Lightning Lady shows women engineers the way

MORE and more women are taking up engineering, a field that is no longer the domain of men.

It is no longer strange to see women leading technical discussions or wearing hard hats and boots at construction sites or oil production platforms.

Since many women engineers have now attained managerial and top executive positions, a leadership forum for women in engineering has been organised annually with the next one in mid-February.

I would like to share about one such engineer who has been quietly playing a key role on the world stage for the past two decades.

She is well known among western experts as the first woman to develop the latest method of lightning protection that is already being used worldwide.

Although she is not an academic nor affiliated to any established research body, her publications have been highly cited by dozens of lightning experts in reference books, engineering journals, technical reports and also in foreign postgraduate theses on lightning protection.

Robiah Ibrahim (aka. Ruby) was born and raised in the southern state of Johor. Nicknamed the “Lightning Lady” by her ex-schoolmates from Tunku Kurshiah College, she studied electrical engineering in a local university when the highly demanding course was still a male-dominated one more than three decades ago.

She became prominent in the scientific world when her inaugural paper on lightning damage to buildings caught the attention of professors from Australia and Singapore back in 1995.

With their support, her work was highlighted to lightning experts in CIGRE, the international technical organisation that studies lightning and high voltage phenomena.

Apparently, she had co-discovered a key mechanism for lightning strikes by studying the pattern of lightning damage on tall buildings in the country.

She also suggested a new and highly effective method for protecting tall buildings from being damaged by lightning strikes.

Her novel method was first endorsed in the Australian lightning protection standard in 2003 after a detailed study led by Professor Mat Darveniza of the University of Queensland.

The professor, a highly respected expert in the world of lightning protection, was also instrumental for introducing her method to the technical committees of CIGRE and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the international standards body based in Geneva.

In 2006, the IEC endorsed Robiah’s method in the revised lightning protection standard, the IEC62305. Malaysia, being a member of the IEC, endorsed the revised IEC standard as the Malaysian standard a year later.

Among women lightning protection experts, Robiah definitely occupies the top position since no other women in history has had their work or discovery included in either the national or international lightning protection standards. This is certainly a scientific first for an Asian, a Malaysian and a woman.

What is surprising about Robiah is the fact that she became an internationally recognised expert on lightning protection through self-study.

Since the subject was not taught at university level then, she had studied the subject from dozens of articles extracted from engineering books, technical magazines and scientific journals.

These articles were collected over a period of 10 years prior to writing her first paper in 1995.

The fact that Malaysia has one of the highest number of thunderstorm days in the world also aided in her understanding of the subject.

When her work was first published in an international conference that was held in Kuala Lumpur, only lightning experts like Professor Darveniza and his colleagues could understand its contents. Since then, several renowned western lightning experts have visited the country in order to witness the damages first hand and to learn how the data was collected.

Interest in Robiah’s discovery grew futher after several renowned experts cited her work in their publications. Several western universities even used her work as the basis of their research on lightning protection and many postgraduate students have applied her data in their theses.

In spite of the recognition she had received internationally, Robiah was highly amused that most local academics and engineers still could not accept nor understand her work. The predominantly male academics, who taught lightning protection to their students, had rejected it because the basis of her discovery and method were “not mentioned in any textbook” then.

Some even rejected it because it was “not funded by the government”. Whatever silly reasons these male academics gave for ignoring her work, the situation is bound to change since Robiah’s work has been cited in a number of reference textbooks published by predominantly male western lightning experts.

Robiah’s stellar achievements in the field of lightning protection in the past two decades should be a prime motivating factor for Malaysian girls to consider a career in engineering.

She has proven that a woman can not only be successful in the world of engineering but can also be among the world leaders when they put their minds to it, no matter what the local male academics say about them.


Kuala Lumpur

Opinion , letters