On the job with…Jessica Allen

EMCR Forum interview with Jessica Allen
Lecturer and Principal Researcher
@Dr_Jess_Allen (twitter)


Dr Jessica Allen tells us all about her life as a chemical engineer

What is your current occupation or position?

I’m a lecturer in Chemical Engineering at the University of Newcastle, and primary researcher for the Priority Research Centre on Frontier Energy Technologies and Utilisation located at the Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources (NIER). I work on the development of low- and zero-emission energy technology, and lecture in chemical engineering in subjects including heat transfer, energy technology and sustainability.

How did you get into the area?

As an undergraduate engineering student I was always keenly interested in energy and took the chance to be a vacation student at the CSIRO Energy Centre in my third year. I loved feeling like I was working on solutions to global problems of climate change and sustainable energy supply. I also realised that I loved research, being in the lab and employing critical thinking on a daily basis. I was hooked after my vacation program and subsequently did a PhD for the development of solar thermal energy after graduating, and also worked in industry for a few years as a professional engineer with a renewable energy start-up company. I eventually returned to academia as a post-doc and last year had a leg up into an academic faculty position. As my own group leader, I now pursue a number of technologies and processes that interest me (funding dependent!).

What do you enjoy most about working in this area?

Energy is such a diverse field and overlaps with other interesting areas like manufacturing and sustainability. I enjoy trying to think things through and approaching solutions to global problems one step at a time, while keeping my eye on the end game of reducing emissions. There are strong opinions and bias in the energy field politically and from the general public, which I don’t really enjoy, but I always try to question my decisions and enjoy digging through literature to find real figures and studies around the overall impact of different technologies. I like reading about new findings and clever solutions that people have come up with and find our energy future to be a truly fascinating place.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Permanency is one that I try not to think about too often. I have the longest contract I’ve ever had right now, but it is still a contract and has an end date. As it gets towards the end it will be very difficult to make plans for research and students with a looming deadline. Time management is another one, and strategic use of time. Time often feels like an investment and I consider my commitments carefully. I have a young family so I am always trying to work smarter not longer. It is easy to get caught up in tasks that don’t really benefit my research or my students (undergraduate or HDR), and take time away from my family.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?

I love the research process and critical thinking, and designing new engineering concepts and processes is really fun, like fitting a big puzzle together. But I also really enjoy working with students, both HDR and undergraduate. Lecturing is incredibly rewarding and I love being able to expose students to latest developments in energy technology and make them think critically about the underlying systems that dictate our world.

Describe a typical day in your job.

I get to work and grab a coffee at my desk while I spend some focused time in the morning, an hour or so, writing up research ideas, whether papers, grants or research proposals. I then normally have a number of meetings scattered through the day with my HDR students where we talk through some recent results or a paper they are working on, or have read recently, and consider whether we need to modify an experimental set-up or our analytical approach to the data. At the moment I also have project meetings on a big grant I am leading where we are attempting to build a world-first commercial high-temperature fuel cell. We talk through engineering issues and practical arrangements and I steer the post-doc team through design decisions and contractor engagements. I’ll probably spend some time doing some modelling and design at my desk after the meeting or sending emails to manage the project and be sure everyone knows what they need to be doing. If I am teaching that day I will spend some time preparing myself for the lecture and updating online resources for the students, or answering queries or marking. Over lunch I’ll scroll through twitter and other online platforms where I try to keep up to date with the latest energy developments, or otherwise read a few journal papers on my ever growing ‘to read’ pile. Every now and then I’ll spend time in the lab as well, instructing students or running my own experiments—but I tend to have less time for that lately!

How did your PhD or postdoctoral research help you with a career in this area?

My PhD was very fundamental in nature and centred in a different discipline (my PhD is in chemistry while my undergrad is in engineering). After I finished I decided I wanted to do some more engineering and get some practical experience so I worked in industry for a start-up technology company for a number of years—which was excellent practical experience and also helped me to understand what was required to make a research idea into a real commercial venture. When I decided to return to academia to do a post-doc, the area I went into had scope for both fundamental and applied studies and I used my experience from both to push the project closer to commercial and practical outcomes, and managed to win a large grant as partner investigator to allow for further technology development. So now, in my academic position, I like to think I can draw on skills needed for both fundamental experimental programs while also keeping my eye on the impact and intended outcomes of different technology options. The project, team and time management skills I learnt in industry are also invaluable in an academic setting!

Any advice for EMCRs wishing to pursue a career in this area?

Academic careers are convoluted and don’t necessarily take a straight path. In the end you should pursue what interests and excites you, even if one person’s opinion is that it will change your career path. Yes, it could—but in ways you would never imagine. Don’t let anyone tell you the way you should do it, there is no one way that works. I was told I should travel and work internationally if I wanted a real academic career, but I had a family and ties to Newcastle and so I made it work locally. Just because one person made it work one way, does not mean that is the right path for you. Make the best decision you can at the time and only take opportunities that excite you.

© 2020 Australian Academy of Science