24 Mar 2022
Powering down the rugby field and protecting Aotearoa’s power supply mean a lot to this electrical engineer who likes breaking down stereotypes.
Early on any given weekday morning, Bernadette Robertson MEngNZ can be found at rugby training, getting it in before a full day of work as a Protection and Automation Engineer at Transpower. Then it’s another couple of hours of training.
She chose engineering because it ticked lots of boxes and she really enjoyed maths, science and biology.
“I considered studying medicine but that was a seven-year degree, and I wanted to graduate faster so I could give back to my parents sooner.”
The first person in her family to go to university, she graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Electrical and Electronic Engineering from the University of Auckland.
“You don’t usually see a female, or a Pacific Islander, pursuing engineering, so I wanted to take on that challenge. I also wanted something that wasn’t an all-day office job, where you can also spend time outdoors on site. I could have that balance with engineering.”
There were some top academics at her high school who had pursued engineering and as they were visible in her community, she could picture herself in the profession. Her grades won her a scholarship from First Foundation, which supports bright young Kiwis whose circumstances make it harder to attend university.
But while Bernadette wanted to choose challenging paths, the transition from South Auckland schoolgirl to engineer was not easy.
“I think the hardest thing I’ve done was coming from South Auckland, a small community and a high school that was nearly all Pacific Islanders and Māori, to jumping into university with a huge diverse culture, with competition to get the best grades and the best job after uni.”
She says Pacific Islanders are taught to be humble, “… but, in this career, you need to have a big voice to prove yourself. That was a big adjustment for me to make”.
Following graduation, Bernadette was selected to be part of the two-year Transpower Graduate Programme.
“You were given the opportunity to experience different roles and also got to travel around the country, which I loved.” She appreciates the support she's received throughout her study and career.
“I was part of SPIES [South Pacific Indigenous Engineering Students Network] during university and that gave me some confidence as I learnt to lead meetings and panels.”
She’s now a member of South Pacific Professional Engineering Excellence, a network for Pacific Islanders in the engineering workforce.
Bernadette says she is interested in “changing the narrative”. “I’ve always been the kind of person that’s just up for the challenge and believed that you can break down the barriers and change those stereotypes that are associated with where you come from.”
One of the reasons I chose engineering is because it aligned with my values, with giving back, designing or working with technology that’s going to help the community. - Bernadette Robertson
She works in operational engineering, so if there are any faults she has to analyse them as quickly as possible.
“With that value of giving, I always try to do it as fast as possible, keep the lights on and avoid power cuts.”
In her role, she looks after protection relays, the smaller control andncommunication devices in the substation.
“We protect the bigger equipment, tripping it before an explosion or fire occurs. It can be a 24/7 job if you are oncall and something happens in the middle of the night. Protection is quite hard, but I enjoy it because every day you don’t know what to expect.”
After gaining more experience, she'd like to go to Europe or Asia and see how their power systems work, “… and I want to give my expertise back to Samoa or anywhere in the Pacific”.
She says there are so few young Pacific Islanders entering engineering because they are not aware of what it actually is.
“I feel like there is a misconception in our culture where engineering is only associated with being a mechanic. Some are unaware of the of the kind of career you can have, that it is so broad.”
To help spread the word, she attends career expos and has been involved with school visits. And when she’s not in the business of power, she’s playing rugby for Oriental Rongotai club in Wellington.
She has also played for Samoa and represented the women’s rugby team Manusina at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup in France and she's played for Counties Manukau and Wellington in the Farah Palmer Cup competition.
What does she like about rugby?“Everything. But again, it’s changing the narrative because rugby is a maledominated sport."