Dr Annabelle Blom
BSc(Hons) 2001; PhD 2005
I completed my PhD in Physical Chemistry with Prof Greg Warr in 2005 and enjoyed it so much I then stayed for a further 18 months as a PostDoc Researcher on an industry-supported project. In mid 2006, I moved to the Industrial sector through employment with BHPBilliton’s Newcastle Technology Centre. This was a nice transition role from the academic research environment I was exposed to at University and the nature of research undertaken within an Industrial operation. There was still a focus on deeper analysis and time was given to follow interesting avenues. I was also exposed to the early stages of leading and influencing people with small teams of support Technicians working with me. During this time I worked in a team on the development of a flow sheet that was later commercialised for the extraction of titanium dioxide from lower grade ilmenite ore.
After 18 months at NTC, I transferred to Olympic Dam. This is one of BHPBillitons larger operating assets with a very complex metallurgical operation resulting in the production of copper, uranium, gold and silver. I started here in a Project Metallurgist role working on improvements in thickening performance and flocculant consumption within their counter current decantation circuit, optimisation of the uranium leaching process and the construction and operation of a small scale pilot plant mimicking a uranium solvent extraction plant. I found the move fascinating and the interaction with a live, operating plant that I could make tangible changes to very rewarding. I was promoted to a Senior Project Metallurgical role in the middle of 2009 and took on projects to identify technologies that would be suitable to further filter and desaturate liquor streams and led a team of up to 7 metallurgists and an operating budget I was accountable for.
I then took on a more operationally focussed role when I transitioned to the role of Technical Superintendent for the Refinery in mid 2010. This is the part of the Olympic Dam plant that produces four of the operation’s five final products (Electro-refined copper, Electro-won copper, gold and silver bullion). Here I had up to 5 metallurgists reporting to me and was directly responsible for the purity, efficiency and recovery of the operating plant. Troubleshooting plant problems that were hindering production or cost control was now my focus with time being of the essence for an answer that could be executed now. The research undertaken in this environment is shallow and fast with a focus on easy to implement solutions within the available resources. The pace is fast and a key skill to rapidly develop is the ability to delegate and the ability to prioritise! This role was very enjoyable – I was in charge of a plant that I could change, modify (within reason) and get real time feedback on the decisions I was making.
Since March 2012, I have been a Production Superintendent and am now responsible for up to 64 reports with a focus on their safety, risk management, cost management, operating discipline and production. The output of copper metal is now one of my primary measures of performance. It has taught me different ways to solve problems – University taught me to think analytically, my work is now teaching me to think in “systems” and “behaviours”. How to standardise a process so operators can work efficiently and safely, how to influence people’s behaviours so they make safe choices and so forth.
I am one of only a handful of female production superintendents in the operation which has been interesting. I am in the mining sector and now in a role directly working with the plant operators and I am a female. I have found my team of operators very supportive and frankly have not been made to feel “female” or experienced any form of untoward behaviour from them. BHPBilliton has a strong code of conduct on what is acceptable behaviour and what is not which is enforced to the operator level with disciplinary consequences for inappropriate behaviours. Regardless of that however, I think that what the guys on the floor respond to is: being listened to, having their ideas/initiatives listened to and acted upon, having information that is relevant, useful or even plain interesting communicated to them, and of course responding with fair, constructive counselling if needed to breaches in performance. Whether this is something my gender plays a role in or not is debatable but being a female in this environment is not something I am finding a hindrance.
The career path I have taken has led me to the outback of Australia where I live with my young family and is a career move I have found incredibly interesting, challenging and rewarding. I would highly recommend this path for any other women who have a strong ability to learn for themselves, sense of adventure and solid work ethic!
Dr Gemma Solomon
The journey to a PhD at The University of Sydney
Unlike many graduate students in chemistry at the University of Sydney I did not start my studies here. I completed my BSc majoring in chemical physics at the University of Western Australia and came to the University of Sydney for an honours project. I chose to come to here because of the range of projects available and because I found the School of Chemistry to be very helpful and supportive in making my move possible.
