Episode 3: What else can I do with STEM?
Andi Horvath: Hey Erin, I’ve got a joke for you. Three scientists walk into a bar, and it goes something like this...
Kate Ravilious: Hi, my name’s Kate Ravilious. I'm a science journalist in the UK. I write for a number of magazines and newspapers, including The Guardian.
Martin Elhay: My name is Martin Elhay. I'm a Senior Business Development Manager at the University of Melbourne.
Leon Wong: My name is Leon Wong, and I'm a patent and trademarks attorney.
Erin Grant: Hey, wait a minute, didn’t you say 3 scientists? But it’s true, all of these people have not only studied science, but were scientists, before they evolved or reinvented themselves.
Andi: The punchline for now is we’ve got our three scientists walking into the bar, but if they weren’t scientists first, they wouldn’t be able to do their current jobs, which are journalist, business manager, and lawyer.
Erin: Hi, I’m Erin Grant, a PhD student in physics, and this is my first go at co-hosting a podcast. I’m learning on the job, which just happens to be one of the topics for today. My co-host is Dr Andi Horvath, a former scientist, lecturer, curator and broadcaster and now a podcaster. She is a serial career reinventor, also another theme of this episode.
Andi: We’ll be your navigators for this episode of The Secret life of STEM.
Erin: So how do you go about reinventing your STEM career? And after all that study, why? Is a career change a slow cook, or do you hold your nose and jump? Do you fall into it, or do you fight for it?
Andi: Is it a calling, or a casual ‘give-it-a-go’? An evolution, or a revolution? Or just luck - right place and right time?
Erin: Perhaps it’s even a complete surprise to find yourself going down an unexpected fork in the road.
Andi: Spoiler alert: It’s all of the above.
Erin: We went to visit Ellen Sandell, an Australian politician, at her office. Ellen puts the science in politics.
Ellen Sandell: Well, I never even thought that I would go into politics. I have to say I always wanted to be a scientist. Even in primary school, I remember each year I had a new area I wanted to go into. One year I’d say to everyone, I wanna be a palaeontologist, and the next year I wanted to be a geologist and the next year I wanted to be an ecologist and I love the idea that I would go and be a scientist and just the excitement of that. And I studied science and maths all the way through school. So I moved to Melbourne to pursue a science career.
Andi: How does a passionate environmental scientist find themselves in of-all-things politics?
Ellen: I studied science, but to be honest, the thing that got me politically involved was the destruction of our environment and in particular, climate change and learning about that at university and being so passionate about conservation and biodiversity and just learning that actually, a lot of the scientists
h ad the answers for us, that were doing great work, that were telling us what the problems were and what some of the answers were and it was the politicians where the blockage was. And so I thought, "Well, if you really wanna save the environment, yes we need all the research, yes we need those solutions, but actually even more than that, we need politicians you are going to listen”.
I think science is a way of thinking, it's a scientific method in thinking that I wish everybody had, actually. Because in politics, there's so many lawyers or just people who've been political staffers their whole life, studied politics at uni, and they don't have that basis or this idea of relying on evidence or forming a hypothesis and then actually having to test it and say if it's true or not. And changing your mind if the evidence shows you and the data shows you that something doesn't work. And that gets me very frustrated in politics and I talked about it in my maiden speech, that I will always rely on the evidence.
Ellen, speaking at parliament: The Premier told us that he won’t allow pill testing because of his common sense. Not because of advice from the health department, not because of advice or evidence from other professionals, not because of evidence from around the world, where pill testing has actually been researched and studied rigorously. But just because of his common sense tells him he shouldn’t support it. Well, Premier, that approach is comprehensively irresponsible and just such an absolute shame. Premier, please listen to the evidence and stop blocking Victorian’s access to pill testing.
Ellen: And sometimes it can be counter intuitive, but that scientific way of takes is useful across politics, so whether you're talking about what works in keeping people out of jail or what works in keeping people off the streets or what works in conservation, there's often evidence and if you've got good experiments, good hypotheses that are then tested with data, you can get to some quite innovative solutions. But often politicians just rely on what we've always done in the past or what their ideologies tell them they want to do, rather than actually looking at the evidence.
Erin: Ellen is now Deputy Leader of the Greens and was recently re-elected for a second term.
Andi: Raw science is about evidence-based thinking and as Ellen found, it can be hard to convince others that this mindset works for politics too.
Ellen: Oh, I'd like to think that we're having an impact. Definitely over the last four years, we've had a lot of successes and I don't know whether that's the power of persuasion, most often it's actually just the power of raw politics and threatening to take seats off one of the parties, threatening their power is actually what gets them to sit up and listen rather than actually listening to the evidence, which really is something that should change. I would much prefer that they actually sat down with the evidence and made good decisions that way rather than just relying on votes, but sometimes you have to play that game and show them how they're going to lose votes if they don't do something sensible.
