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Professor Rose Amal: at the forefront of Chemical Engineering
6 April 2017
Scientia Professor Rose Amal, who is a world leader in her field, gives us insight into her life and her thoughts on her career in Chemical Engineering.
Professor Rose Amal PhD FAA FTSE FIChemE HonFIEAust.; Scientia Professor (UNSW Sydney) and ARC Australian Laureate Fellow is recognised as a world leader in her field.
In this article, Professor Amal, shares her thoughts on education, work / life balance, research, communication and the importance of a strong professional organisation like IChemE.
Since arriving in Australia in the early 1980s to study engineering at UNSW Sydney (The University of New South Wales), Amal has risen through the ranks of the traditionally male-dominated field of Chemical Engineering to become the first female Chair of the Institute of Chemical Engineers Australia (IChemE), a journey that along the way has seen her excellent work recognised through a number of honors including, at the time of her appointment, the youngest female Professor of Chemical Engineering in Australia, Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, Fellow of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and ARC Laureate Fellow. In another significant milestone, 2017 marks Amal’s 25th anniversary on the staff of the School of Chemical Engineering, UNSW.
My father always encouraged us to study and work hard. He told his children that success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration
Scientia Professor Rose Amal
Amal is a passionate advocate for her profession of Chemical Engineering, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), women in science, mentoring, education and has strong views on the importance of a supportive family.
It is not surprising that Amal enjoys a successful – some would say stellar career in education and research and although a career in academe was not Amal’s childhood dream she has always held a passion for teaching.
Originally from Medan, Indonesia, Amal is the youngest of five children. “My family was my earliest influence. My father always encouraged us to study and work hard. He told his children that success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration” Amal says.
Amal believes that families have a crucial role to play in the education of their children. Recently published statistics show that Australia’s performance across the spectrum of education has slipped markedly, a trend that has been evident for a number of years. Amal believes active parental support and guidance in collaboration with teachers is important if Australia is to stop and reverse the downward trend in international rankings. She said students must be more efficient and effective with their study habits. “I think greater effort is required from families. I know sometimes families might criticise the teachers for not doing a good job but it is important for the families to really encourage the teachers, by working more closely with them and the school. And the area to focus on is study skills, which I believe are underrated. The media has a role too. It should report widely and regularly that good study skills are an important precondition for success in STEM.”
Inspired by her eldest brother who studied civil engineering in Canada, Amal chose engineering and after completing high school, she was encouraged to “…study overseas for higher education, to see the world and to broaden the ways for future opportunities.”
Amal arrived in Sydney in 1983 to study Chemical Engineering at UNSW.
Like many high performers, Amal is a role model for those involved in the STEM space. Her work schedule involves long hours working across many areas in STEM as an advocate, researcher, educator, mentor, policy advisor and leader.
Amal believes that work and life balance is important and can be achieved by planning the efficient use of time. “It is not easy to balance work and life. This was particularly so when my children were young. I do have to prioritise and find the most appropriate way to achieve a good balance. Family comes in various forms and with different needs, so what works for me might not work for others. I am an early riser and I do most of my important work early in the morning, while my family is still in bed. I do this even during holidays devoting two to three solid hours of work early in the day and then spending time with my family.”
“I do hear from time to time that some women feel they are being disadvantaged due to lack of support at home and in the workplace. I think I am lucky. I have never felt that I am being disadvantaged. However, at the early stage of my career and when my first child was just born, it was difficult to find time to do both well. In those days, there was an expectation that mothers should be more responsible for the upbringing of their children and less focused on their careers. There is more support for working mothers now than when I was raising my children. My first child is 20 years old and she has just completed a Bachelor in Computer Science.”
Amal holds the view that it is becoming easier for women to work and achieve in STEM. “There is increasing support and many STEM companies and institutions do proactively support recruitment and promotion of female employees. Men in STEM play an important role in promoting equality and diversity, since most of the decision makers are still men. Diversity gives different perspectives to companies, which in the long run would be advantageous, since half of the world’s population are women, therefore it is important to have the views of women in decision making.”
As a woman in the STEM sphere, Amal has not encountered too many obstacles that were difficult to overcome while building her career. She says “I don’t think the difficulties I faced are more challenging than what my male colleagues are facing. Perhaps I am blessed living in an era and in a country where society recognises the importance of equal opportunity and diversity in the STEM workplace. Since I was a student, I was surrounded and supported by male and female lecturers/colleagues who were very supportive such as the late Professor David Trimm and Professors Judy Raper, David Waite and Mark Wainwright.”