I enjoyed my honours year immensely and could see the possibility of continuing was an exciting one, however, I found the decision to stay and do a PhD one of the hardest ones I have ever had to make. Thankfully, today I feel confident I made the right choice.
My PhD experience
My PhD work was in single molecule electronics, an area experiencing explosive growth in recent times. This made it an exciting field to work in, but also a very challenging one. Professor Jeffrey Reimers and Emeritus Professor Noel Hush were exceptional in the advice and assistance they gave me over the course of my PhD, providing an open and supportive research environment for me to learn what it really was to do research.
During my PhD, we initiated collaborations with researchers in Denmark, Germany and Italy and each year I spent three to six months visiting these collaborators and attending international conferences in Europe and America. The opportunities for travel during a PhD program are great, in no small part due to the availability of funds through various scholarships and assistance schemes at both
a school and university level. The opportunity
to present work at international meetings, to speak with the "big names" in the field, to meet other young scientists and see how science was done in a number of universities got me well and truly hooked on the exciting world of research. Paradoxically, the isolated nature of Australia means that there are not the barriers to long-distance travel that exist for students in America and Europe. The perspective I gained from this travel made it clear to me that I wanted to continue to work in scientific research and experience what other institutions had to offer.
Life after a PhD
After my time in Sydney, I moved to the U.S. as a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University, near Chicago. I now worked for Professor Mark Ratner, one of the pioneers of molecular electronics and it was a fantastic experience. Northwestern University was an incredibly stimulating place to work, with world-leaders in a whole range of areas of nanoscience. I learnt a huge amount from my time there and also met some great friends and collaborators.
I am now working as an Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. There are great opportunities for young researchers starting their careers in Denmark (and Europe generally) with a range of “Starting Grants” worth A$1-2m, which provides a fantastic boost when building a research group. There are also exciting opportunities for collaboration across Europe through large projects and networks that bring researchers together. I am thoroughly enjoying life in Denmark, have managed to learn Danish (although I still teach in English), and am happy for all the adventures that a career in research has made possible.
Dr Mat Hall
I knew by half-way through my year-in-industry (between second and third year undergrad) that I wanted to get into research, and I knew half way through my honours year with Trevor Hambley that I wanted to stay on and do a PhD. It’s the best decision I ever made.
My PhD was embedded in the field of metals in medicine, and while at its core was my true love: coordination chemistry, it was very cross-disciplinary in nature. We worked on platinum-based cancer drugs (related to the drug cisplatin), trying to design new drugs and understand their mechanism of action. In the course of my PhD, I used a wide range of techniques as diverse as drug design, synthesis, spectroscopy, crystallography, cytotoxicity assays and other cell biological techniques. Indeed, it was the ability to cross between inorganic chemistry and cancer cell biology that so excited me. As part of my PhD, I travelled to conferences in Florence, Heidelberg, New York and Mexico City, spent 6 months in a lab in Oxford, and made extensive use of synchrotrons in Tsukuba (Japan) and Chicago. There are few Chemistry departments in the world that can offer such an amazing and enriching experience – a combination of world experts, world-class research facilities, and exposure to experts in the field through conferences and visiting lecturers.
What made Science so much fun was how open and social the school was; you can knock on the door of anyone in the building for advice or with an idea, and students and faculty can be found together regularly in local pubs and restaurants. I miss that more than anything.
After submitting my PhD, I spent two months at Syracuse University (NY) in 2004 on an Australian Academy of Sciences Fellowship working on drug assays before taking up an American Australian Association Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (Baltimore, MD) using yeast genetics to understand metal ion homeostasis of manganese in 2005. At the end of the fellowship, I decided I wanted to stay on in America, and this has taken me to the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda working on the mechanisms of cancer drug resistance, and back to bioinorganic chemistry, developing drugs that target resistant cells.
I’ve learnt in America that there are advantages to a Sydney PhD. It can be earned relatively quickly, the faculty and research equipment are world class, and Sydney graduates are more independent than their overseas equivalents (a rare commodity), and capable of collaborating effectively and adapting to work between several disciplines.
If anyone asked me whether they should do a PhD, and whether they should do it at Sydney, it would be an emphatic yes to both.