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Alumni profile: Nandi Wu pilots NASA technology back to earth
Thursday 17 June 2021
“I’ve always known I wanted to do engineering. I’m interested in creating things, building things.”
Nandi Wu came from an engineering family and grew up around her dad’s factory in Perth, seeing how things are built. This led her to pursue her passion at The Australian National University (ANU), earning a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) and PhD in the field of photovoltaics technology.
Ten years later, Dr Wu works with Liquid Instruments, one of Australia’s most promising tech start-ups “taking NASA technology to the world”.
Wu’s journey has not been without its challenges. She faced a period of adjustment when she first arrived at ANU, feeling adrift and missing friends and family. However, this was by design. She wanted independence. She wanted to study engineering and had chosen ANU for its prestige.
Wu has never been reluctant to contribute her ideas in collaborative settings. At its core, engineering is about identifying problems and solving problems. That’s what Wu likes about the discipline.
When asked if she had been impacted by low gender representation in her chosen field of study, Wu took a moment to reflect. “I didn’t realise it until second year,” she said, explaining that a lack of diversity became more apparent when she and her classmates chose their majors.
“The first lecture I walked into for digital signal processing, I think I counted only 8 girls in the entire lecture theatre. That was the first time I felt a little bit intimidated. In my heart, I kind of regret that, because that was definitely the reason I decided not to do electronics.”
“As a female in engineering, you learn how to have your own voice and stand up for yourself,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s about the skillsets and the knowledge that we have. It’s not about if I’m female or male,” she said.
Wu majored in mechanical engineering and chose a minor in renewable energy, which led to a much deeper passion: the fight against climate change.
“In this global climate crisis that we’re in right now, we’re very used to being told that we are the problem. Of course, human activities are causing the changes that we’re seeing right now. But I like looking at it another way: we are also the solution for this problem. I wanted to be in an area that can help combat climate change.”
Wu’s PhD looked at ways of building a Perovskite layer on top of solar cells to boost efficiency. She said it may be some time before Australians can benefit from the application of her work.
Nandi Wu employs metal evaporation to put contacts on silicon solar cells in the ANU engineering building in 2016. The majority of the metal is then stripped away in solvents leaving only fine patterns on the cells as metal contacts. (photo by Christian Samundsett)
“I enjoy doing the development and researching how to make things work well. But there is a still quite a long way to go before we can commercialise it. There can be a big gap between creating something cutting edge and bringing it to reality. Personally, I wanted to see: if you have a new technology, how do you bring it into the world?”
Wu’s next career move has been “a perfect bridge” allowing her to see ideas become reality. As an application engineer at Liquid Instruments, Wu now finds ways to bring state-of-the art testing and measurement systems to a $17 billion global market.
Liquid Instruments was started by a team of experimental physicists and engineers in a small storeroom at ANU. The company continues to keep its office in Canberra to take advantage of the ANU talent stream. They develop devices that measure, generate and process electronic signals for industries such as photonics and aerospace.
Wu credits her mentors at ANU for preparing her to learn at a rapid pace.
“It doesn’t scare me when I encounter a huge technical gap. I know I can bridge it,” she said. “ANU produces high-quality graduates, not just technically, but also having the skillset and the confidence to just explore and learn new things.”
Liquid Instruments CEO Daniel Shaddock speaks with Nandi Wu, an ANU PhD and Liquid Instruments Systems Engineer.
Liquid Instruments founder and CEO Daniel Shaddock is a professor in physics at ANU. He believes it’s the quality of an individual that matters most when building a team for a tech start-up, “even if their background and experience is not perfect”.
“One of the things that impressed me most about Nandi was her willingness to move outside of her comfort zone [in an adjacent engineering area] and push herself,” said Professor Shaddock. “You could see when something was scary, but Nandi would grit her teeth, think ‘you can do this,’ and go for it. I really love that about her. That takes a rare combination of humility – or lack of ego – and confidence. People who can master that balance will continue to learn and grow for their entire careers.”
Since 2014, Liquid Instruments has raised $23 million in venture capital investment and has 1,000 users in 30 countries. The foundational technologies were developed at NASA, where Professor Shaddock served as an architect for the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission. Moku:Pro is Liquid Instruments’ newest product, set to launch on 23 June at a public event hosted by ANU. Dr Wu and Professor Shaddock will both be speakers.
Professor Shaddock believes that maintaining a diverse workforce offers a competitive advantage. He said the company actively seeks out diversity to “attract talent from diverse backgrounds” and “give us access to the best and brightest colleagues”.
“What I find is a really effective way of solving technical problems is to be able to look at these things from different angles and different perspectives. If we’ve all had the same training, the same upbringing, the same teaching, then we’re probably all going to approach it from the similar point of view and we might be missing out the real insight that’s going to crack the problem wide open,” said Professor Shaddock.
If Wu is right that human innovation can address the problem that most concerns her – the global climate crisis – then the competitive advantage that comes with diversity will be an essential piece of the puzzle.
“It’s exciting that I feel like we are in an era where we’re breaking these gender boundaries and seeing real changes in the world right now. That started when I was at ANU, and I could see more and more female students in [engineering and STEM] classrooms. Now that’s translated into seeing more females in this workforce.”
Let’s hope the trend continues. Our planet depends on it.