Dr Leonie Walsh

Completed a Bachelor of Applied Science and Master of Applied Science at Swinburne, and went on to become lead scientist for the Victorian Government.

Words by Peter Wilmoth. Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 50 seconds

When Leonie Walsh was seven, she would lock herself in the family bathroom to see what happened when she mixed shampoo, hair oil and talcum powder. ‘It was a case of: “How does this work? How do these fit together? What happens when you mix things up?”’ she says.

An interest in practical science

Her interest in practical science, she says, was fostered by an inspirational chemistry teacher at Mildura Technical School in northern Victoria. She chose Swinburne to further her studies because of its strong science and engineering programs. Crucially, too, an industry-based learning program was offered as part of the applied science degree.

For Leonie, this was attractive on a couple of levels, the first being financial. ‘It meant that halfway through your education you’d spend a year in industry. That year, combined with my part-time work experience, meant that I would qualify for government funding for the final year of my study.’

‘The relationships that Swinburne had with industry were incredibly valuable for graduates.’

It also meant access to the excellent connections Swinburne had with multinational companies such as BASF, GlaxoSmithKline and, significantly for her, the Dow Chemical Company. ‘At the end of the degree these companies offered career placements for students,’ she says. ‘It was at a career session that I was exposed to Dow. The relationships that Swinburne had with industry were incredibly valuable for graduates.’

Working with Dow Chemicals

Leonie graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Science in 1981 and accepted an offer in 1982 to join Dow Chemical, based in Victoria’s Altona, as a graduate chemist.

‘Most graduates ended up in the lab, I was more customer-focused,’ she says. ‘I had a sense that I wanted to work with customers. They threw me into a product-development role for a range of products that they really hadn’t done a lot with – tile adhesives, non-woven nappies, latex-modified concrete,’ she says. Leonie’s role was to help develop these market opportunities. ‘It gave me a strong grounding in identifying customer needs and being able to translate that back into products.’

‘Both Dow and Swinburne were incredibly supportive during this difficult time.’

In 1988, while at Dow, Leonie was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia and underwent a bone-marrow transplant the next year. She was completing a masters degree in colloid science – chemistry, physics, nanoscience and more – part time at Swinburne while working full-time at Dow and travelling extensively. ‘Both Dow and Swinburne were incredibly supportive during this difficult time,’ she says.

Leonie recovered from her illness and moved into the polyolefins group at Dow during a period in which a breakthrough in the catalyst technology created diverse new opportunities. ‘It meant you could make plastics but tailor the properties, design them to model the reaction and specifically design what you wanted out of that plastic. It meant you could design plastics for a much broader range of applications.’

Leonie helped build Dow’s Asia-Pacific area organisation, setting up technical services teams in 13 locations across 11 countries to support the rollout of these products. During an assignment with Dow in the United States in early 2000 she co-led a team that created the first elastic fibre out of polyethylene. At the time, the only elastic fibre available in the market was lycra. ‘The problem with lycra was a lack of chlorine-resistance and it was not very resilient to dry-cleaning,’ she says. ‘We were trying to design an elastic fibre that was chlorine resistant and was more resilient.’

‘They wanted someone to help build linkages between industry, academia and government, and be an advocate for science.’

When she returned to Australia in 2002 she took on various roles, including becoming the first female president of Australasian Industrial Research Group, focusing on industry and academic collaboration. She was also nominated as a Fellow of the Academy of Technological Science and Engineering.

In 2013, she was appointed by the Victorian government as the state’s inaugural lead scientist. ‘They were looking for a voice of industry in government. They wanted someone to help build linkages between industry, academia and government, and be an advocate for science.’

Reflecting on life at Swinburne

Reflecting on her time at Swinburne, Leonie says it was a ‘very supportive environment’. ‘I came from the country and I was a pretty naïve country person,’ she says. ‘Swinburne was a small enough community that you didn’t feel lost. I have very strong memories of a team focus in a lot of the coursework and a strong group of supportive fellow students.’

She says Swinburne has now become more contemporary, ‘grown up’ and ‘progressive’. ‘It has broader networks and a greater international standing than it had when I went there. I still feel that sense of connectedness, people do work collaboratively.’

‘Having the industry internship in the middle really helped me.’

Leonie says she stayed in touch with Graham Milne, that inspiring secondary school chemistry teacher, for many years. ‘I’d come back from the US to visit my parents in the country and I’d drop in on him and let him know how I was doing.’ Leonie also credits Swinburne professors John Ralston, one of Australia’s top colloid scientists, and his successor Ian Harding, who had challenged her to complete her masters degree, with having had most influence on her career in her tertiary years.

She says attending an applied university was a great benefit. ‘I started off in an applied, technical school, and by going to an applied uni, it reinforced that and set the theme for my entire career as an applied scientist. Having the industry internship in the middle really helped me assess whether I wanted to be a life scientist or an industrial scientist. And being exposed to those different companies … really helped shape my decision-making for the type of career I wanted.’

Putting Australian science on the map

With a high profile in the Australian scientific community, Leonie has worked on many international collaborations. During her presidency of the Australasian Industrial Research Group she helped set up a world federation of industrial research groups with involvement of delegates from Japan, Korea, European Union, US and Brazil to co-ordinate best-practice industrial research.

Leonie also initiated and managed the research group’s role in the partnership with the federal government and five other global participants in a program for the enhancement and development of science and technology partnerships between Australia and the European Commission. She has also been involved in many international forums and science dialogues.

Leonie remains focused on technology advisory support in government, industry and academia, and has a range of advisory roles, including sitting on Swinburne’s advisory board for its Centre for Transformative Innovation. She says breaking down the stereotype of science as a male-dominated career is important, as is better communicating its opportunities.

Leading the way for women in STEMM

She has been involved in much formal and informal mentoring and coaching of women in science, ‘trying to help shape the future workforce’. ‘I’m often asked what advice I would give students. It is about working out what is the type of science and work style you want to engage in,’ she says. 

‘We need a multifaceted approach to attracting more women into STEMM and breaking down stereotypes.’

In 2014 Leonie was awarded an honorary doctorate from Swinburne for her contributions and leadership in scientific enterprises, innovation and the community. She is also an ambassador for Women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) Australia and works as a role model and mentor helping to shape young people’s careers.

‘Science careers are very heavily stereotyped so a lot of parents, teachers and career advisers really don’t understand how rewarding and enriching careers in science can be,’ Leonie says. ‘We need a multifaceted approach to attracting more women into STEMM and breaking down stereotypes such as … engineering is a dirty job, IT is a techy role and very male dominated. There is an incredible breadth of roles and it’s about being able to improve communication on the opportunities and potential for young women’s careers.’