Our Stories: Monique Cooper

Written by Renee Tonkin. Posted in Our Stories.

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At the age of 16, Monique Cooper donned her uniform for the first time as a volunteer firefighter – a move that kickstarted her interest in mechanics and eventually, a flourishing engineering career. Now, Monique is a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, building on her early enthusiasm for employing cutting-edge technologies and processes to help people.

Born in Papakura and raised in Clevedon on the outskirts of Tāmaki Makaurau, Monique’s passion for engineering was sparked by her father – an electrical engineer. Monique used to attend Girls’ Brigade - a Christian youth organisation that focused on personal development and community service - while her father volunteered with the Boys’ Brigade.

After her sessions with the girls, she would then go and watch while her Dad finished up his volunteering with the boys, intrigued by the technologies they were learning. “Through exposure to what the [boys] were building, I grew my curiosity and a confidence that I too could do it.”

At high school, Monique considered a range of career options, from modelling to midwifery. A pivotal moment for her was seeing a sign on her way home from school that said, “Firefighters needed” and thinking “Wouldn’t that be cool?” After a conversation with her father, she decided to give it a go.

Monique says she “absolutely loved” volunteering as a firefighter. She was fascinated by the mechanical devices and tools, such as the “Jaws of Life,” which she says, “You hold up, you twist a thing, and then all of a sudden it pops the car open”. She adds, “It's not quite as simple as that, but it's just absolutely phenomenal.”

Besides her interest in technology, Monique also wanted her work to be creative and help people, which led her to enrol in a course at AUT in Architectural Engineering. She was struck by the possibility of merging high-level creative thinking with the more practical engineering concepts she’d been exposed to throughout her youth.

After beginning her course at AUT, her interests evolved and she came out with a degree in Mechatronics, as well as a Business degree. Having been awarded scholarships to undertake an exchange in Denmark and a robotics internship in Taiwan during her studies, Monique could feel the benefit of having these rich international experiences.

While Monique wrapped up her studies during the pandemic, she also worked for two years as a Product Development Engineer at Fisher & Paykel Healthcare in New Zealand. However, she felt there was more to learn and so last October, Monique arrived in the UK to begin a Master’s degree in Social Data Science at Oxford University, having been awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to support her study.

Speaking of her experience at Oxford so far, Monique says, “There are so many people to meet, so many things to do. I was definitely lacking sleep in the first term.” She then adds, “I have to make most of it…you know, fill up my mind with everything to take it back home”.

Monique’s Social Data Science course is housed within the Social Science division at Oxford. “I essentially wanted to pair my engineering understanding of the world to the human side a little bit more… I need to know how this is impacting people.”

As part of her course, Monique is working with health data and looking at how existing societal biases can be perpetuated by the tools (algorithms) we develop to understand and use the data. The potential impact of these biases is “an area which I think we need to think a lot more about in New Zealand”.

When asked what she’s most proud of, Monique says it’s “being bold and taking these opportunities to go overseas, to experience different things, even though it's certainly new and scary and out of my comfort zone.” With her nephews and nieces on her mind, she says she hopes to have inspired them to aim high and push the boundaries.

So what’s next for Monique? She plans to stay in Oxford for a second year on her Rhodes Scholarship, having been accepted into another MSc programme in Sustainability, Enterprise, and the Environment. Monique's career will be at the intersection of data science and social and environmental impact – she says her priority is to “make the most of the opportunities given to her to serve home while enjoying that process as well…it's all a work in progress”. 

If you’d like to follow Monique’s journey, you can connect with her on LinkedIn.