UNSW Engineering alumnus Hugh Chaffey-Millar

UNSW Chemical Engineering alumnus Hugh Chaffey-Millar lives and works in Switzerland. He has a diverse background spanning engineering, chemistry and computer science which has led him to an exciting and dynamic career path explored in this profile and Q&A. 

Hugh is currently employed by Roche – a research-focused healthcare company, where he has quickly moved up within the ranks. Starting as a Development Engineer in 2013 he held a number of different roles before landing his new position earlier this year as Software Project Leader. Image: Mount Mythen, Switzerland taken by Hugh Chaffey-Millar.

Hugh Chaffey-Millar graduated from UNSW Sydney in 2003 with a Bachelor of Engineering in Industrial Chemistry (First Class Honours), and a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. He went on to complete a PhD from 2004 to 2008 at the School of Chemical Engineering (UNSW), in which he researched polymerisation processes using a combination of experimental and theoretical methods.

Previous to Roche, Hugh worked at Med-El in Innsbruck, Austria (a competitor of Cochlear) and TNG Technology Consulting in Munich, Germany. He also conducted postdoctoral research in theoretical chemistry at the Technical University of Munich, Germany.

Hugh has received a plethora of awards and recognition including a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Foundation (2008-10), which aims to attract the next generation of academics to Germany, a UNSW Postgraduate Award and a Faculty of Engineering Top-up Scholarship (2004-2008), the CRC for Polymers Prize for the best undergraduate thesis in polymer science in Australia (2003), the ERA Polymers Prize for the best undergraduate research project in the Industrial Chemistry program at UNSW (2003) and three Vacation Research Scholarships within the Schools of Chemical Engineering and Industrial Chemistry and the Computer Science and Engineering at UNSW (2000-2). He was also selected to attend the 59th Meeting of Nobel Laureates, Lindau, Germany (2009) and received prizes for photography from the New Zealand Alpine Club.

Outside of work and study, Hugh has always had a full program., with which he has captured some truly beautiful landscape and cultural photographs, some of which are included within this profile. In Switzerland he has appeared in three amateur musical productions with the English Theatre Group of Zug and although learning German was once a hobby, he now conducts most business in this language.

Q&A with alumnus Hugh Chaffey-Millar 

My goal is to feel that I’m making a difference and delivering something useful... My dream job is one where I am developing cool products, can be inventive, am using interesting technologies and working with great people.

Hugh Chaffey-Millar

If you can think back to when you were at High School, initially what made you decide to undertake degrees in Industrial Chemistry and Computer Science at UNSW Sydney? And what did you get out of them?

This was a combination of the institution’s reputation, my interest in both chemistry and computer programming but also wanting a broad range of options after completing these programs.

Post undergraduate studies, you went on to complete a PhD with the School of Chemical Engineering in physical and computational chemistry. Why were you drawn to research in this area, and what did you get out of your PhD experience? E.g. What were the main takeaways and how if so, did it help you in any way throughout your career – e.g. through developed skills etc.

I’ve always been interested in work spanning multiple disciplines and here I felt I could best utilise my computing and chemistry background. Having a broad technical background has opened doors because I was never “just” a programmer or “just” a chemist, but now, the technical skills themselves are of secondary importance. I learned what it’s like to work in international and cross-disciplinary collaborations and how to act as the communication channel between disciplines. This, together with learning how to break down a problem, solve it, and then sell it to audiences of the same or a different background has been a huge help.

Congratulations on your new position as Software Project Leader at Roche, Switzerland. Tell us a little bit about Roche and what you do there?

The team writes embedded software for mechatronic machines which, together with other systems, help to fully automate sample handling in large medical laboratories. I started the position with an analysis of our needs and available technologies to enable upper management to make technical decisions. Now I am leading a team of software developers, acting as an architect, defining approaches and building up collaborations within the organisation.

What have been the key highlights for you throughout your career thus far? 

A highlight was receiving a Humboldt Fellowship. Another highlight was finally establishing myself in a leadership position in industry from a very academic background. After spending 10 years studying and working only in universities, getting my first position in industry was tough b

ecause my experience was, well, way too academic but I had an inkling that the medical devices industry in Switzerland would be a good match. I learned to speak German fluently and worked in some targeted intermediate positions in Germany and Austria. It took about four years but worked out in the end.

What are you looking forward to most in the near future, do you have any exciting projects coming up?

The products that I am working on directly are not very complex by themselves, but they are subject to complex technological and logistical constraints which make them challenging. The department is quite new and so I’m looking forward to working out how to deliver the products we make as quickly and cost effectively as possible and how we can benefit from synergies in an organisation that has recently been restructured.

Image: Landwasser Viaduct, Switzerland. At UNSW Hugh was president of the Photography Club and was an active member of the Outdoors Club. Whilst living in Germany, Austria and Switzerland he continued a range of mountain sports and photographic pursuits, more recently utilising a drone.

From your perspective, what will be the biggest opportunities and/or challenges for your industry?

Using a fairly broad definition of “my industry”… Challenges: Being innovative in a highly regulated industry. From high wage countries there is a push to outsource but it is far from a given that outsourcing will prove cost effective. It’s getting harder and riskier to invent new medicines – it costs about $1 billion these days. Opportunities: people care about their health and sometimes it’s only the cost that is holding them back, so as more and more people enter the middle class in countries like China and India there is fast growing pool of customers. In general, there are and will be innovations that become total game changers. One of these is the abundance of genetic data and the ability to process it.

What role does research and development play at Roche?

Roche’s motto is “Doing now what patients need next”. To do this, one has to innovate, not only in terms of technology but also in terms of processes, how we communicate, how we recruit, how we manage employees, and so on. Innovation, however, also brings risk and this is carefully balanced with the potential gains, needs of the business and so on.

If you can reveal to us, what is your ultimate goal, or if you have a dream job or want to steer your career into a slightly different direction in the future (can be long term)?

My goal is to feel that I’m making a difference and delivering something useful and I feel you can have a greater impact in management. My dream job is one where I am developing cool products, can be inventive, am using interesting technologies and working with great people. Activities outside of work are also very important to me so a job where I have balance is essential.

What would your advice be to students who will shortly graduate from their undergraduate and postgraduate degrees?

Stay open minded – this really is just the beginning. Live abroad. The first job you have won’t be the job you have for the rest of your life. Be prepared to keep on learning throughout your career and be prepared to reassess and make a direction change or take a step sideways or backwards. If you plan to do a PhD, what is your plan to enable you to compete with “lower” degree holders who will have acquired 3-4 years of industry experience by the time you graduate?


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