Erin: Let’s meet Martin Elhay, a Senior Business Development officer at the University of Melbourne. But what does he actually do?
Martin Elhay: We're looking for opportunities to grow a business. But in the university context, it's pretty special. In effect, what I'm trying to do is to take the university's discoveries and capabilities and try to project them to the outside world.
Andi: One of Martin’s current business development projects is a better treatment for human lice, that came from researchers working on sheep lice.
Erin: I feel sorry for the sheep, they can't itch themselves like we can. But hopefully in the future, no one has to itch the nits.
Andi: Martin started life as a full- blown laboratory research scientist at the CSL - Commonwealth Serum Laboratory and then at the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer.
Martin: I do have a PhD. I did my PhD in immunology, quite some time ago now. I then had a few jobs as a postdoc, one of them overseas. I got a job with an agency, which got me a job in industry, got me a bit of exposure. Next thing you know I was at CSL. That set me up for 15 years, I worked for CSL and Pfizer. I was still a laboratory scientist, although obviously as time went on, I was a product team leader in R&D, and eventually of course, you pick up promotions and management responsibility, and then come 2013, a friend of mine phoned me and said that he had, he'd just left a job at the University of Melbourne and that he primed the potential employer to think about me as a potential replacement. I'd been working in industry, I had been an academic, and within industry, I'd dealt with a lot of university people, licensing technology from them.
Erin: If we followed Martin around for a day, which we won't because that would be awkward, we would catch him...
Martin: ...visiting an academic to hear about a new invention that they would like to disclose to the university, and running through that story with them, trying to understand what it is, and then setting them off on a path of getting that invention developed, whether patented or protected in some way. I spend a lot of my time translating the language of the scientists and academics through to the outside world.
Erin: So Martin found himself in the ideal position: translating research science and developing it for society. He is the “de-jargon-nator”
Andi: There are quite a few other jobs that need “de-jargon-nators” , who did that? And we’ll hear more about that later. But there are challenges in reinventing your career.
Martin: There was a lot to learn and there were a lot of things that I didn't have when I first started. I might even say that I'm still learning.
Erin : But even with a Phd - there can still be some gaps in your knowledge.
Martin: Understanding what the terms and the sorts of things that would go into contracts and agreements. These are things that are not normal for scientists, research scientists to have to deal with. It's one of those things where I've picked it up, there's been a bit of formal training as well, but it's certainly a gap in my knowledge was that the hard, really boring, redlining a document type thing. But that's okay, and I worked with lawyers and contracts people who are very generous at the university and help us out.
Erin: Martin tells us about retraining in business skills.
Martin: I did do what might be regarded as an MBA light from RMIT, when I was at CSL. It was a diploma in frontline management. That gave me a lot of information and built some skills which I used as a scientist, but then I found was very useful when I left and became a business development person. There's a lot of learning from just the experience, making mistakes of course, and I've made a number of mistakes. You learn from those. The one thing I learned from industry is if you do make a mistake, you tell people early. You never walk into the boss' office with a failure story without the backup plan, and what you're going to do about it.
One of the things I learned from industry is that you plan for mistakes and failure and if you have a backup plan, then you can usually succeed. But I think that's something we can teach our academics as well, is that failure is not the end of the world, and in fact you learn from it, and in fact that's part of the process.
Andi: Love the back up plan idea, and I think it applies to careers and life itself.
Martin: A lot of people like to plan their careers and I know that with younger people, that there's a real need to see where we're going to be. I've got to admit that I fell into this somewhat.
Kate Ravilious: I loved doing English and I loved doing geography. I loved doing physics and I loved doing chemistry, and music and art. I was passionate about doing the sciences but equally, I loved other subjects too.
Andi: What happens if you can’t decide what to study? What if you are like Kate Ravilious and like both the sciences and the arts at school. How do you navigate your way?
Kate: In the end, what I thought was...I love reading so I could sort of still continue my love of English in other ways. I felt like I could pick up things like geography and history again in other ways, but I felt like science was the one thing I probably couldn't teach myself and would be hard to pick up later….
I had brilliant science teachers which, you know, that inspired me that I wanted to carry on learning with them and I've been advised that with science, the world was open to me. There were so many different career options so it just seemed like both an exciting, a fun and a sensible choice.
