Scientist Leonie Walsh uses her industry experience to be a voice for innovation and collaboration

Swinburne alumni Leonie Walsh

Scientist Leonie Walsh shares the career journey that took her to the top science job in Victoria. Now she specialises in strategic technology, innovation, commercialisation and collaboration.

"I’ve always had the curiosity gene. Around the age of seven or eight I remember locking myself in the bathroom, and mixing up hair oil, shampoo and talcum powder to see what would happen. I ended up doing a colloid science degree, mixing powders, surfactants and oils.

I went to a tech school in Mildura. I wanted a university education and Swinburne was high on the agenda because of its science streams. I did a double major in applied chemistry and biochemistry, Bachelor of Science. What proved to be more beneficial than I imagined at the time was its cooperative stream – it involved a year in industry.

I was very fortunate to be selected by Dow. Dow Chemical recruited from the top four universities and Swinburne at the time which also included Melbourne and Monash. I loved Dow’s philosophy of being a one-stop shop: to go to the customer, understand the problem or opportunity they have, and then make the science to work it out.

These days I advise kids to look for the right cultural fit and see what companies are promising. Look for a company that is aligned with the way you want to work, not just the type of work you want to do. And be very careful about whom you choose to work with.

"I remember locking myself in the bathroom, and mixing up hair oil, shampoo and talcum powder to see what would happen. I ended up doing a colloid science degree, mixing powders, surfactants and oils."

I worked on a project that created the first elastic fibre out of polyethylene. It was not known to be elastic, but we had the technology to make it elastic. The benefit was it was chlorine resistant. I co-led the team that developed the material science and products.

Later, I was offered the opportunity to set up the global supply chain, negotiate manufacturing contracts, and oversee process engineering. Skills across business functions are totally transferrable. You don't need to be an expert to manage; you just need good people, leadership skills and ask good questions.

The most significant skill in my career progression has been relationship management. Developing deep, meaningful, credible relationships that survive decades in some cases has been invaluable. Even if you want to spend your life in the lab and be a pure scientist, you need communication, relationship and negotiation skills.

As the lead scientist for the Victorian Government my role is to be a voice of industry in government. I sit on a range of advisory committees in education, government and industry.

As a female working in the manufacturing sector and working for a multinational, I never felt discriminated against. When you have good leadership and transparency of systems it is much harder for discrimination to occur.

Since coming into the lead scientist role and seeing women in the broader area of sciences, especially in life sciences, they have it very tough. Even if there is no discrimination, there are barriers in place that limit women reaching their full potential. The research backs this up. Gender balances in the starting salaries for graduates leaving university across every single discipline shows men are getting a starting salary higher than women. It dumbfounds me. My advice: ensure that you follow up on the HR policies of a company to see what their gender equity statements are. And search online to see what their values are.

There are huge opportunities in digital careers that overlap with science. Expect opportunities in areas driven by societal challenges and industry needs such as personalised medicine, food security, new energy and digital technologies."