Spotlight on Women in Tech: Katrina Lo Surdo
Meet Katrina Lo Surdo – she’s an Electrical and Computer Engineer in the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Group at CSIRO’s Data61 and is a crucial member of our DARPA team, where she develops hardware and assists with the power and emergency stop circuitry for two robotic platforms. We’re talking to her about her career path, the impactful projects she’s worked on, how tech organisations can better enable women and more.
What led you to choose a career in tech?
As a child I always had a natural curiosity for the world around me. I got my first telescope in second grade and my favourite classes were always science related. In eighth grade I joined a robotics class at school.
This was my first introduction to engineering, and I loved it so much that I decided to pursue it as a career. In 2018 I graduated from the University of Queensland with a Bachelor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and started my career at Boeing Defence Australia before moving to the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Group at CSIRO’s Data61.
How did you end up at CSIRO’s Data61? What inspired you to join the organisation?
I was searching for an organisation with hands-on engineering work, and I was particularly excited about Data61’s emphasis on research and development. This meant that I would be rapidly developing prototypes and solutions for a myriad of different projects, all while contributing to meaningful science.
It was also a plus that I could pursue my passion for robotics by joining the Advanced Mechatronics Team.
What are some of the projects you’re working on at Data61? Can you tell us about some of the most impactful?
I am part of CSIRO’s DARPA Subterranean Challenge team.
We compete against the world’s best robotics laboratories (for example, NASA JPL, CMU, ETH Zurich) in a world class challenge commissioned by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency in the USA. This project is revolutionising how robots can co-operatively work together to map and explore an underground environment.
Within this team my main responsibility is designing unique electrical systems for a wide variety of robot systems so they can perform in a harsh underground environment.
What do you love about working in tech?
There are so many things that I love about working in tech, but the main benefit for me is the variability in the work. There are countless paths my career can take me on, which means that I’m constantly growing and learning new skills. This ensures that I’m always excited to head to work.
Why is gender diversity important in tech?
Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics are all fields that are constantly tackling the great problems and questions of our time.
Our lives are continually transformed by new technology. Therefore, I believe it’s important to have diversity in these fields – they are driving humanity’s future, and I think everyone should have a part in shaping it.
In your opinion, what’s the single biggest change that needs to happen in order to encourage more women to pursue careers in tech?
I think the perception of what an engineer is needs to change. For example, if you Google “engineer”, most image results are of white men in hard hats. This stereotype was in my mind when I was deciding whether to study engineering at university, and I found it intimidating.
I think women need to grow up believing they belong in STEM fields, from the start.
How can colleagues, organisations and industries within tech better support and enable women?
I am an engineer today because of the support network I gained through extracurricular STEM clubs, forums and competitions (National Youth Science Forum, Robocup Junior, Robogals, among others). Through these activities I met role models that could answer my questions and allay my fears about pursuing a STEM career.
Setting up structural programs that provide a support network for women at school, university and in the workforce is one way to ensure that more women pursue careers in STEM, but more importantly, don’t leave the workforce prematurely.
What advice would you give to women and girls wanting to pursue a career in tech?
My advice is to start off small and build a good foundation of relevant experience and you will eventually find yourself where you want to be. Volunteering your time to organisations and projects relevant to your wanted career path is a great way to get your foot in the door. I volunteered at the not-for-profit organisations Robogals and Robocup Junior and it was a major stepping stone in securing a career in robotics.
Finally, a career in STEM can be hard work but it’s rewarding, stimulating and every challenge is an opportunity to grow.