As Nanogirl, Michelle Dickinson is a superhero on a crusade to make science accessible to everyone. She’s making a huge impact, with awards flying her way faster than a speeding bullet.
Michelle has a Masters degree in Engineering and a PhD in Biomedical Materials Engineering. After seven years working in industry she is now senior lecturer in chemical and material engineering at Auckland University, where she runs New Zealand’s only nanomechanical testing lab. Also known as Nanogirl, she has regular speaking spots on television and radio and co-founded charity OMG Tech to give children of all ages and abilities the chance to learn about technology, providing equipment and transport for those who need it.
Michelle says stepping outside of her comfort zone is a way of life.
“I never get comfortable in anything I do. I often think, don’t be crazy I have no idea how to do that, but I still say yes. Women tend to become good at something and then step up, as opposed to being open to putting ourselves forward for something we’re not experts at. There’s only one way to get amazing at something and that’s to do it.”
Public speaking is a case in point. Michelle says she used to be terrified of speaking in front of a group.
“So I ask myself what is the worst thing that can happen? If it’s not death, then I’ll do it,” she says. “It’s usually something little we are afraid of, like someone laughing at us. But if you have the chance to progress and learn something about yourself, that just shouldn’t matter.”
Her career developed as Michelle found the things she loves and followed her passions.
“As a kid I always got told off for breaking things, then I found fracture mechanics which is about breaking things. I’m a bit of a sci-fi nerd so I picked nanotechnology because it was prevalent in a lot of the sci-fi media I read as a teenager.”
With a Maltese grandmother, English grandfather and a mother who is Hong Kong Chinese, Michelle grew up being aware of two distinct cultures. She celebrates diversity and wants to see more women in science, engineering and technology.
She set up her own website to encourage women to push boundaries in science and sports, and has carved out a niche as a scientist, adventurer and speaker.
“I want to show people this is who I am, this is what I do. I am a scientist. I also like kite-surfing, rock-climbing and mountain biking. I have a vulnerable side and I’m approachable. I want kids to say ‘how do I get to do this’ and then realise ‘you just do’.”
'Just doing' has led Michelle to win a growing number of prestigious prizes including the Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize and the New Zealand Association of Scientists’ Science Communicators Award last year. In 2015, she was named a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to science.
She says she didn’t seek to be a leader, but one day she looked around and found herself in a position where she was having big influence on people.
“So then I developed the theory is that leadership is the ability to inspire and motivate others to move towards a positive goal for our planet and the people on it.
“My leadership is defined by my behaviour, my actions and my words. I study lots of people and try to meet the ones I have a lot of respect for. I’m always looking for great mentors.”
Entrepreneur Richard Branson is one of those mentors.
“Richard showed me you can be a great leader in a way that is very gentle. You don’t have to be a dominant personality. I’m a very gentle natured quiet person, but if there’s something I need to stand up for to protect the next generation, I’m very confrontational.
“I want to inspire people so they go out and do inspiring things.”
Read more: Michelle's definition of success