Leaps and bounds

Engineering and gymnastics are two of Joanne Mikl’s great passions – but she never expected to be able to combine them in the one area of study.

Joanne Mikl

Joanne Mikl has been able to combine her passions in her studies.

A PhD candidate in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies, Joanne, 27, is one of the recipients of the Peter Nicol Russell Scholarship for talented engineering students.

She is currently involved in research into the human body in motion, working with gymnasts and divers from the NSW Institute of Sport. Her research draws on insights from health sciences and mathematics, as well as engineering, to model how the body moves when it is airborne.

One aim of the project is to optimise human movement to enhance the performance of elite athletes. But what she is learning about athletic techniques – such as how athletes reorient themselves before landing on the floor – could also have implications for school and community sports, or even people trying to recover from injuries or improve their coordination.

What Joanne enjoys most about her work is that it allows her to continue her high-school passion for gymnastics (she was also a keen runner, dancer and skier).

“It means drawing together things I know intuitively as a gymnast and coach about how the body moves, but only as gut instincts,” she explains. “I can use my insights from engineering to analyse and improve those instincts.”

Joanne did not happen on her dream project immediately. After gaining her Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical (Biomedical)) in 2007, she found jobs in her biomechanical specialisation to be thin on the ground and ended up joining the graduate employment program at NSW rail authority RailCorp. “But the railways are fairly restricted in what you can do by the political situation at the time, and I wanted to spread my wings a bit,” she recalls.

So she decided to return to study and received a government-funded Australian Postgraduate Award to cover basic living expenses during her PhD. At the same time, she was also awarded the Peter Nicol Russell Scholarship, which provides vital ‘top up’ funds each year.

As a result, unlike some of her fellow doctoral candidates, she has not had to work part time since starting her degree. That has allowed her to put more energy into her studies and reserve some time to continue her passion for gymnastics. “I’m actually involved in the sport while I’m studying it,” she says. “It makes that little bit of extra difference which does really help.”

Mechanically minded

Another budding engineer receiving welcome support from the Peter Nicol Russell Scholarship is undergraduate Nicholas Morgan, 20, who is studying for the combined degree of a Bachelor of Mechanical Space Engineering and a Bachelor of Arts. Although he is enrolled in a specialist space engineering program, he admits he is most likely to become a mechanical engineer, not least due to Australia’s lack of a space industry.

Nicholas believes that engineers deserve wider recognition for their role, and volunteers to promote his profession to high school students to help nurture the next generation.

Joanne agrees that engineering needs to be more widely understood. At her all-girls high school, she knew only that it incorporated mathematics and science.

“We definitely make a very important contribution,” says Nicholas. “The problem is that people don’t come into contact with engineers in everyday life, as they do with doctors. So it’s not a particularly glorified profession.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 edition of Challis Bequest Society Newsletter.