As a student, I loved the thrill of pure science, but couldn’t imagine forging an academic career in the domain I’d developed expertise in. By the time I finished my studies, I realised I wanted to work on problems with more immediate societal relevance.
Having no clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life, I enrolled in the broadest tertiary course I could find: a combined degree in Arts and Science at the University of Melbourne. I was fortunate to be exposed to the elation of discovery early in my research career; as a third-year student working for a semester in the Bieske Group, I got to taste the excitement of recording and interpreting a spectrum of a simple complex (Br-–C2H2) that had not been studied before and had beautiful rotationally resolved substructure – but with the lower J lines missing! This allowed us to estimate the dissociation energy for the complex.
I graduated in 2001 with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science, with Honours in Chemistry. Still having no strong sense of vocation, but having enjoyed my initial taste of research science, I decided to continue my studies and in 2002 commenced a PhD in Physical Chemistry in the Bieske Laser Spectroscopy Group. My PhD was in high resolution gas phase laser spectroscopy of halide-neutral clusters; trying to understand the subtle structural distortions in the neutral molecule(s) arising from the intermolecular interaction(s). I enjoyed a supportive and fun research group, and was fortunate to have a supervisor who cared about the research and his students and made himself available. Most importantly though, I forged a couple of life-long friendships through the crucible that is postgraduate research.
Since completing my PhD, my research focus has shifted. At CSIRO, I still employ spectroscopy, but I now use commercially available instruments to measure atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane – the two most important greenhouse gases – and other radiatively important trace gases. The research aspect of my role is in understanding and quantifying the changes in the biogeochemical cycling of the major drivers of climate change. I work across contexts ranging from the Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station, in north-western Tasmania – which sees the ‘cleanest air in the world’ much of the time, to outback Queensland in regions of coal seam gas production.
Working at CSIRO, particularly in Oceans and Atmosphere, is a happy medium between academia and industry, for me. As a student, I loved the thrill of pure science, but couldn’t imagine forging an academic career in the domain I’d developed expertise in. By the time I finished my studies, I realised I wanted to work on problems with more immediate societal relevance. As a government research organisation, CSIRO determines broad research directions for its staff, which must have impact, be it industrial, environmental or social. I’ve found a niche within CSIRO where I can contribute to public good science in an area I feel passionate about – so I’m prepared to trade off some academic freedoms for that.