Portrait: Phyllis Ndugire from the zdi center cleverMINT

Phyllis Ndugire was already enthusiastic about engineering at the age of six. She is now doing her doctorate at the Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences and heads the university's affiliated department zdi center cleverMINT. In zdi heroine portrait Let's shed light on her career and the importance of strong women's networks.

Phyllis Ndugire stands in a hall with machines.

I'm going to be an engineer!

Together with her grandfather, six-year-old Phyllis Ndugire watches her father board a plane to England. The girl can't believe that this huge vehicle is actually supposed to fly. When asked in astonishment who would build such vehicles, her grandfather replies: “Engineers!” It’s clear to Phyllis Ndugire: “I want to be able to do that too! I’m going to be an engineer!”

Phyllis Ndugire works on a machine in a laboratory.
© Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences

Thanks to the support of her family and teachers, this plan has now worked. Phyllis Ndugire is currently doing her doctorate at the Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences in the Faculty of Technology and Bionics.

It doesn't build airplanes there. But her research in the project “Hardening Sim: Simulation program for the hardening process to predict material properties” helps to assess the durability of components – including in aircraft – and thus build more sustainably. Ndugire is carrying out her doctorate in cooperation with the Chair of Materials Engineering at the University of Rostock.

We need strong women's networks

Ndugire is starting her bachelor's degree together with twelve other women. Only two of them graduate, and she is the only woman in the master's program. Ndugire doesn't want to let that happen. She creates the “Big Sisters”, a kind of self-help group for women in STEM courses. “It has been shown that many women have similar problems and insecurities when studying. Not only were we able to give each other practical support in everyday study life, it also helps to know that others feel the same way as me.” A group of six students has now become a network of over 100 women under the name “Tech Women” who support each other – even beyond their studies.

It must be clear: the female perspective is important and has a right to exist, far beyond a women's quota. Teams are needed in which as many different perspectives as possible are represented in order to develop good products.

Here Phyllis Ndugire talks about an experience from her master's degree that made it clear to her why the female perspective is so important:

Transcript of the quote embedded as an audio file above: I was the only woman in the master's program. We had a lecture called patent law and our lecturer came and said: “Today we are going to develop a drill for women and we then want to patent it.” That was the task. We were divided into groups and had to present our results at the end. The first all-men group presented their results: “The drill should simply be pink, cheap and light.” I thought: “Ok, you can’t patent all of that!” It was the same thing over and over again with the next groups . Then our group came. Our drilling machine met all requirements and technical equipment. The lecturer then said: “That’s exactly what I wanted to show: We need women in groups where things are developed and decisions are made, because they have a different perspective.” It is important to work together in a team and bring in as many perspectives as possible so that we can... can be successful so that correct decisions can be made, correct machines can be built and so on. And even among women, we have to show each other that we can contribute more together than alone.

I really enjoy motivating young people.

Ndugire worked as a MINT mentor during her studies and thus came into contact with the zdi center for the first time. As a MINT mentor, she supports first-year students at the university. It makes sense to start a step earlier and get girls at school excited about MINT.

Both in her own career and in her work with girls and women, she becomes aware of the importance of peer-to-peer mentoring. Having “role models you can touch” is also important. The direct exchange between role models and the girls is very motivating – for both sides.

Phyllis Ndugire in a white coat and glasses holds a tool in her hand.
© Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences

One reason why she enjoys the position as zdi coordinator so much is clear to Ndugire: “I just really enjoy motivating young people and seeing how much can change for them after just one workshop. ” Thanks to her long-term collaboration with the zdi center, Phyllis Ndugire is also able to validate her successes. This is otherwise rather difficult for data protection reasons. It happens that she runs into a young woman on the Kleve campus who she had already supervised in a zdi course years ago. The students are always pleasantly surprised when their former mentor recognizes them.

You have to sell the ideas like a product

Phyllis Ndugire stands smiling in front of a sign that says: zdi-Zentrum Kleve cleverMINT North Rhine-Westphalia.
© Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences

Despite excellent training, starting as a zdi coordinator is anything but easy for Ndugire. In addition to the restrictions caused by the corona pandemic and the war in Ukraine, there are also spatial problems. Due to water damage in the building that also houses the zdi student laboratory, the laboratory had to make room for the university's teaching activities. The network's various projects are now starting up again, not least thanks to the coordinator's tireless networking work. The various partners are themselves affected by the pandemic and war and are somewhat hesitant to get involved in the zdi network. “It became clear to me that I had to convince people of our projects again. I really have to sell it, like a product. Then suddenly I was the sales lady,” laughs Ndugire. That worked.

“We are now not only offering our measures – our product – in the zdi student laboratory, but we have also been able to win over various partners who are now offering this product themselves,” says Ndugire happily. Through her studies and doctorate, she is also well connected at the Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences, the sponsor of the zdi network. She knows which professor is suitable for workshops and who can deal well with children and young people. This allows her to make direct contacts with other faculties. The Life Sciences Faculty now also offers various workshops in the bionics laboratory or in the FabLab Blue.

What are the next steps?

If the MINT fairy could fulfill three projects close to her heart, one project would be Ndugire's top priority: the currently closed MINT mentor project. She likes to think about the great fun she had working as a MINT mentor and, last but not least, the benefits for herself and others. One thing is important to her: “The young women who work as mentors need financial support. Because if you have to work three jobs alongside your studies to earn a living, you can’t also do voluntary work.” Other wishes include expanding the minilabs that already exist at the zdi center and a special competition or workshops for highly gifted students. Ndugire believes that they are not yet sufficiently taken into account by the network's current offerings.

For Phyllis Ndugire, however, the greatest wish and the most important message is: “Girls should just have the courage, be more self-confident and not give up!”

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