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Kate Zwartz

Kate Zwartz is one of five Chartered Professional Engineers working at the Department of Conservation. She is based in Wellington, but travels as far as Whakatane and the Chatham Islands.

Kate

What do you do on an average work day?
My job is made up of three parts. 

Inspections take me out into the bush and other reserves, regularly checking up on structures that are big enough to cause significant harm if they collapsed.  That means bridges, viewing platforms, and some barriers.  We also inspect the structural aspects of alpine huts; the foundations, bracing, and tie downs.

Design of new structures, either when old ones are being replaced, or when there’s a good case to build new ones.  This begins with a site visit and often a survey, then producing the drawings and calculations, through to monitoring the construction.  I’ve been involved with a new alpine bivouac, new bridges for people and cyclists, and a viewing platform.

DOC people from all over the place ring me up to ask for engineering advice.  This could be problems with a track, asking whether a building consent is required, or about a structure that needs a special inspection.  I enjoy receiving such a wide range of questions.  You never know what will happen next.

What did you study at school? And after high school?
At secondary school I studied languages; French, German, and Latin.  I enjoyed the challenge of entering another world, finding different ways of expressing the same ideas, and learning about other cultures.  I also studied Maths, English, and Physics.

After leaving school, I did a polytech course in Civil Engineering (now called a New Zealand Diploma in Engineering).  It involved one year of full-time study, followed by three years’ part-time, while working as a draughtsperson in an engineering design office.  Working while studying was really beneficial.  I could see how the theories we were learning about were applied, and I could ask my colleagues for help with my assignments.

Engineering interested me, so I continued my study, completing a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil) at the University of Canterbury.  I’ve never regretted my career choice, although I had no idea what engineers did when I left school!

Was your study directly related to what you do now?   
Post school it was, at school not so much.  This didn’t matter.  It’s never too late to learn about something that inspires you.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Keep your options open!  You don’t have to be a maths genius to study engineering.  Engineering is also about communicating.  There is no use getting the right answer about how to build something if you can’t explain to people how to build it.

Once you have basic engineering qualifications, there’s a vast choice of careers.  The training is useful outside engineering too, it is basically about solving problems.

What are some of your career highlights so far?
In 2004, I went for six months to Darfur, Sudan, on a contract with Caritas NZ to work in large camps of displaced people.  We were working to provide water and sanitation in very difficult conditions.  Earlier, I’d worked as an engineer in Zimbabwe and in Ghana. Engineering is a fantastic job if you want to travel.

My current job at DOC involves lots of travel to remote and beautiful places within New Zealand.

Why do you believe engaging in STEM – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?
Of course it’s important.  Engineering is behind all the services we all take for granted – water supply, waste disposal, sewage treatment, irrigation – not only things above ground like roads and bridges.  Populations will always need these services, we have to keep improving our technologies to provide for future citizens. We need to do everything better, without impacting too much on the environment. There’s heaps of scope for bright young brains to find new ways of solving old problems!

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Women bring an important range of skills to the engineering profession.  Some of us have particular strengths in communication and working co-operatively with a mixed team, we can offer a different perspective to the traditional approach, or we can be good at our jobs and at other stuff as well!  Studying engineering allows you to go off in all sorts of different directions, it’s a great career. 

Kate Zwartz is one of five Chartered Professional Engineers working at the Department of Conservation. She is based in Wellington, but travels as far as Whakatane and the Chatham Islands.

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM. 
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