Else Shepherd AM was recognised for her contributions to Queensland after a trailblazing career in electrical engineering.
Like many kids growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Else Shepherd AM was awed by the technology being launched during the space race.
But unlike most young girls at the time, Shepherd pursued her love of maths and physics into tertiary education, becoming one of the first two women to graduate from electrical engineering at The University of Queensland (UQ) in 1965.
“I can still remember standing in the garden and looking at Sputnik going by in 1957,” she told create. “I thought, ‘well, I’d better study electrical engineering so I can be a part of that.’”
Shepherd subsequently completed Honours at UQ in 1966 and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2011.
“At that time, if girls did science, for the most part they became science teachers,” Shepherd said. “I didn’t want to be a teacher. I wanted to make things. Engineering seemed like the thing for me.”
In a career that has included working for the Sugar Research Institute in Mackay, lecturing at UQ, taking a gap year to study music, and starting a company that designed and manufactured innovative telecommunications equipment which was eventually sold to Nokia, Shepherd said she is still amazed by how much science has changed.
“In my field, I’ve had to get to know new material, face learning solid state physics and quantum mechanics and cryogenics, because I’m working with high temperature superconductors,” she said.
“For all engineering disciplines, there’s been huge advances in the underlying knowledge required. I’ve managed to get through because I had a very good grounding in maths and physics.”
Shepherd believes that today’s engineers have a moral responsibility to apply their skills to environmental concerns.
“The other big change I’ve witnessed in the industry is that all engineers now have to think about sustainability. We are the only people in society who really think about products from inception to the very end,” she said.
“For example, we get really excited about something like batteries, but the engineer has to think about: where can we get the materials to make the batteries? How can we make them so that they’re safe? How do we install them? How do we use them? And nobody talks about — how do we dispose of them at the end?”
An engineer of many accomplishments
Joining the Queensland Greats honour role this month caps a series of prestigious awards for Shepherd, including being named Queensland Professional Engineer of the Year in 2000 and appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her contributions to engineering, education and the electricity generating industry.
“Being recognised as a Queensland Great is very exciting, and I feel very privileged,” she said. “To be placed alongside extraordinary people such as an opening batsman for Australia and a Torres Strait Islander artist whose work is exhibited in Europe is really nice.
“But the main honour for me is that if my visibility as a female engineer helps other girls decide that they want to do engineering, that’s very special.”
Indeed, when Shepherd joined Engineers Australia in the 1960s, she was unable to attend its meetings as they were held in a men’s club. Once they moved to an inclusive venue, she went on to become an active and influential member.
“I’d like to thank Engineers Australia for nominating me for the Queensland award, but also for embracing change,” she said. “And that’s very good for everyone.”
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