to see opportunities where others see barriers. The skills that you learn while pursuing a STEM degree can prepare you for a wider range of than you think. It’s like a portal to infinite universes that is open for you to explore. More importantly, be curious, be bold and be proud of your voice, even lend it to your fellow young women when they lose theirs. The gender gap is a reality but you are the change you have been waiting for so go ahead and reimagine, reinvent the world as it should be.
Thank you for talking to us Hemanshi! We wish you all the best in your journey!