I'm forever somebody who can't quite make up their mind and I'm not very good at specializing in any one thing. I'm a bit of a butterfly and when I did my degree, I did it in natural sciences which meant that I could dip into lots of different sciences throughout my degree. I kind of narrowed it down to geology but I still loved climate so by the end of doing my degree, I thought, I want to do a bit about what the climate was like in the past and I want to see what's it like being a proper scientist by doing a PhD.
When I started doing my PhD, it very quickly became apparent to me that I was probably a bit impatient, and perhaps a bit slap dashed to be a real scientist, but I was still fascinated by what everyone else around me was doing and I still loved science.
And I went on a course during my PhD to learn about how to communicate what I was doing, and some journalists were running that course and when I was on the course, I thought, "I really like your job." I realized that what I really liked doing was talking about science and being nosy about what other scientists were doing. And I'd always loved reading and writing so being a journalist kind of sorted all of those things together.
Andi: Today she introduces herself as:
Kate: Hi, my name is Kate Ravilious. I'm a science journalist in the UK. I write for a number of magazines and newspapers including The Guardian, New Scientist, Cosmo's Magazine, Archeology Magazine, some websites. I love writing about earth sciences, archeology, climate, environment but in all honesty, I write about any science and it's all fascinating.
Andi: But it wasn’t all smooth sailing to get there.
Kate: I had to do a lot of knocking on doors and sort of begging people to trust me and try taking a risk by letting me write something for them so I probably had a couple of years of struggling with it and trying to get my work recognized and to find editors I could work with. I entered some science writing competitions and I managed to win one of those and that gave me a real leg up and helped me to meet some of the editors who I would eventually go on to work with.
knew it was a career that I really, really felt I wanted to do and that I would enjoy. I mean, there were times where I thought, "Oh, I could just have a normal job that was nine to five and I could, you know, work on a supermarket cashout and it would be so much easier," but when I did get those little glimmers of hope, when somebody gave me a piece of work, the buzz that I got from it and the excitement and the honor of being able to talk to some amazing, intelligent scientists about what they were doing or to even go meet them and see what they were doing, was so great. Those little glimmers of what it could be like were what kept me persisting with making it my career.
Erin: Kate has some advice for aspiring science journalists.
Kate: I think the main thing is to read, listen, watch and enjoy a lot of the material that you would eventually like to be contributing to, so that you have a real feel for what's out there and what people are looking for, but definitely, you've got to be passionate about it. I think you very likely will have ended up studying some science in order to be a science journalist and you may do some journalism training as well which would definitely be really helpful.
Erin: Excellent advice. I guess through Kate’s love of English and love of Science she was able to do her ultimate career mash-up. The writing was on the wall. For you arts lovers, our next episode will cover how you can STEAM your way into STEM!
Andi: Each episode of The Secret life of STEM has a uni student who demystifies something in the world for us. This time it’s you Erin - doing the reverse engineering! You go girl.
Erin: The question I’d like to answer today is, how does a wireless charger work? You’ve probably seen the ads popping up for new ways to charge your phone that don’t require any connections between the device and the charger. In fact, there’s this ad for the
new phone, which I’ve seen so many times recently that actually enables one phone to charge another. But how is this possible? Normal chargers have a cord through which electricity is clearly conveyed from power points to our devices, but how is it possible to transmit energy through the air? It’s easy to see this type of thing as essentially magic, but the science behind it is actually well understood.
To achieve wireless charging, energy is transferred using an electromagnetic field by what is known as electromagnetic induction.
The first step to achieving induction is to get yourself a bar magnet. Now, I’m sure everyone has spent a lot of time playing with magnets and the reason that they’re fun is that they have an invisible magnetic field surrounding them. If you’ve tried to push two magnets together, you’d know that this field becomes weaker the further apart the magnets are. What’s really cool is if you move a magnet around or near a metal wire, the electrons in the wire will feel the changing strength of the magnetic field and be forced to move. Electrons that are all moving in one direction are known as a current, and if there is a current formed in our wire, then we’ve transferred it some energy. That’s electro-magnetic induction! This is the principle of how wireless chargers work.
In the charging base that we plug into the electrical socket in our house, there is a magnet that is wrapped in a coil of wire. This coil is important because when we plug it in, it will increase the magnetic field that’s around the magnet. It also means we don’t have to physically move the magnet to induce a current in our device. Instead, we can just reverse the direction of the current in the coil, which has the same effect as moving the magnet. To recap, supplying electricity to the coil of wire that is wrapped around our magnet will create a changing magnetic field that creates a current in our device. This means that we’ve given it the energy that it needs to charge its battery.
If it’s so easy, why haven’t we been using wireless chargers for years? Well, you actually need a large number of coils around your magnet to transfer the required energy to charge a phone. A wire that’s thin enough so that it can be wrapped around our magnet lots and lots of times has actually only been achieved recently.
