Alumni in Conversation: Dr Anne Hellstedt

Recognised leader in sustainability, 2012 Professional Engineer of the Year for Victoria and first female to graduate with a PhD in fluid mechanics, Anne Hellstedt has returned to the Melbourne School of Engineering, to lead the School’s strategic change that will transform Engineering and IT over the next ten years.

You’ve worn a few hats here at the Melbourne School of Engineering over the years. Can you tell us a little about your involvement?
After completing my PhD in 2004, I became an honorary fellow until stepping into my current role in 2014. I am also Chair of the Mechanical Engineering Industry Advisory Group and have been involved with them since 2010. We look for opportunities to build relationships between industry and academia. Now that I’m working in the School, I’m in a unique position to apply my deep understanding of our strategy to engage industry and maximise impact.

As Project Director of Infrastructure for MSE 2025, our ten year strategy, I am responsible for leading the School’s strategic change. Over the next decade we aim to double our student numbers, welcome 100 new academics and extend engineering to a second campus. This incredible growth will provide the School with a unique opportunity to extend our capacity and capabilities and change the face of Engineering and IT in Australia.

Wow! That’s quite a role! What led you to it?
I had been leading the Sustainability team across Australia and New Zealand at AECOM and I was ready for a new challenge. My involvement through the Industry Advisory Group and as an honorary fellow meant I was already known to the School. My academic background in conjunction with my professional experience as an engineer in the property industry really lends itself to this role.

And what is the most exciting part of your role?
Pioneering a transformation that is a once in a century opportunity for an amazing organisation with a rich history. Our work now will leave a legacy that will see the School thrive for decades to come. For me, it’s a once in a career opportunity.

What do you see as the exciting new developments in this space?
All of it! The opportunity to transform engineering and IT at Melbourne and to enhance its relevance and impact is thrilling.

Dr Anne Hellstedt receiving the 2012 Victorian Professional Engineer of the Year Award

The invisibility of engineering in society to date has not done our discipline any favours. This is our chance to showcase engineering within the University community, across society more broadly and to industry. Such amazing research is being done here behind closed doors and we don’t find out about it enough – even if we work here. I am so excited to put this research on display.

Can you describe the impact you feel you are having on society with this work?
My focus on sustainability has been very satisfying. It’s enabled me to live my personal values and really have an impact. I get a buzz walking past (for example) the Royal Children’s Hospital and ANZ and knowing that I have ensured there is an environmental focus within these buildings.

My current role also has a strong focus on sustainability. As a School we want to ensure our buildings are healthy, vibrant and inspiring for the people who study, work and are visitors in them. This will enhance our ultimate aim to elevate the position of engineering in our community.

So, why did you choose to study engineering in the first place?
I stumbled across it! The general advice I was given through secondary school was that if you were intelligent you pursued law or medicine. As a female, no one at school or at home suggested engineering. I remember going through the course guides and it was what resonated most. I really enjoyed maths and science, but the idea of actually applying this knowledge was what I was really interested in.

What did you enjoy most about your Bachelor of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering?
University was such a great time in my life, for both the social side and for the learning. During my undergraduate studies I discovered a great passion for fluid mechanics, and this is how I came to do my PhD in the area. I was originally planning to transfer to New South Wales because my initial interest was aeronautical engineering, but the more I studied, the more I was convinced that a more generalist option would be better.

As an alumnus with a highly successful career, what advice can you give to current students preparing for the workforce?
One of the most important skills is communication. You can do the most brilliant work, but it won’t have any value unless you can communicate it.

The best piece of career advice I can give is to challenge yourself, take risks and step outside your comfort zone. Diversity in your career is important and I don’t think people should be afraid to ask for what they want. It’s really important to be authentic, so be yourself!

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Here! It’s going to be 2022 or 2023 before we can deliver on the entirety of the infrastructure this strategy promises and I want to be here to see the physical realisation of the strategy.

What is your favourite piece of engineering?
The aeroplane! After all, it’s what interested me in engineering in the first place. Plus, it enables me to travel – one of my passions outside of work (along with bushwalking, skiing and photography).