“My PhD journey was rough; it was very rough. I suffered from a bad case of imposter syndrome and even to this day, I catch myself feeling like I am not smart enough to get this degree. I mean, I forget concepts related to my work that I really should know,” said PhD graduate-in-waiting Sherlyn Gabriel.
But it’s finally happening, Sherlyn exclaimed. On Friday, 22 July, she will receive her PhD in mechanical engineering during a University of Cape Town (UCT) winter graduation ceremony. And she couldn’t be happier.
However, before graduation day, Sherlyn has a point to make. For those who think that mechanical engineers are car mechanics, she has these words of advice: Banish that thought. With a loud laugh, she said, “There’s tons more to this career than knowing your way around an engine.”
What do mechanical engineers do then? Plainly put, she said, they design, develop, build and test things. They deal with anything and everything that moves – from components to machines (including a car engine), and even the human body.
At the first in-person graduation ceremony since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, UCT will confer 104 doctorate degrees and seven honorary doctorates on Friday.
‘It feels unreal’
It’s taken Sherlyn more than four years to complete her doctorate, and despite being informed by the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment in April that she had reached the finish line, which then led to weeks of preparation for graduation day, it still feels surreal – like an out-of-body experience, she added.
“Oddly enough, I tend to get frustrated at my progress [in life] and I make myself believe that there’s still so much I need to do to be successful.”
“Oddly enough, I tend to get frustrated at my progress [in life] and I make myself believe that there’s still so much I need to do to be successful. I’m also one of those people who believes that what I’ve achieved is not good enough,” she said.
But this 30-year-old, who arrived at UCT in 2010 as a young, introverted first-year mechanical engineering student from Pretoria, is breaking glass ceilings in a male-dominated industry. On receipt of her PhD, she will become one of only a handful of women in the country to reach this milestone. Yet, coming to UCT was not a walk in the park. Sherlyn described it as a “daunting experience”. Before becoming a student, she had hardly ever spent a large amount of time away from home and her beloved family, and it was difficult to adjust to life in the Mother City without their physical support.
Her undergraduate degree was no child’s play either and it was especially challenging to sit through lectures with dozens of students vying for lecturers’ attention. But Sherlyn said she learned early on in her studies that questioning everything is “absolutely crucial” – there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Added to that, late-night reading, study groups and unending support from family, friends and lecturers in the Department of Mechanical Engineering dragged her through those first rigorous years.
But she admitted that she would be nowhere had she not seen the humour in everything, especially during critical, stressful exams – laughing from her belly always helped the situation, she added. Her master’s was doubly tough, but she made it through, passing all her courses successfully. And then came that “crazy decision” to upgrade to a PhD.
The wheels have stopped turning
“I’m not going to lie. My PhD was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was like a rollercoaster, a crazy rollercoaster that just wouldn’t stop. But after what feels like a mighty long time, the wheels have stopped turning,” she said.
The title of Sherlyn’s dissertation is: “The effect of blast loading on composites that contain sustainable materials”. The aim of her research project was to understand how composites made from sustainable materials respond to blast loads and comparing them to composites made from natural fibre. For this project, she selected a fully synthetic glass fibre reinforced epoxy composite (with the lowest sustainability rating) and a medium density board – a popular, inexpensive, readily available composite made from wood fibres (with highest sustainability rating).
Her research found that glass fibre composites contained better blast-resistant properties when compared to those natural fibre composites, which, she added, was expected.
“Substituting the epoxy resin for the more sustainable bio-based resin had little effect on the blast resistance for both glass and flax fibre reinforced composites, which is encouraging because this suggests that a sustainable resin can be substituted in those panels without significant degradation in blast protection properties,” she said.
Going forward, she said, it is likely that more of these materials will be used in various applications like car interiors and building materials. It’s also important to understand the blast behaviour of certain materials in order to determine the recommended (and safe) number of explosives needed to demolish a structure, and in worst-case scenarios, what can go wrong in an unfortunate situation like a bomb blast.
Taking a step back
While she is elated with her research results, Sherlyn noted that her journey to her PhD was far from plain sailing. Throwing in the towel crossed her mind many times. And when it all became too much, she secured a teaching job in Japan and jumped on a plane to go and work as an English teacher in Tatsuno for a year – just for a break from the books.
“I felt like quitting, but somehow completed the rest of my chapters.”
“It was a weird time to just up and leave. By then I had completed all my tests, most of my analysis and my writing. I told my supervisor that I would work on drafting my thesis part-time while there. I felt like quitting, but somehow completed the rest of my chapters,” she said.
When she returned, her mental health had improved. But in 2021, things veered off course again and she came close to abandoning her academic programme despite being so close to the finish line. Her aunt, who had played an essential role in her upbringing, took ill and passed away – three weeks before an important chapter deadline and while Sherlyn was on campus to tie up a few loose ends. But thanks to her family, friends and supervisor’s support, she managed to pull through.
“When you’re not yourself, I recommend reaching out to someone – a therapist, a lecturer, a friend or even a stranger. Talking about your circumstances helps a lot. UCT also has a list of useful services available to students who need them. But talking is important; it’s cathartic and it helps you heal,” she said.
‘Just keep swimming’
Sherlyn has found inspiration throughout her life from a phrase from the animated movie Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming.” Strongly influenced by her mother and her aunt – two forceful, independent women as her role models – Sherlyn was encouraged to chase her dreams with zest, determination and her integrity intact. And she did, even if it meant pursuing a career in an industry dominated by men.
As a mechanical engineering PhD graduate-in-waiting, she said it’s important for her to spread a positive message about her career choice and to break down any stereotypes that mechanical engineering is a career better suited for men.
“There are so many different sectors that need mechanical engineers. It’s important that young women know and understand this. The opportunities are endless and high schools need to play an integral part in this education process,” she said.
“Women should not feel as though they’re giving up ‘girly’ things for this industry; you can still do what you love and wear what you want. Women mechanical engineers have a responsibility to showcase this and highlight the work we do, while upholding the lifestyle and interests we enjoyed before our careers.”
Life after a PhD
In June Sherlyn started her postdoctoral research fellowship at UCT’s Blast Impact Survivability Unit, and while it’s still early days, she is enjoying conducting experiments and being involved in some research work in the unit. In addition, she also plans to dip her toes into lecturing later this year – a completely new skill that she is excited to learn more about and develop.
“This all keeps me busy as I figure out where my true research interest lies and what I want to focus my postdoctoral research on. I’m in the process [of] exploring several options available to me and charting my path. I’m very fortunate and I don’t take any of it for granted,” she said.
“Honestly, I’ve just been out here trying my best and I’m so lucky these opportunities were available to me.”
“Getting my PhD has been a collective effort from my supervisor, other staff in the department, my loved ones and fellow students. Honestly, I’ve just been out here trying my best and I’m so lucky these opportunities were available to me.”
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