Dr Helen Cartledge’s journey began in a tiny southern Siberian village. She’s now modernising Australia’s Navy.
She’s Australia’s 2019 Professional Engineer of the Year, but Dr Helen Cartledge did not originally choose to study engineering.
Cartledge wanted to become an astronaut and fell in love with physics and maths while dreaming of a career at NASA.
But her mother had different ideas: “Space may have aliens, but not jobs”.
She suggested her daughter stay with her on Earth and study engineering.
Today, Cartledge is the Director of Maritime Autonomous and Remote Underwater Systems at the Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group of Department of Defence. She has multiple project teams reporting to her, delivering leading technology capabilities to ensure that Australia’s Navy is equipped to protect the nation from future threats.
Journey from Siberia
It’s a long way from the small Chinese village in the snowy mountains of southern Siberia where Cartledge grew up.
“My playmates would be black Siberian bears who would love to have me for breakfast and Siberian steppe wolves who wouldn’t mind taking me home for dinner,” she said.
As temperatures dropped to minus 50 degrees Celsius outside, the children would do their homework by candlelight inside their mud and straw house. Cartledge walked 10 km to and from school each day.
She would go on to study automation mechatronics and computer-aided design, before achieving a PhD in materials engineering at the University of Sydney.
On graduation, she submitted many job applications but struggled for months to find someone willing to take her on.
Finally, a small mining consultancy offered her a job and set her a challenge that had plagued a mining company for years: find out why 280 t Caterpillar trucks kept breaking down at a high-altitude gold mine.
It took Cartledge just 10 days.
Cartledge eventually left the mining industry for defence, looking to work on projects with a big impact and give back to her adopted home.
She said Australia had given her many opportunities that were never afforded to her mother, who died in southern Siberia when her children were young.
“She was very talented but was labelled ‘not to be trusted politically’ by the communist regime and sent to the village for re-education,” Cartledge said.
Her grandparents were jailed for more than 10 years and, on release, were placed under house arrest until the death of the former Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong. The crime they were accused of was “anti-communist/revolution”.
Long hours are a mainstay for Cartledge. She works 12-hour days, six or seven days a week.
But, despite the demands of her professional life, Cartledge manages to carve out time for projects outside of the office.
She has invented a green composite technology in her backyard. The process is cost-effective and pollution-free and can turn household waste into building materials. She has travelled the world teaching people how to use it.
She has rejected multiple offers and requests to patent the technology.
“I knew that if I had done so, no one could afford to recycle the waste materials, particularly in developing countries,” she said.
Her other passion is flying, although a busy work schedule has grounded Cartledge for now. She believes the best way to de-stress at work is to perform stand-up routines in comedy clubs.
“When you get people to laugh at you and with you, all worries disappear,” she said. “Humour is a wonderful solution for just about everything.”
Cartledge is also passionate about outreach, and has spent years talking to students and running experiments in the classroom as part of CSIRO’s STEM Professionals in Schools program.
She has hosted Dr Helen’s Science Show at National Science Week, and chaired defence scholarship panels for women studying science and engineering.
Today, it’s safe to say the former wannabe-astronaut has embraced engineering.
“I love it,” she said. “I can solve a problem and make a difference.”
Awards and advocacy
Cartledge was awarded Professional Engineer of the Year at Engineers Australia’s 2019 National Congress. In 2019, she also received recognition for her achievements in supporting the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in peace time and in operations. In 2017, Cartledge received a Service Medal in her Middle East deployment with ADF.
In 2015 she received a commendation from the Department of Defence for shaping and delivering a science and technology program to the Australian Army.
In 2012, she received recognition from US Defense for her contributions to the US/Australia bilateral partnership in combating terrorism.
In 2015 she received an Alumni Award from the University of Sydney for her distinguished Professional Achievement in STEM.
She took to heart the words from her mother “science can save the world” and “you came to the world with a mission”.
Cartledge is passionate about promoting women in STEM.
“Women play an important role in the engineering field, both as professionals and as the mothers of the next generation,” she said.
Dr Helen Cartledge spoke at Engineers Australia’s 2020 International Women’s Day event. To find out what’s in store for 2021, click here.