So there you go. In the years to come when we're all transferring charge between our devices at parties or out and about, someone will inevitably ask: How on earth do these things work? They’re like magic and you could say, No, actually they’re powered by invisible electromagnetic fields.
Good luck in your science adventures, and don’t forget to charge your phone!
Andi: Wireless charging seems just like the invisible energy you get from going to events, looking for new opportunities and even retraining.
Erin: Do you think some people feel as though they have invested too much time and money to change careers?
Andi: Possibly, but reinvention does and can happen by design or by default. You can combine science with anything, pick anything.
Erin: Hm, okay, ...how about science & drama?
Andi: You can be a science show presenter.
Erin: Science & sport?
Andi: You can be a physiotherapist or trainer.
Erin: Science and law?
Andi: A patent attorney!
Erin: Like our next guest, Leon Wong, who has a PhD in organic chemistry but decided to change direction and study some patent law as well.
Leon Wong: A patent attorney is someone who basically helps people to obtain a patent for their invention. Because the patenting process is quite difficult sometimes and there's a lot of things to know because it's basically based on the laws of each country that you want to obtain your patent for. So it requires detailed knowledge of the patent laws of each country.
In addition to a science background or a technical degree, to become a patent attorney you need basically a master's in intellectual property law. Or you could probably get it via a normal law degree. So my subject is organic chemistry and my degree is a PhD. You probably don't necessarily need a PhD but I found that the PhD really does help. I mean the stuff that I learned during my PhD, I'm using it every day.
Organic chemistry is really fascinating, but it's hard work and it takes a long time to get results. And the goal of any organic chemist I suppose is to make a molecule that cures cancer or cures HIV or any disease really. But that's a really long process, that takes so much effort just to make one molecule and then of the let's say 10,000 molecules that you do actually make maybe only one of them will get through to the clinic.
Andi: This is true for all science, really.
Erin: But when it works, it’s super exciting.
Leon: While that's a very worthwhile effort to make and you can easily spend your life doing it, I felt that I would probably prefer to devote my energies to see what else there was along the way besides research that I could help and that's why I turned to patent law and being a patent attorney allows me to help in that process of getting molecules from the research bench in to the market. Some of these molecules could be worth billions of dollars one day. So they often tend to write some very big specifications that run in to the thousands of pages.
Erin: One patent that Leon’s company worked on was for the swing king. Half tennis ball, half cricket ball. It’s now safe from imitators.
Andi: Life has many random events and yes, luck does come into it. But as Pasteur said, “chance favours the prepared mind”. Most of life is turning up, then you are more likely to be in the right place and at the right time for some luck. That’s one of the reasons Ellen Sandell likes to get out into the community.
Ellen Sandell: I spend a lot of my time going around to schools and encouraging people to stay in science but then also use that scientific thinking in whatever other field that go into. So every year, I give an award to a young woman in science in all the high schools in my electorate and I do that to say that I want more women in politics, I want more women in science, I want more women in decision making but I also want more scientists in public decision making spaces and just trying to spread my story and spread that word.
Andi: What advice does year 10 Ellen remember hearing from her favourite teacher that she still thinks about today?
Ellen "Whatever you do, yes go and do other interests, but always keep that stream of science and maths in your formal education because it opens so many doors to you and even if you don't know...if you don't wanna be a mathematician, even if you don't wanna be a physicist or a chemist or a biologist, just having that scientific knowledge will open so many doors to you." And that’s exactly what it did and I’m really glad I took her advice and stuck with it.
Andi: That's the maths formula, study science, add some perspiration and combine with another discipline. Voila! Your world is bigger.
Erin: As we’ve said before, nothing you do or learn goes to waste. Wishing you luck for future you.
Andi: Thanks for listening to the Secret Life of STEM. This series was made possible by the University of Melbourne.
Erin: Time for some credits! Thanks to everyone who shared their stories.
Andi: My co-host for this episode was Erin Grant - thank you, Erin.
Erin: Sure thing Andi.
Andi: Reverse engineering segment on wireless charging from Erin Grant, with editing and sound design from Silvi Vann-Wall
Erin: This podcast is produced and edited by Buffy Gorrilla. The supervising co-producer and scientific advisor is Dr Andi Horvath.
Andi: That’s me. Additional production support from Arch Cuthbertson.
Andi: Hey Erin, I’ve got a joke for you.
Erin: Okay give to me.
Andi: Okay 3 scientists walk into a bar, and the bartender asks: ‘what’ll you have?’
The first one says he’ll have H2O. The second one said they’ll have an H2O too.
The third one says ‘no wait you can’t give the second one hydrogen peroxide bleach - H202 - that will kill them!