Q&A: Nyasha Mutembwa
Why did you become interested in science and engineering?
I was always really good at maths. It was one of the few subjects that really made sense to me and was partially why I enjoyed the sciences too. I enjoyed exploring why stuff is the way it is and learning how to apply it to the real world.
Initially, I wanted to do architecture. But after taking part in a ‘Girls Allowed’ STEM outreach day at Brunel University when I was 14 or 15, it sparked something in me to look into engineering. I was drawn to how dynamic and transformative the field could be and eventually opted for a civil engineering degree. I knew it was what I needed to build the career I wanted (pun intended!).
How did you get to where you are now?
I set my vision, worked hard, and played hard too. I took A-level maths, chemistry, biology and economics. I enjoyed physics, but at the time didn’t feel I had the right environment to thrive in it, as I went to an all-girls grammar school where there wasn’t a massive focus on STEM – especially engineering.
I loved my subjects and after working hard to get decent grades, I was accepted by the University of Dundee, through clearing.
At university, I became very passionate about engineering. I wanted to make the most of any time away from academic study to immerse myself in cool opportunities that would help me grow, as well as build my portfolio of experience and network.
In my first year, I hesitantly applied for an incredible opportunity – a scholarship funding travel to Shanghai for a summer school programme for two months. And fortunately, I was selected!
This summer school was the furthest I had been away from home since leaving for university in Scotland, and I was one of few first year students selected to take part. It was a pivotal moment. After that, I started applying for anything I saw that excited me (and started to ignore the fact I might not have the experience needed or the confidence to be so out of my comfort zone).
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
I think for me, my biggest achievement has been the change in my mindset and the empowerment I get from it since my scholarship to Shanghai in 2018.
I would’ve never found out about the opportunity without joining Dundee’s Women in STEM Society, which was founded by a group of inspirational women who gave me the encouragement to grab any experience that’s offered to me.
After that, it was as if a switch had been flipped, when I realised anything is possible and I could do anything I put my mind to. From there I threw myself at anything I was interested in. In 2019, I was selected to attend the Future Female Engineering Conference hosted by Targetjobs, and joined an all-woman Constructionarium project, hosted by Equate Scotland, building a wind turbine on a construction site where I found my passion for being a project manager.
At that point, I was travelling from Dundee to London multiple times a year to network and meet other women in engineering. Being surrounded by like-minded, inspirational and motivated women who had similar experiences to me was very comforting. These networking experiences were especially key, as I was one of two Black women in all undergraduate engineering courses in my school, and that felt quite lonely at times.
These experiences gave me the support, motivation, and confidence to start applying for awards. My first top 10 shortlisting in the UK was for the Undergraduate of the Year for Construction and Engineering in 2020. Then the pandemic hit, so I concentrated on getting as much experience through networking online on mini-internships and work experience weeks, while building up my LinkedIn connections. From this, I started to reach out to organisations I felt passionate about like Black Women in Engineering (BWEng) where I became part of the communications team at the beginning of 2022.
Since then, I’ve been shortlisted twice in the Top 5 for Engineering Student of the Year 2022 and more recently, 2023. Also, as of July 2022, I not only became the first Black woman, but also the first engineer to be elected President of Dundee University’s Students’ Association, more recently I’ve started my second term which I was re-elected for in March. To top it all off, I officially graduated with my BEng (Hons) in civil engineering on 23 June 2023 – International Women in Engineering Day – and now I’m here, and I’m excited to see what the future holds!
What is your favourite thing about being an engineer?
My favourite thing is that I could transform the world if I put my mind to it. In this world there are plenty of problems still to be solved. That challenge excites me – I live for the moments when my brain could light up, something could click, and I could problem solve something incredible.
I love thinking outside the box, diversity of thought is so important in our sector and needs to be championed! I also love my logical and structured ‘engineering’ way of thinking – it allows me to thrive so much in my environment and makes me feel like I could truly change things for the better. Ever since I was a child, I’ve known my one priority in whatever I do is to help people and I can’t imagine a better way to do that.
What does a typical day involve for you?
Although I’ve graduated, I don’t think I’ve ever had a typical day! Over the last year, my final year at Dundee, I was working as President full time while being an active STEM ambassador and supporting my communities.
A day could involve many things! I could be working on my dissertation before meeting with the principal to discuss my priorities for the student body, or chairing meetings about the student experience on campus, or visiting local high schools to lead STEM activities. I always try to apply myself where I fit best, which is leadership, STEM empowerment and community building. I love being able to use what I’ve learnt from my degree in my current professional role, especially the project management aspects of it.
Aside from studying and working, I like to take time for myself to enjoy my hobbies, like playing basketball. I’ve played for the University of Dundee women’s first team since 2017 and they’ve been the foundation for my sanity ever since!
We won the Scottish Cup in 2020 and have been the runner up for the last two years – I couldn’t be prouder. A motto I go by that encapsulates all this is work hard, play hard, and that’s what I take with me every day.
Your difference is what makes you unique and brings a whole diversity of thought that no one else has. It’s what makes you so important to the engineering community.
What would be your advice to young people looking to pursue a career in engineering?
Recently, someone said to me, “If not you, then who?”.
If you’re interested in engineering, but feel hesitant, remember that. Because clearly you have the type of brain that is interested and ready for a challenge. The fact you are curious means it’s for you.
Despite who you see in the industry, you have every right to be in engineering. And if you enjoy it, stick to it! Your difference is what makes you unique and brings a whole diversity of thought that no one else has. It’s what makes you so important to the engineering community.
Quick fire facts:
BEng (Hons) civil engineering
Biggest engineering inspirations:
My dearest friends Yewande Akinola MBE HonFREng and Dr Ollie Folayan MBE, for how they shifted my definition of success. They showed me the value of true impact and influence on a wild scale in our profession. Just wow! They really did THAT for me.
Definitely the phone and laptop combo. I do everything on those two but should probably decrease my screen time…
Three words that describe you:
Black girl magic
What’s next for you?
Lately when asked this question – especially since graduating – I love to say that the job for me doesn’t exist yet, but it’s waiting for me.
I like being open-minded about my options, but I always have the bigger picture in mind. I know who I’ll be in the future, but I know the journey to getting there isn’t a straight road. I’m excited for the journey and seeing how I grow during it. I try not to control what my next steps are going to be.
Since my honours project, I’m really interested in becoming a sustainable engineering specialist. My project was about how renewable and sustainable solutions can be used to design energy self-sufficient modular houses in Zimbabwe. It’s such an interesting area to me, especially the link to my home country. With everything I’ve learned at university, I could see myself working closely with stakeholders there to work towards improving the Sustainable Development Goals.
I love to say that the job for me doesn’t exist yet, but it’s waiting for me.
I know I will also be a project manager after building the wind turbine on the Constructionarium project. Leadership has always been a key focus and strength after many successful team initiatives I’ve led. I definitely see that as a life-long career route for me that can be applied to all the things I love doing.
I’ve only recently discovered my fascination with entrepreneurship and have a couple of businesses lined up for launch, hopefully by the end of this year. One relates to my honours project and others are inspired by the work I’ve been doing over the last year as President (and will continue to do for the next year).
After that, I can see myself managing my businesses while still being an active STEM advocate, as well as a full-time engineer in an organisation that aligns with my values. I also see myself doing more public speaking like TEDx events or being part of big conference panel chats as well as writing more articles or even a book one day.
Ultimately, I know that I am meant for big things and how I get there will be an amazing journey.
This article has been adapted from "How I got here: Nyasha Mutembwa", which originally appeared in the print edition of Ingenia 96 (September 2023).
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