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.

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

Hello! Tell us a bit about yourself

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 in 2013. At present, I am roughly 1.5 years into my PhD having returned to postgraduate study after a number of years working in industry.

Describe your journey into industry – and back again

Throughout the undergraduate experience, we had opportunities to visit different engineering companies to get some insight into what life as a young, working professional might look like. We visited New Zealand Steel on a class trip, and then I spoke to a representative at Courses and Careers Day. In my final year, I applied for a role in the company and was lucky enough to be offered the position. I initially worked as a graduate process engineer before taking up a permanent position as a process engineer in the Rolling and Finishing division.

A conversation with an old lecturer planted the idea to return to uni. I was at a stage in my early career where I was considering looking for a new challenge, though I had initially anticipated that it would be through a new job rather than heading back to study. I had really enjoyed my research experience throughout the fourth year of my undergraduate degree and I knew that it was something that I was good at. After months of back and forth conversation and carefully considering what the postgraduate experience might look like for me, I resigned from my job and came back to university.

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

Tell us about your topic

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.

What does research look like to you?

My routine varies daily and I enjoy the ability to be flexible. My days include working in the biomaterials labs, as well as some time doing independent research (basically just a lot of reading and writing).

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. All of this is also done in balance with some part-time teaching work throughout the week, so I generally don’t have a problem with getting ‘bored’ as things can get pretty busy.

Where can we find you when you’re not ‘doing research’?

Within the university I do some teaching work and there are always opportunities to attend conferences or symposiums – these might be things that are directly related to my research or sometimes just topics that I find interesting.

Outside of that, good food, good music and good company is generally a winning combination for me, so you can often finding me catching up with people over a meal. I also enjoy some social sports (though I’m no athlete) and doing other things to stay active.

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

What is life like as a doctoral candidate compared to life in industry?

In some ways, the way that I function has remained the same. I still need to be able to balance my time well and there are still deadlines that need to be met (though there is a large difference in that your deadlines as a PhD candidate generally aren’t holding up financial decisions).

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 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.

In saying that, 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.

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.

What are your hopes for your future, post PhD?

I am interested in staying in this area of research for a period of time, however I would also be interested to see if the skills gained from this research process could 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.

Do you have any advice for those considering doctoral study?

The biggest piece of advice I could give anyone would be to ensure transparency. If you are struggling to find good information, if your experiments aren’t going well, if you’re having some awesome successes, make sure you keep communicating that to the people in your circles. People will celebrate the wins with you and, importantly, they can help you out if you need it.