Nanogirl Michelle Dickinson - an engineering superhero with a story to tell

Nanogirl, Dr Michelle Dickinson is bringing science, technology and engineering to life for young people right across ...
ANDY JACKSON/Fairfax NZ

Nanogirl, Dr Michelle Dickinson is bringing science, technology and engineering to life for young people right across New Zealand.

She's known as Nanogirl - a superhero of engineering - but among Michelle Dickinson's key messages is that you never know what someone else has experienced.

"Everybody has had challenges and everyone's got their story," she told participants at the recent Queenstown Chamber of Commerce Women's Business conference.

Now a senior lecturer at Auckland University and a director of her own technology company, Dickinson grew up in homes with no books.

Michelle Dickinson, otherwise known as Nanogirl, speaking at the Queenstown Chamber of Commerce Women's conference.
Debbie Jamieson

Michelle Dickinson, otherwise known as Nanogirl, speaking at the Queenstown Chamber of Commerce Women's conference.

"Growing up on military bases, my job before school was to look for bombs under cars. Every kid I knew did."

While young, two of her class mates were killed in IRA bombings.

Her UK-Maltese father and Hong Kong-Chinese mother met at the age of 17. They didn't speak the same language and barely knew each other but they were married and had a family.

Her mother was illiterate and when Dickinson was young her father began studying electrical engineering. His equipment took over the kitchen table and included a soldering iron. He let her play with it - only growling when she broke the toaster.

"I'm an engineer today because I learned to solder when I was eight," she said.

Her father died after serving in both Gulf wars and her mother went through difficult times.

"So I decided to do things my own way and not follow the road of my parents. My courage came from comic books. In my head I was going to totally be a super hero. My super power was going to be flying and I was going to build a space ship," she said.

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Instead she worked three jobs, got a scholarship to study engineering and quietly worked her way to the top of the class.

However, she initially failed her degree because of a fear of public speaking.

With the help of a drama teacher she was able to make her compulsory presentation but did no more public speaking until ten years later, in 2012, when she was asked to present at TEDx in Auckland.

Her fears returned but so too did her childhood dream. She developed her superhero alter ego - Nanogirl

​"Nanogirl was born and she's a bad ass girl who does science," she said.

Now Nanogirl is a brand that reaches out to children all over New Zealand, teaching about science with explosions and coding and making science fun.

This year it will visit Queenstown for the first time bringing science to all children.

Research shows they make a decision if they will be involved in science by the age of 12 and Dickinson is keen to get to as many of them as possible in time.

"We're trying to break down some of those stereotypes."

 - Stuff

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