ALD23: Elsie MacGill, Aeronautical Engineer

Elsie MacGill

Nicknamed “Queen of the Hurricanes”, Elizabeth “Elsie” Muriel Gregory MacGill was the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree in Canada. She was also the first woman in North America – and likely the world – to earn a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering, as well as the first woman to design and produce an aircraft. During World War Two, she led the Canadian production of a key model of fighter plane.

MacGill was born on 27 March 1905 in Vancouver. She began her bachelor’s in electrical engineering at the University of Toronto aged 18, becoming Canada’s first woman graduate in that subject in 1927. Upon finishing her degree, she relocated to Michigan in the US, working as a mechanical engineer for an automobile company.

By this point, MacGill already had a nascent interest in the rapidly-developing field of aeronautical engineering. But she was motivated to learn more when her firm started making planes, beginning graduate studies in aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan. When she completed her master’s in 1929, she became the first woman in North America (and probably the world) to do so.

A bout of polio put MacGill’s career on hold for several years, but she completed postgraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1934. She was almost immediately hired as an assistant engineer at Fairchild Aircraft Ltd, an aeronautical company in Quebec known for its innovative approach. There, she worked on many aircraft designs, routinely insisting on accompanying pilots on dangerous test flights to assess the performance of her planes.

MacGill’s star really began to rise in 1938, the year she turned 33. In March, she presented a much-praised paper to the Royal Aeronautical Society in Ottawa. She was accepted into the Engineering Institute of Canada, making her the professional association’s first female member. And she was hired as the chief aeronautical engineer at Canadian Car & Foundry (Can Car) in Ontario, the first woman in the world to hold such a position.

Can Car was a major Canadian transport manufacturer, and most of MacGill’s time there overlapped with World War II. During that period, she helped transform Canada into a global hub for aviation construction. She led the design, construction and aerial testing of the Maple Leaf II Trainer (recognised as the first aircraft ever entirely designed and produced by a woman) and had the Can Car plant retooled within a year, enabling it to rapidly manufacture Hawker Hurricane planes. With MacGill serving as designer and leader of production, these aircrafts played a critical role in WWII air combat, flown by Canadian and Allied airmen in the Battle of Britain.

MacGill also designed the first successful winterized version of a high-speed aircraft, equipping the Hawker with skis and de-icing equipment. In 1940, she wrote a paper based on her time at Can Car, “Factors Affecting Mass Production of Aeroplanes”, that was later published in The Engineering Journal.

MacGill left Can Car in 1943 and founded a consulting engineering company. Increasingly focused on civilian aircraft, she joined the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as a Canadian representative and became the first woman to serve as its technical advisor on aircraft airworthiness in 1946. She died on 4 November 1980, aged 75.

Among many awards and honours, MacGill was named to the Order of Canada in 1971, made a fellow of the Engineering Institute of Canada in 1972, and inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 1992. She was the subject of a Canadian stamp in 2019 and a commemorative coin issued by Royal Canadian Mint in 2023.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23 Books: Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge, Erica Gies

Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge, Erica Gies

The impact of the modern human race continues to manifest itself through climate change, which, coupled with our thirst for ongoing industrial agriculture and urbanisation, has resulted in an increasing frequency of extreme floods and devastating periods of drought in different areas of the world.

Drawing on the work of ‘water detectives’ from across countries such as India, Kenya, Peru and the USA, Water Always Wins conveys that we can learn much from nature on how to redress the impact of climate change.

Erica Gies examines the challenges that our planet now faces and how our efforts to manage water have been unsuccessful because ‘water always wins’. Gies explains the compelling concept of ‘slow water’ – the slowing of water within our landscapes – and how the combination of nature-based solutions and technological advances can restore balance to our global water system and help us adapt to climate change.

Order the book on Bookshop.org.uk.

About the Author

Erica Gies is an award-winning independent journalist and author whose work focuses on water management, climate change, and its impact on flora and fauna. Her work has been published in numerous renowned outlets including Scientific American, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, and Nature.

