Sandeeka Mannakkara is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Disaster Management at the University of Auckland's Centre for Disaster Resilience, Recovery and Reconstruction.
What do you do on an average work day?
Usually there is no such thing as an average work day as every day is different! My main job is to carry out research projects looking at post-disaster recovery. I need to do quite a bit of reading to understand the context of my research projects and find out more about related research that has been conducted internationally.
I travel often to cities and towns both in New Zealand and overseas which are recovering from disasters for site visits and to collect data through interviews and surveys. I love this aspect of my job as I get to see the world, connect with many people from different backgrounds and most of all support them in overcoming the challenges they have faced during disasters.
An important part of my job is to publish my research findings in international journal papers, local and international reports and even books, therefore I also do a lot of writing. I participate in local and international seminars and conferences to present my research as much as I can to disseminate research findings and make contact with researchers and professionals who have similar interests.
We are always scoping out funding for our research projects and further research opportunities, which involves having lots of meetings and brainstorming sessions with a wide range of people from New Zealand and overseas. I manage a Twitter account for the research conducted by myself and our Centre (@BBBresearch) to share the work we do.
Finally, I supervise both undergraduate and post-graduate research students to guide them with their research projects, which I love doing.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
At high school (Hamilton Girl’s High) my aim was to become an Engineer, therefore I studied Maths (Calculus), Chemistry and Physics as required for entry into Engineering. But I also studied Biology and French right up to 7th form as I was interested in them.
After high school, I got into Engineering at Auckland University and chose Civil Engineering as my specialisation. Towards the end of my degree I focused more on structural engineering as I found it to be the most challenging but rewarding. After graduating from my Engineering degree I worked as a structural engineer for two years, and then returned to University to explore my options as I realized I wanted to pursue work possibly in the humanitarian sector. My conversations with a truly inspiring lecturer led me to commence a PhD in Civil Engineering focusing on Disaster Management. Doing the PhD ended up being the perfect decision for me, as I fell in love with research, which then led me to pursue my career as a researcher. The impact my work is able to have on communities around the world has been the best reward.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes and no. I don’t use much calculus, physics, chemistry or technical civil engineering concepts in my day to day work, but my knowledge in these subjects has been invaluable as my work bridges the gap between engineering and social sciences. Working in the area of reconstruction and recovery I need to have a comprehensive knowledge of civil and structural engineering in order to determine technically sound, practical research solutions and recommendations for communities.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
First and foremost it is important to pursue a career in something that you are passionate about, that you find rewarding, and that you are good at. From experience I can say that your career might not be as linear as you think it would be, so it is important to remain open-minded and flexible. It is also completely normal not to fully know what you want to do for the rest of your life at this stage. In any case, I believe it always pays to complete a tertiary qualification based on your interests and/or skills, as it will definitely open the door to many options and opportunities in the future. Having a University degree always improves your chances in employment regardless of the type of work you are looking for, as a degree not only indicates your knowledge, but it also stands as a testament to your commitment, diligence and effort.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
I feel like my whole career as a disaster management researcher has been a highlight and absolute privilege. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that your work is helping people. The flexible lifestyle a job as a researcher provides has also been a dream.
Apart from that, highlights so far include:
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?
Our society has become much more focused and dependent on technology in every area of our life. To thrive in this new highly technological environment it is important to have an understanding and awareness of STEM. Much of present and future employment is also geared towards the technology and innovation sector. Therefore gaining education and qualifications in STEM will significantly increase your value and opportunities for sustainable career options in the future.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Careers in STEM provide many benefits such as better job opportunities, job security, stability, freedom for growth and financial lucrativeness. Statistics show that the percentage of women holding qualifications in STEM is approximately 25%. It is important to have more women working in STEM to promote gender equality and reduce the wage gap that exists between men and women. I believe there is no reason why women should not hold 50% of STEM qualifications and 50% of STEM jobs. Equal participation of women in STEM will expand and enhance the field by incorporating both male and female perspectives into science and technology to better reflect and represent society.
As stated by Professor Scott Page at the University of Michigan who studies diversity in complex systems, “involving more women (as well as additional social identities) can enrich creativity, insight and changes for true innovation”.
Sandeeka Mannakkara is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Disaster Management, Centre for Disaster Resilience, Recovery and Reconstruction, University of Auckland.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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