Emma Brown

Lured back to academia from industry by her supervisor, Emma discusses how her experiences at NZ Steel translate into her PhD research into cartilage mechanics.

Emma Brown headshot.

Key facts

Programme: PhD in Chemical and Materials Engineering
Research topic: Elucidating the mechano-structural realities of the collagen fibril network within articular cartilage
Supervisor: A.P. Ashvin Thambyah
Academic unit: Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering
Funding: University of Auckland Doctoral Scholarship

Journey to doctoral studies

"My sister and I were born and raised here in Tāmaki Makaurau, though we whakapapa to Mataraua in the far north, Manaia in the Coromandel and also to Matapihi in Tauranga.

"I completed my Bachelor degree in Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Auckland and took up a role as a graduate process engineer at New Zealand Steel. I moved on to a permanent position as a process engineer in the Rolling and Finishing division.

"After a number of years, I begun looking for a new challenge. Initially, I anticipated that this would be a new role, but a conversation with an old lecturer planted the seed that I could continue my studies. I had enjoyed my research experience in the fourth year of my undergraduate degree, and I knew that it was something that I was good at. After months of conversation consideration, I resigned from my job and returned to the University to pursue my doctorate."

Emma wearing a white lab coat in front of computational lab equipment,
Emma in the lab

Passion for research

"My research looks at cartilage, the smooth covering over the ends of bones. In particular, we are trying to understand how it changes over time, eventually leading to osteoarthritis.

"I look at cartilage really, really close up – to a point where I can look at the individual collagen fibres that make up the tissue and how they interact. This information helps us understand more about how diseases like osteoarthritis progress, and how we might replace these natural materials with high-quality substitute materials in the event of replacement surgery."

Life as a researcher

"My routine varies daily and I enjoy the ability to be flexible. My days include working in the biomaterials labs, as well as doing independent research. I do some teaching work and attend conferences and symposiums - both those directly related to my research and those on topics I just find interesting.There is also a lot of interaction with people - probably more than people anticipate. Often I am looking for help on new topics or wanting to discuss other people’s research to understand if and how our research might be complimentary."

Emma and colleagues at the Federation of Maori Authority (FOMA) conference, 2017

Academia vs industry

"A big difference for me was the ambiguity that you can be faced with when carrying out research. As a process engineer, I was very aware of company targets, plant-based targets and how my individual performance indicators contributed to these overall numbers. In research, you don’t necessarily have the luxury of having objectives so well defined and you need to become good at navigating through that ambiguity.

"Having said that, I still need to be able to balance my time well and there are still deadlines that need to be met. While research can, at times, seem a lot more individual, you still need to be able to work well with other people. You need to be brave enough to put your thoughts and ideas forward and, in doing so, you also need to ensure that you are creating a safe working environment where others feel that they can do the same. These skills aren’t unique to one particular industry, they are skills for life.

"My experience in industry has definitely had an impact on how I now carry out my postgraduate work. I feel a lot more confident in my ability to manage my time, tasks and to make independent decisions while also knowing that, should I need to, there are always people I can ask for help."

Future thinking

"I would like to stay in this area of research, however I am also interested to see if the skills gained from this research process can be transferred to other areas. At present, there are many conversations taking place highlighting the lack of representation of women (in particular Māori and Pasifika) in the engineering sector. One area that I would love to involve myself in post-PhD is helping to enable and empower other young Māori and Pasifika women by preparing them for a career in engineering - whether that be in industry or in academia."