Materials Down Under: Dr Fiona Scholes

Materials Down Under: Dr Fiona Scholes

Materials Today meets researchers from New Zealand and Australia who are making waves in the world of materials science.

Dr Fiona Scholes is Research Director for Industrial Innovation at CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) in Australia. She is responsible for a manufacturing research portfolio with a focus on device technologies, such as printed solar films, optical systems, and superconductivity. Dr Scholes has a PhD in chemistry from the University of Cambridge, and a BSc(Hons) in chemistry and physics from Monash University, Australia. She is a keen science communicator and regularly contributes to a Melbourne science radio show called Einstein A Go Go.

Laurie Winkless spoke to Dr Scholes about her background, Australian research, and moving from the lab into the boardroom.

What’s your academic background?

In primary school, I didn’t really know what science was, and I had no family members who worked in the sector, but there was a TV show called The Curiosity Show that I adored and watched obsessively. When I went to high school and saw that science was its own subject, I became very interested. I was a shy child, but in science class, you couldn’t shut me up! My parents really supported that passion, so they were thrilled when I ended up at Monash University.

During my degree, I became fascinated by catalysts. Our lecturers didn’t really go into depth as to how they worked, but I really wanted to learn more about them. I also knew that I wanted to go overseas at some point, and I had the grades to make that a possibility. So when my friends and I started planning a post-university backpacking trip to Europe, I also looked for labs that were doing big things in catalysis. I managed to get a meeting with Professor Sir David King in Cambridge – I was very impressed by the team he’d created, and the work they were doing. So I applied for a scholarship, got it, and moved across to Cambridge to do my PhD with him.

My research involved some really fundamental studies of heterogeneous catalysts. I submitted my thesis three years and one day after starting the project – it would have been exactly three years, but the bookbinder got a spelling wrong on the cover!

What brought you back to Australia?

At the time, there was a lot of talk about the ‘brain drain’ here, and I didn’t want to contribute to that. I was very keen to bring my skills back to Australia and contribute to the science and innovation community here. It wasn’t easy – there aren’t as many opportunities here as in Europe, say, or the US – but I managed to land a postdoc at the University of Melbourne. The funding wasn’t guaranteed beyond the first year, though, which was stressful. I was close to doing a graduate diploma in education. I’m sure I’d have loved being a teacher, but I wanted to be a scientist, so I was very happy to see an ad for a postdoc at CSIRO. I got the job in 2002, and have been here ever since.

Where does CSIRO sit in the Australian research landscape?

CSIRO are the Australian national science agency. Our focus is on delivering impact for the benefit of Australia through science and technology. We’re at the applied end of the research spectrum, so our main metrics aren’t solely around publishing papers. Publications are important, of course, but ultimately, success for us is delivering some sort of benefit to society – be that nationally or globally. CSIRO is also the home of plastic banknotes, so we have a long history.

We’re not a university, so we don’t confer degrees, but we do host and collaborate with lots of academics across Australia and internationally. And we have a fantastic postdoc programme – the same one I came in on originally! On our solar film research, we have strong links with Korea, and have worked with universities in Japan and China in other areas too. The type of R&D we do tends to be quite translational; taking a technology from a benchtop, to a prototype, to a manufactured final product. While we’re a federal agency, we are not fully funded by government, so we also work very closely with industry via various funding models.

For me, the best thing about being at CSIRO is the opportunity to work in different areas. Over the years, I’ve researched everything from microfabrication and corrosion of aircraft, to self-healing paint, chemical sensors, and printed solar cells. We’re a very future-focused organisation, and are always looking for new interesting areas to move into. We also host small companies and start-ups on one of our sites too, and have a brilliant engineering and prototyping capability. It’s just a very dynamic place to work.

What’s your current role?

I am Research Director for Industrial Innovation, and my area sits within the Manufacturing business unit of CSIRO. My programme has a focus on materials and device technologies, so basically we look at functional materials and how they are integrated into devices. Printed solar cells are a good example of this – each of the various layers deliver some sort of property or function, but on their own they aren’t very useful. You unlock their potential by integrating them into a working device.

I currently look after a team of 65-70 scientists and engineers, and many students and collaborators. I was a lab scientist until 4-5 years ago, and the transition has worked well for me. Managing research is not easy – the process is, by its very nature, unpredictable. It’s also a challenge to find a balance between encouraging creative people to explore while keeping them focused on the overall goal. But I really enjoy it. Every day is different, and I have the privilege of being able to help a lot of brilliant people do amazing things. I think the fact that I’m a scientist helps a bit too, because I have an appreciation of the challenges the team face.

What’s the secret to running a successful lab?

Without a doubt, it’s all about the people, and finding their ‘sweet spots’. So, letting them work on the things that they enjoy and are good at. If you can construct a team so that you have all the skills you need and for everyone to be working on things they love, that’s the perfect situation.