Michelle Dickinson

BLAKE Leader 2015

‘Nanogirl’ – Scientist, Adventurer, Speaker.

Dr Michelle Dickinson – and her superhero alter-ego Nanogirl – use leadership to inspire others to move towards positive goals for the planet and the people on it.

The Blake Leader believes she fell into leadership as others have sought her guidance and been inspired by what she does – as a leading nanotechnologist, engineering lecturer, charity founder, communicator and mentor. Michelle is driven to make a difference to the world – not only through huge leaps forward in “tiny” science, but also using her passion and know-how to make science and technology less intimidating and more fun for children, especially girls.

The mantra of Nanogirl explains it all: On a mission to use science for good, not evil.

With all the initiatives she drives, Michelle is very much hands-on and leads by example. She is deeply focused on sharing her passion for engineering, science and technology with all New Zealanders.

With a Master of Engineering degree in biomedical materials from Manchester University, and a PhD from Rutgers University in the United States, Michelle set up New Zealand’s first and only nanomechanical testing laboratory at the University of Auckland. The lab carries out leading-edge research into breaking extremely small things, from soft biological cells through to hard industrial coatings.

Among the breakthroughs at Michelle’s lab has been reproducing the tiny hairs on geckos’ feet to line the hands of robots to pick up objects easily.

While researchers from around the world spend time and gain knowledge in the lab, it has major spin-offs for New Zealand technology too. Michelle has built relationships between academia and industry, creating student placements to help New Zealand nanotechnology start-ups make use of the equipment and expertise they usually wouldn’t be able to afford.

Also a senior lecturer of engineering at the University of Auckland, Michelle is a visionary who champions diversity. She is striving towards a goal of having 50 percent of the technology sector occupied by women, and trying to make scientific literacy a priority in schools and in the media. She is also a prolific writer of columns and blogs, breaking down the complex jargon to help more people understand science and technology innovations.

Michelle understands the importance of communication in leadership. Naturally shy and introverted, she has worked hard to learn new communication skills, and now uses storytelling and emotional connection to overcome her fear of public speaking. She regularly appears on television and is a highly sought-after speaker, addressing corporates, community groups and schools internationally. Generously, she gifts her time to most of her projects and public appearances.

Growing up in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and the United States, Michelle played with circuit boards and soldering irons as a child, and excelled in science. But she also dreamed of becoming a superhero. She invented her science superhero stage name, Nanogirl, to relate to children thatscience doesn’t need to be boring, or confined to the classroom or textbooks.

Through Nanogirl, she also campaigns to break the stereotype of what an engineer looks like and encourages girls to see science and engineering is inclusive of them too. Michelle is an ambassador for the national BrightSparks competition – showcasing students’ creativity with electronics, engineering and programming – and she has personally created a new award category for females.

But she is not just about empowering girls. She is co-founder of OMGTech!, a charity providing science and technology education for boys and girls in low decile schools. She also empowers their teachers, by creating teams of experts who donate their time to help build the confidence of teachers in tech skills they may not have been exposed to – like coding, robotics and 3D printing.

Her outstanding work in promoting science, engineering and technology has been recognised with a succession of awards. She was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2015 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to science, and won the Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize and the New Zealand Association of Scientists Science Communicator award in 2014.

In that same year, she accepted an invitation to spend a week with seven other experts at billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s Caribbean island, brainstorming technology and sustainability solutions for the planet.

Michelle firmly believes that you can achieve anything you set your mind to – whether it is a challenge in science, or in her adventurous past-times of kitesurfing, rock climbing, paddle-boarding and mountain biking. And it makes her feel like a superhero.