Erica grew up in the San Francisco Bay area in California where her days spent hiking and camping sparked her love of water and the outdoors. Gies now divides her time between San Francisco and British Columbia, and much of her work focuses on the environment in these areas.

Gies is also a National Geographic Explorer and has reported on the environment from locations across the globe, including Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America, where she has researched indigenous and nature-based solutions for water management in a changing climate – the focus of her recent book Water Always Wins. Gies also engages audiences with talks about environmental issues at conferences and colleges including Princeton, Stanford, and the University of California’s California Institute for Water Resources.

You can follow Erica Gies’ work here:

Twitter: @egies
Facebook: facebook.com/Erica.Gies.Author
LinkedIn: LinkedIn.com/in/erica-gies-b878b4
Website: ericagies.com

With thanks to Synergy for their support.

ALD23: Professor Ngalula Sandrine Mubenga, Electrical Engineer

Professor Ngalula Sandrine Mubenga

Professor Ngalula Sandrine Mubenga is an electrical engineer whose pioneering research into battery management systems identified ways to increase the capacity and longevity of batteries.

Mubenga was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and had a medical scare aged 17 that drove home to her the importance of reliable energy. She had been hospitalised in Kikwit with appendicitis and needed urgent surgery, but the city had run out of power. It took three agonising days for Mubenga’s father to find enough fuel for the surgery to be performed – an experience that she has said inspired her to pursue a career in electrical engineering.

Today, Mubenga is an engineer and assistant professor of electrical engineering technology at the University of Toledo in the US, whose research focuses on sustainable and renewable energy (including solar power, electric vehicles and battery management).

She conducted her award-winning research into batteries as a doctoral student at the University of Toledo, where she developed a new kind of equaliser (a tool that can be used to rejuvenate tired batteries or to prevent batteries from becoming tired). Mubenga invented a bilevel equaliser, the first to combine an active and low-cost passive equaliser, that could be used to extend the life of lithium-ion batteries.

Mubenga is also an entrepreneur and philanthropist. In 2011, she founded SMIN Power Group LLC, a company that aims to help Africans overcome power outages. SMIN designs and installs renewable energy devices and solar systems – including public lighting and water pumping projects – in communities, schools and hospitals across the DRC. It also provides financial support to African students who are studying science and working on climate change solutions.

In 2018, Mubenga launched the STEM DRC initiative (where she still serves as president), a not-for-profit organisation that works to stimulate social and economic development in the DRC by promoting STEM education and providing college scholarships for Congolese students.

Mubenga currently leads electrification initiatives in the DRC as Director General of the country’s Electricity Regulatory Agency, a role to which she was appointed by the government in 2020. Previously, she served on the board of directors for Société Nationale d’Électricité (the DRC’s national energy company). She now balances her position as a DRC government official with her post at UoT, where she continues to teach and conduct research.

Mubenga’s awards and honours include being recognised as one of the Most Important Black Women Engineers by DesignNews and Engineer of the Year by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 2018. The same year, her battery research won the IEEE National Aerospace and Electronics Conference Best Poster Award.

You can follow her work here:

Twitter: @NgalulaPe
Website: drmubenga.com

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23: Bessie Coleman, Aviator

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was an American aviator. The first Black person and person of Native American descent to earn an international pilot’s licence, she made the first public flight by a Black woman in the United States.

Coleman was born on 26 January 1892 into a family of sharecroppers in Texas. Noted as an outstanding maths student from an early age, she could only afford to attend college for one term before dropping out. While working in a barber shop in Chicago in her early 20s, she met pilots recently returned from World War I, whose stories of flying across Europe set her imagination alight.

At the time, however, flight schools in the US refused to accept women, Black people and Native Americans as students (Coleman’s father was of mixed African-American and Native descent). When Coleman’s brother teased her that she’d never fly a plane like the French female pilots he’d met during the war, she decided that a trip to France was her best route into the sky.

