Sonja Basson is Principal Renewable Energy Engineer at AECOM, engineering firm that provides design, consulting, construction, and management services to a wide range of clients.
Sonja grew up in South Africa. When she was young wanted to become either a doctor or an engineer.
At high school she studied Maths, Science, English and Additional Maths. It was a difficult year for Sonja but she managed to get good enough grades for University.
I just always loved solving problems and maths was a subject that I could get lost in. I felt a great sense of achievement when I solved a problem and every time I solved it quicker it was even better.
Sonja’s parents could not afford to send her to university, but she worked hard and her high school academic results were good enough for her to get a scholarship for her first year at university.
A field trip to a Power Station when I was 10 made me fall in love with the power of electricity. I could feel the ground vibrate under my feet as we stood on the 16m level platform and then entered the control room with all the control panels. I wanted to learn to control a force that is unseen but is so powerful. I was fascinated by it.
University and first job
Sonja studied two degrees at the same time; a Bachelor of Engineering in Electrical and Electronics and a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology.
During her university career, she worked part time for the student career centre to earn a salary to pay for her studies and also received another scholarship from Eskom, (the only electricity utility in South Africa) for her final year studies. She also worked for them part-time during her 3rd and 4th year of studies.
Sonja’s first job was as a graduate electrical engineer at Eskom.
Sonja’s advice to students
Sonja was the first person who went to university in her family and she says it was difficult because no one in her family could provide advice about university. She says that if you find an inspiring career, seek out a mentor, they can be someone you look up to and aspire to be like.
Sonja says that the key personal attributes and skills that have contributed to her success are:
- resilience, the ability to never give up no matter what
- good problem solving skills
- critical thinking
- capacity for change.
I never give up. I see change as an opportunity it doesn’t scare me. Do what you really enjoy, because where you find your joy is where you're going to be happiest.
STEM excites me - my life without STEM would have no colour in it – I love that having a career in STEM has helped me to push myself beyond my perceived limitations and do things I think I would never have done. We are all so much stronger than we imagine.
A curious mind is your best friend.
Find something that inspires you, then you have a purpose to go after it with passion.
Sonja is a member of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), where she built up a network of friends in her industry. There she met a young engineer who she now mentors.
Sonja’s current job
Sonja designs solar farms for an international company called AECOM.
I get to help organisations switch from more traditional ways of powering their operations to clean energy such as wind, solar and battery backup.
She works with other companies that want to use alternative, clean and less expensive energy sources to find the right solution for their problem.
The first company she worked for ran coal-fired power stations. She decided to change companies so that she could work with wind and solar energy. After joining Schneider Electric, she was sent to France and trained to design solar farms.
She was part of a team that developed a more cost effective solar water pump that could be used in rural villages throughout Africa to pump fresh water from wells.
Sonja chose to work in this field because she loved maths at school, she always liked taking things apart and figuring out how it works. She grew up in a country that has huge poverty where many people live without electricity and she wanted to learn how to make electricity to help change their lives someday.
Sonja has built a successful career in engineering which is a male-dominated industry. In 2017 she was proud to chair an Australia-wide conference on Renewable Energy in Sydney.
STEM at work
In her job, Sonja uses STEM and digital technologies all the time. She uses design software called PVSyst to produce reports and simulations for the solar farms.
Since this interview and video production, Sonja has started a new job as Technical Director of Renewables at a company called Aurecon.