Meet our Distinguished Alumni Award winner who is leading the way for women in STEM
Luisa Panuccio is intent on disrupting stereotypes. In doing so, she’s changing the face of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
So it’s no surprise that the 2021 James McWha Rising Star Award recipient is paving the way for the next generation of STEM professionals. After all, she credits a string of personal and professional role models for her own successes.
At just four years old, when a car crash left her father “learning to do everything again”, Luisa’s mother bore the family’s financial weight overnight. “I’ve never seen my mum work less than two jobs at the same time. There were points when she was working three jobs,” said Luisa.
Despite their financial pressures and having never attended university themselves, her parents actively encouraged their children to prioritise study. “My mother was of the view that having an education would open doors for us that she never had open for her. I think that’s because she’d seen the side of not having an education and not having job security as a result,” explained Luisa.
This emphasis on learning is also embedded in her first memories of reading on her grandparents’ living room floor. Migrating from Italy to Australia as a teenager, Luisa’s Nonno forewent an education in pursuit of a better life for his family. But that didn’t stop him from instilling a love of learning in his grandchildren from a young age.
“Nonno was the original engineer, without any qualifications,” said Luisa. “He had a wall of encyclopedias that he would encourage us to read, and he loved building things. He would quiz us about what we were learning and even built us a basketball ring so that we could shoot a hoop for every answer we got right.” The impact is obvious. At just 25 years old, Luisa has already worked alongside “geotechnical engineering royalty” at Aurecon and is now the Project Lead for 13 bridge upgrades, as well as the Project Manager at Arup for the relocation of a heritage-listed Melbourne church.
To date, her career has been underpinned by representation. “Typically, in movies and TV shows you always see smart characters as being socially awkward, or the character with no friends, or the character that gets picked on until she gets a makeover,” she said. “I genuinely think it puts young girls off a career in STEM.”
One of only two girls in her Year 12 physics class, Luisa’s no stranger to the pervasive typecasting of STEM professionals. And while working as the South Australian STEM ambassador for Google’s Engineers Without Borders program, she encountered the same narrative time and time again. “Whenever I asked the kids if they knew an engineer, they would usually say their dad was an engineer, but very rarely would they mention their mum,” she explained. “Plus, there’s this idea that it’s not ‘cool’ to be smart.”
In a bid to prove that there’s “no singular look for women in engineering”, Luisa entered the Miss Universe Australia competition in 2019. “When I talk to other women in engineering, a lot of the time there’s another woman they know who’s also in engineering,” she said. “It seems to be a big part of encouraging young girls to pursue these careers.”
The cyclical impact of this visibility and representation is something Luisa has experienced firsthand. She credits her own pursuit of a STEM career to her older sister Carmela, who herself was inspired to study engineering thanks to the influence of her physics teacher’s daughter. “I really didn't know what an engineer was until I saw an engineer, being my sister Carmela,” explained Luisa.
Inspired by Carmela’s pursuit of a niche engineering sub-sector, the latest iteration of Luisa’s YouTube series STEM at HOME: What Do You Do? highlights the many and varied careers in STEM. “When you think about civil engineering, most people know that it’s roads, bridges and footpaths, you can really see those things,” she said. “But they don’t know what telecommunications engineering is, so they don’t consider it as a career option.” Luisa has published 20 videos, each showcasing a different potential pathway for budding STEM students. She estimates there are a further 60 episodes to come.
Unsurprisingly, she’s already been recognised extensively for her work, counting the 2019 Graduate of the Year Award from the National Association of Women in Construction among a slew of nominations and accolades. But the Bachelor of Engineering (Civil and Architectural) Honours graduate counts winning the 2021 James McWha Rising Star Award as a career highlight. “The first thing I did was research the awards and I remember seeing a list of names of people who’d won in the past,” said Luisa. “I saw Julia Gillard’s name and I was reading her book at the time — I couldn’t believe I was being recognised on the same list as her.”
For Luisa, “it was the fact that someone had gone out of their way to nominate [her]” that held the most weight. “I later found out it was someone from the Faculty of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences [now the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Technology],” said Luisa.
“My mother was of the view that having an education would open doors for us that she never had open for her. I think that’s because she’d seen the side of not having an education and not having job security as a result.” Luisa Panuccio
“That made it even more special because I felt very close to my faculty when I was at the University. “It was a full-circle moment, and I remember feeling really proud of myself.”
A young woman with the world at her feet, Luisa’s showing no signs of slowing down. “Eventually I want to be a CEO. I want to be at the top. I don’t think you need the power to make change, but I think it definitely helps.”
Story by Michaela McGrath
Photos by Josh Geelen