Mahima is a 24-year-old Avionics Technician at Rocket Lab and recently left the Royal New Zealand Airforce after six years of active service.
What do you do on an average work day?
I'm studying physics and geophysics at the University of Auckland alongside working at Rocket Lab, so I am pretty busy!
At Uni, I’ll be doing the lecture, tutorial, exam, food, sleep, gym and swim routine! Which makes you wonder why I decided to do something else.
After six years in uniform, I finally decided it was time to follow my dreams of becoming an astronaut after sharing a pizza and beer with Michael Hopkins from expedition 37/38 to the International Space Station.
In my six years in the RNZAF, my main jobs included flight line duties, like marshalling and refuelling aircraft; flight line avionics maintenance, which is fault confirmation and fixing; and Airworthiness Certification, which is making sure that the paperwork was right and met the aviation authorities and Air Force regulations, and that the part was in fact approved to be fitted on board manned aircraft.
I also had to make sure I was fit and healthy, so I use to swim nearly every day and on the days that my hair and skin needed a break from chlorine, I would go to the gym (and show the boys how its done!).
At Rocket Lab, my job is to physically make and electronically test the wiring that goes into each rocket. By the way, I am quite astounded every time I think that something I’ve touched will end up in outer space!
What did you study at school? And after high school?
In my final years of high school, I did Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics (calculus), English Literature and Business studies.
After school, to gain entry into my chosen trade in the RNZAF (Avionics), I did a certificate in Aeronautical Engineering Fundamentals course.
After that, all my formal training was done within the RNZAF, which included electrical theory and principles, operation of electronic test equipment, servicing of electrical components, high reliability hand soldering (NASA-standard soldering), technical administration, human factors in maintenance, fault finding of components, systems and circuits, and of course the servicing and maintenance of aircraft.
I got certified as a fibre optic technician because of my work in communications within the RNZAF. From my 6 years of service, I also gained a Level 4 National certificate in Aircraft servicing (Avionics) and some amazing hand skills that I took to Rocket Lab.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Ooh that’s a hard one, especially when the bits of knowledge are small and seem to be almost taken for granted.
I would say that because of the grounding I had from physics in school, I found my air force training easier. Without physics I would have a hard time understanding things that I couldn’t see with my eyes. Having said that, air force training was still a massive step up, so I still worked incredibly hard to get promoted and pass everything!
Going to Rocket Lab after the RNZAF, it has been amazing how much information I’ve seen before and I just 'get it'. It’s a good feeling and gives me great confidence in myself.
I’m definitely not going to complain about the pay that I will get at Rocket Lab, which is so amazing because I know how hard it can be as a student to get money for things. I will get great pay and experience in a field that I want to carry on in. It’s a win-win!
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
If you don’t know what to do - like I didn’t when I left school - choose something that is a step in the right direction.
Here is what I mean by that; I knew that astronauts were usually from a military background (not always) and were pilots. When I failed the RNZAF pilot test I realised I was lucky that I failed.
Yeah that's right. I was lucky to fail that test.
New Zealand doesn’t have military jets and if I had passed that test and became an air force pilot, I would be bound to the air force for the next 15 years of my life, by which time I would be 30, and guess what? I would have flying experience that NASA wouldn’t even look at! Because it was the wrong aircraft type! I just saved 15 years of my life!
So, I took what was arguably the most difficult of the ground trades - Avionics - and during that time I realised that I can contribute far more to this world as a scientist and explorer than I can as a pilot. But six years ago, I didn’t feel this way and I wanted to be a pilot.
So here's what I'd recommend to others: do your research!
Know what you need to get that dream job and work at it. And if you don’t know what you want or how to get there, chose something that you love.
When you love what you do, it shows. Like when I did Act in Space hackathon, I went for more than nearly 34 hours with 2 hours of sleep and I was still productive! I was a bit tired and smelly due to lack of showers, but I loved it nonetheless. I even got to sing with Anika Moa! And I confirmed to myself that day that I was in the right place and doing the right thing - not that winning the hackathon and going to France wasn’t confirmation!
What are some of your career highlights so far?
In my Air Force career, I did some pretty cool stuff. Highlights for me were being the lead singer of 3 rock bands over six years, being a coach at the RNZAF Swim Club, and winning the RNZAF Women’s swimming Champion Trophy and title for six years running.
Another highlight was marshalling an F16 jet plane from Britain with my best friend. There's nothing like the sound of that thing coming at you…so amazing! It leaves your ears ringing for ages!
It was also really cool leading the changes in sustainable practices on RNZAF Base Whenuapai, and taking part in some insane character building exercises - like going out into the wilderness with your friends and surviving, helping each other out to make it through, and there were some bonfires and marshmallows involved!
Somehow I still had time to find amazing friends - and that is amongst the top things I am grateful for with my military career.
At Rocket Lab, I’m totally thrilled by just touching things that will go into space! So that means every day is a highlight to me.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
Now wouldn’t it be cool to say, "That girl, she was the first person to colonise Mars and she was from New Zealand"! I definitely don’t shoot for the stars just to use that tag line, but it will be a proud moment indeed to take a New Zealand flag into space.
It is certainly not necessary for everyone to become a scientist or an engineer; by being aware of the importance and developments in STEM fields we will be aware of the changes that are happening in our world and how humanity is moving forward. Staying in one place is boring!
However, thinking about New Zealand alone is being too narrow. New Zealand is a part of this world. We should not think that STEM is important for New Zealand alone. It is in fact important for this world, it is important for our species and its survival.
I think we can think bigger than New Zealand. And I do believe that STEM fields are the way forward, not just for New Zealand but for our planet and for humanity.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
STEM has been, for as long as I have known, a boys' club. So is the military and I don’t like it.
'Showing the boys how it’s done' is in part why I joined the military. I was sick of that mentality. In my eyes, you are not defined as either boy or girl by the job that you do.
It is an absolute shame that great ideas are never bought to life because girls think that their idea is stupid - or worse, that they are stupid compared to the boys'. I used to think like that.
This mentality needs to change because I’m not the only girl thinking this way and that’s why I think it’s important to have women in STEM, so girls have great role models lighting the path. So that every idea that is worthy has an equal chance to be a reality regardless of whether it comes from a man or a woman.
During my time in France for Act in Space I also met another astronaut, Léopold Eyharts, who wrote me a personal message…so how could I not follow my dreams?! Now I have personal messages from two astronauts telling me to go for it! I’m still yet to meet a female astronaut - and I wonder how her answers would be different.
To the stars!
Mahima is a 24 year old Avionics Technician at Rocket Lab and recently left the Royal New Zealand Air Force after 6 years of Active Service. She was the leader and presenter of team Mārama who represented New Zealand at the international Act In Space 2018 Finals in Toulouse, France with their idea of using Virtual Reality for an Autonomous Robotics systems to carry out repairs in space. You can follow Mahima on Twitter: @Mahima99310089
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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