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Breaking Boundaries: Leigh Krake’s Impactful Story as a Woman in STEM

In celebration of Women’s Day, Northern Mallee LLEN proudly shines a spotlight on the remarkable Leigh Krake, a trailblazing Project Engineer at the Mildura Rural City Council. Bridging the worlds of chemical and civil engineering, Leigh’s journey is a testament to resilience, adaptability, and the transformative power of navigating challenges.

Armed with a Bachelor of Applied Science from Charles Sturt University, Leigh dedicated nearly two decades to the intricate tapestry of the wine and spirits industry. However, the winds of change blew in with the challenges brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in shifts that propelled Leigh towards a new horizon.

What may have seemed like a professional setback became a gateway for Leigh to cultivate cross-disciplinary skills and redefine her career trajectory. Embracing the opportunity for personal growth, she aligned her ambitions with a desire for work-life balance, a crucial facet in raising her young family. Undertaking further engineering studies at the University of South Australia, Leigh seamlessly transitioned into the realm of Civil Engineering.

Leigh’s influence extends as an esteemed speaker at STEM Idols 2023, where her words ignited inspiration among Year 9 girls, encouraging them to explore the vast possibilities within STEM careers.

Currently, at the forefront of diverse projects, including road construction, bowling greens, flood levee construction, and upcoming landfill capping initiatives, Leigh’s dedication to her craft shines through. Managing a stormwater drainage project in Cabarita, she exemplifies the essence of a woman breaking barriers and making her mark in the dynamic world of STEM. Join us in celebrating Leigh Krake, a beacon of empowerment and achievement in the field of engineering.

Image Credit: Mildura Rural City Council

Your journey as a woman in STEM is captivating. What inspired these transitions and how have your experiences contributed to your expertise in civil engineering?

    Before civil engineering, I was a winemaker for 17 years. I had worked in various wineries in the Yarra Valley and in Mildura. In 2019, before COVID, the winery I was working at was sold and we were all made redundant. I loved winemaking but the romance had gone, and I had become disenchanted with corporate winemaking. Being a winemaker requires full commitment to the job and for part of the year during vintage I worked seven days a week. I pretty much had to work like I didn’t have children, and then raise children like I didn’t work. I was keen for a change, but I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do and how that looked for my young family. I really wanted some work-life balance, so I started to reassess everything.

    I spent a lot of time looking into various industries and how they were trending in terms of job supply and demand and what industries would be booming after COVID. Civil construction and infrastructure were one of those industries that was ranked high in all these aspects. Then I started looking at the skills I would require and which of my skills were transferable. I realised that there was a lot of overlap between winemaking and civil engineering, winemaking was just chemical engineering.  Although winemaking is quite specialised, I had gained a lot of transferable skills working in a technical role with machines and trucks around me. The transition would be familiar, and I really liked the idea of continuing to pursue my engineering side. So, that’s when I enrolled in the Associate’s degree, Engineering with the University of South Australia to do some bridging across to civil engineering.

    Transitioning between diverse STEM fields likely presented challenges. Did you face any unique obstacles, and how did you navigate through them?

      Yes, I felt a gap with the pure civil knowledge in the beginning. It was something that I had to overcome by reading, learning, and gaining experience on the job. I’m still learning new things every day. But like all trades, on-the-job experience is vital, because you can’t just rely on a formal education alone.

      Reflecting on your career, can you share a pivotal moment or project that significantly shaped your perspective and trajectory in engineering?

        It was probably when I went back to university to do more engineering and I realised that everything I had learnt in my previous degree suddenly added more layers to my knowledge. I made that connection and technically I did have a good base to build on. When I had to study Fluid Mechanics again, I recognised that engineering relates to multiple fields and there are many elements of hydraulic engineering in winemaking. That’s probably why I enjoy water and wastewater projects now.

        Can you describe what an ideal workday looks like for you?

          At the moment, I am managing a stormwater drainage project in Cabarita. I spend part of my day on the construction site to get any updates or to work on design changes. The rest of my day is generally back in the office working on other projects in preliminary stages and catching up with contract-related paperwork. I have spent the last eight months doing stormwater drainage projects and I really enjoy it. However, I have been fortunate enough to experience a myriad of projects such as road construction, bowling greens, flood levee construction during the floods and right now I’m about to start on landfill capping projects. So, it’s been a mixed bag, and each project has presented different challenges.

          Are there specific technologies or equipment that you find particularly intriguing in your work?

            One piece of technology that defines most of the work I do is the Trimble Rover R12i GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System). We use Rover to measure points out in the field to create the design plans using AutoCAD software and the data can also be used in the excavator or grader to cut and fill to desired levels. There’s a lot of precision in it and I think it’s quite cool that we use GPS technology in our work.

            With your multi-disciplinary background, do you believe being a woman in STEM contributes to innovation and problem-solving within the engineering field?

              It’s well documented that many workplaces that have more female representation experience more creativity and balance in team culture. I believe women just bring diverse viewpoints, life experiences, and instincts to the table. For me, having such diverse skills and experience in multiple engineering fields allows me to be adaptable and have a mix of perspectives to tackle problems.

              Could you share a specific project or moment from your engineering career that stands out as especially rewarding or fulfilling?

                I can’t choose a specific one. That moment happens at the end of every project when I have the satisfaction of seeing the finished product and how it makes an improvement for someone or something. For example, a new filtered water main providing potable water to residents that have been using river water all their lives, or brand-new roads to drive on, or a stormwater drainage upgrade for residents that have been flooded year after year. It’s more about getting to see something complete after being developed by a team of people over several years.

                What advice do you have for women looking to work in STEM disciplines or pursue a cross-disciplinary career like yours?

                  I think one of the biggest hurdles for young women interested in STEM disciplines is not knowing how to convert a passion into a career. Reaching out to a mentor or seeking guidance from someone in STEM can help. I had no idea what I wanted to do after school.

                  When I first started in the wine game, I was working in Melbourne restaurants. I was curious and passionate about wine, but I had no connections to grape growing, despite growing up in Mildura with vineyards all around me. My first experience in a winery was instigated by the late Adam Marks, a winemaker whom I met when I worked at Walter’s Wine Bar. He liked to recruit people from hospitality by taking them out to the Strathbogie Ranges for a ‘winery experience’. I thought that sounded fantastic. Of course, I lunged at the opportunity and was a complete fish out of water. It was very uncharacteristic of me, which is probably why I liked it. I really loved getting my hands dirty, plunging red ferments, and dragging hoses around the winery, even though I couldn’t feel my hands in the freezing cold. I was hooked. I continued to do voluntary vintage work with Adam, working on his wines in the Yarra Valley. Adam became my mentor. Then, one day I decided I wanted to become a winemaker. He encouraged me to go to university, and that’s when I enrolled in the Bachelor of Applied Science (Wine Science at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga.