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SKA construction planner urges women to reach for the stars

Being a successful woman in the male-dominated world of construction calls for excellent leadership, project management and communication skills.

Fortunately, Tracy Cheetham (44) has these attributes in abundance and is doing stellar work at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), where she is responsible for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) infrastructure in South Africa.

Cheetham has been leading efforts to design the supporting infrastructure for the SKA’s mid-frequency array.

She says passion, enthusiasm, commitment, patience, a sense of humour and the ability to constantly think on your feet and be decisive are essential to succeeding in her field.

Cheetham is head of construction planning for SKA-mid, which means she is responsible for the provision and management of land for the construction and operation of the SKA’s mid-frequency telescope. She is also tasked with honouring SKA hosting commitments through the provision of pathfinder and new infrastructure and securing construction licences on behalf of the SKA.

“I’m also consortium leader of the SKA’s Infrastructure South Africa Consortium, leading the design engineering effort involving both SARAO staff and South African industry partners.

“We have been working on the design of the infrastructure and power for SKA-mid since 2013, including new access roads, primary and back-up power, buildings, antenna foundations, communication, security, vehicles, site monitoring, water and sanitation.”

Cheetham joined SARAO as infrastructure manager in 2007. She was responsible for the acquisition of land for KAT 7 and MeerKAT [an SKA precursor telescope], and the design, establishment, operations and maintenance of the infrastructure and power for the observatory in the Karoo.

Women contributing to development

She believes women should involve themselves in mega infrastructure projects like the SKA because they have a lot to contribute to the development of the country.

“I am very proud to be a South African woman working in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] and hope that I can be a role model for other young African women to encourage them to pursue a career in this field.

“Women are the greatest resource any country can have to contribute to its development. Pursuing a career in STEM will result in a new generation of highly skilled young women scientists, engineers and construction managers who can participate in key areas of economic development in their countries and be at the forefront of cutting-edge technology.”

Cheetham says construction offers diverse and exciting work for women as innovative engineering and technology solutions are constantly being sought.

“There are a number of wonderful programmes in countries across the world promoting STEM careers and girls should engage with these organisations – including the SKA – to obtain maximum exposure and understanding of all the opportunities available. I would also really encourage young girls to link up with other women role models in the field and ask lots of questions.”

From music to construction and beyond

Cheetham’s career in construction was the result of a chance encounter. She aspired to be a classical musician, just like her mother and grandmother.

One day, when she was in Grade 11 and at piano practice, her interest was piqued by a friend of her teacher who was working on a drawing of a building design in the same room.

“My interest was immediately diverted from the piano to the design that was emerging on the drawing board, and my interest in the built environment grew from there.

“I gradually realised how challenging engineering and construction is, with a legacy being created during the design and left behind after construction. This eventually led to me studying Architecture at the Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth.”

She completed her Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering and Sustainable Infrastructure at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.

After completing her studies, Cheetham was project manager for a number of community development projects in Port Elizabeth’s townships between 1997 and 2001. Thereafter, she spent five years at the Department of Public Works, working on construction industry policies for South Africa and establishing two national skills development programmes to promote engineering and the built environment to young people. She joined the SKA team as infrastructure manager in 2007.

Global knowledge economy

Cheetham says co-hosting the SKA with Australia is very significant for South Africa and Africa as a whole as it represents a new era in which Africa is seen as a science destination and takes its place as an equal peer in global science.

The technologies and systems required for the SKA have enabled both South African engineers and those across the world to work at the cutting edge of design and innovation, says Cheetham.

“The most important spin-off, however, will be the generation of new knowledge: young scientists and engineers with expertise in a wide range of scarce and innovative fields. This will allow both South Africa and Africa to be a significant contributor to the global knowledge economy.”

The SKA has awarded about 1 000 bursaries to fund school, artisan, undergraduate and post-graduate studies in the fields of science and engineering in South Africa, through the SARAO Human Capital Development programme.

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