Coleman saved and obtained sponsorships to go to France for flight school, travelling to Paris in November 1920. She earned her pilot’s licence in just seven months, becoming the first Black woman and first self-identified Native American to do so in June 1921. That September, she returned to the States, but quickly realised that earning a living from aviation would be difficult; commercial flights were not yet widespread in the US. The best way to earn a living from civil aviation, she determined, was competitive stunt flying.

Keen to hone her skills in a highly dangerous field, and still unable to find a flying instructor willing to take on a Black woman in the US, Coleman returned to France to complete an advanced aviation course in February 1922. She spent time in the Netherlands with Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s most high-profile aircraft designers, and received training from one of his company’s chief pilots in Germany. On 3 September 1922, Coleman made the first public flight by a Black woman in the US, piloting a Curtiss JN-4D Jenny at Curtiss Field on Long Island, New York.

Coleman’s performances involving dramatic tricks in the air were hugely popular, and she became a media sensation known as “Queen Bess” and “Brave Bessie”. Her dream was to establish a school for African-American aviators, but she didn’t live long enough to see this ambition realised: she died in a plane crash in 1926, aged just 34. Her legacy, though, lived on. When NASA astronaut Dr Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to travel into space in September 1992, she carried a photo of Coleman with her.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23: Professor Rose Leke, Immunologist, Parasitologist and Malariologist

Professor Rose Leke

Professor Rose Leke is an internationally renowned immunologist and parasitologist who has dedicated her career to helping eradicate malaria. Working with Dr Diane Taylor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, her research has advanced understandings of how malaria during pregnancy can harm the health of both mothers and foetuses. She has also dedicated many years to working on polio elimination programmes and advocating for better representation for women in STEM.

As a young girl growing up in rural Cameroon in the 1950s, Leke experienced regular bouts of malaria as a normal part of life. Her interest in medicine was initially sparked by the treatment she received for a lung abscess as a child: she wanted to understand exactly what she had gone through, as well as how she could help others experiencing health problems. In secondary school, Leke noticed how many pregnant women in her community were dying of malaria and decided to pursue a career in mitigating the harm caused by the disease.

In 1966, Leke left Cameroon for undergraduate studies in the US, followed by a masters and a PhD in parasitology in Canada. She then returned to Cameroon to research onchocerciasis, or river blindness. “To me, the choice was never going to be oncho, I had to do work in malaria,” she said later. Malaria was what she felt she “was supposed to do”.

That goal was certainly achieved. Leke has worked on malaria elimination programmes, served as a member of multiple national and international malaria response committees, and held the positions of Executive Director of the Cameroon Coalition Against Malaria and president of the Federation of African Immunological Societies. Her primary research focus is the immunology of parasitic infections, with emphasis on malaria in pregnant women, and she has worked for decades to improve clinical care for pregnant women suffering from the disease.

In the early 1990s, Leke began her decades-long collaboration with Taylor. The women’s research has made it easier to diagnose placental malaria and shown how the presence of the malaria parasite within the placenta can affect the immune development of newborns. Leke has also worked extensively on polio elimination, inspired partly by the experiences of close relatives who suffered with the disease.

Leke retired from senior university positions in 2013, when she was head of the Department of Medicine and Director of the Biotechnology Centre at the University of Yaoundé I in Cameroon. Two years later, she established the Higher Institute for Growth in Health Research for Women Consortium – furthering a lifelong commitment to improving gender equality in science and global health leadership. To date, the mentorship initiative has supported over 100 young women scientists in Cameroon.

Today, Leke is Emeritus Professor of Immunology and Parasitology at the University of Yaoundé I. She also serves as a chair or consultant on several global committees related to malaria and polio, including for the World Health Organization (WHO).

Among many awards, Leke was ceremonially named Queen Mother of the Cameroon Medical Community by the Cameroon Medical Council in 2019 and recognised for her “Achievement in Global Health Leadership” by the Africa Centres for Disease Control & Prevention in 2022. This year, she received the 2023 Virchow Prize for Global Health – honouring her “pioneering infectious disease research towards a malaria-free world and relentless dedication in advancing gender equality”.

You can follow her work here:

Twitter: @LekeRose

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.