It is well accepted in science and engineering that truth is discovered by building on the work of predecessors and is known as ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. Amal says, “I am lucky that I had those giants; that I could stand on their shoulders to see further. It is now the role of my generation to provide the shoulders for the up and comers to stand on so they can escalate knowledge and further develop the technology necessary to maintain and improve our quality of life. I have supervised more than 40 PhD candidates and keep in touch with a number of them, some of whom hold senior positions within Universities.”
Women in STEM has always been an emotive topic. Amal says, “I see that an increasing support and awareness of the importance of diversity, will help improve the career paths for women and allow more of them to work and achieve in STEM. There are a growing number of female students doing university courses related to STEM. At UNSW in the Faculty of Engineering, 22% of the students are female and it is greater than 50% for the School of Chemical Engineering. I believe this is related to more awareness that women can succeed in a STEM career.”
In Amal’s view, the public does not really appreciate the importance of STEM and its contribution to their lifestyle and wellbeing. “This needs to change. The public associates science with white lab coats. It does not associate STEM with technology that benefits their lives. STEM enables us to have the quality of life that we enjoy so much. If we want light at night, we only have turn on a switch. If we want to speak to and see someone across the globe, we can use our phone or computer. Illnesses that had no cure previously, now have medicine to heal and cure.”
It is pleasing to know that after 50 years, we now have women contributing at the very top of our professional body in Australia.
Scientia Professor Rose Amal
The public perception of STEM needs to change according to Amal and although she sees improvement in the promotion of it, she would like to see more recognition for the achievements of STEM and that it be celebrated on a par with sports stars and movie stars. She says “I think we need to reach out to the public more. I mean there’s a lot of good things about publicity in terms of sport and things like that. Unfortunately, this is not so in terms of science. We should adopt the communication approach of sports and the film industry and position our best and brightest in STEM so that there is greater recognition of their achievements, which will, I hope, encourage our children to pursue careers in the sciences. Of course, this will require a strategy, a long term view and an investment that will allow a sustainable communication pathway for STEM into the future.”
In recent times, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made strong statements about how committed he is to ensure Australia remains an innovative nation and yet, the recently published 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) report shows that Australian schools continue to fall behind other countries in science and maths literacy. Amal has strong views on this matter. “Metrics are important but equally important is how we look at them and how we can learn from the metrics and better educate our children, so they have good prospects in the future.”
The recently published report showed that a number of countries in Asia have surpassed Australia in STEM literacy. “I really admire how Singapore has actually excelled over the last thirty years” says Amal. “When I came to Australia, Singapore was not viewed as a leading provider of education, research and innovation compared to Australia which is why I chose to study in Australia. However, now, many people regard tertiary education in Singapore more highly than many places in the world, including Australia.”
“The Government of Singapore is really proactive in terms of looking at what’s needed for their country and I think that’s why I believe the Government of any nation should play a big role in setting the agenda to ensure the economic, social, and environmental wellbeing of its people.”
Amal says “I think this plummeting trend in science and maths rankings for Australia is partly due to a failure to effectively position STEM as being of national importance and that our students do not take the assessment seriously and do not study with the aim of doing well in those assessments. As the headlines say, it is a wakeup call. Of course, as with all rankings, we do need to find out how these rankings are determined and why the rankings are dropping.”
“There is no quick fix to turn the trend around and it will require great efforts from different sectors not just government, teachers, schools, and universities. It requires our society to realise the importance of STEM education and skills that will need to be in place for the future” Amal says.
Amal believes there are steps that can be taken to improve: “Communication is very important. We all need to engage more broadly and to greater effect with society in general and with schools more specifically. It’s critical to be able to direct people what to do in a very simple and clear manner. It is also important to communicate one’s work effectively and to this end, I get the people in my group at UNSW to do what we call the three - minute presentation, with the object of trying to explain things in a very simple way. I say to them, if you’re waiting for a bus and someone asks what you do, you should be able to recount, in a simple way, what it is, why you do it and the impact of your work. The elevator pitch is key and you should be able sell your ideas succinctly.”
In 2016, Amal was elected Chair of IChemE Australia, the first women to hold this position in the organisation’s 50-year history. IChemE is a global chemical engineering professional body. Australia represents 10% of IChemE’s global membership, making it the third largest on the international membership table.
Amal has been a member of IChemE for many years. She says “IChemE has provided me with a valuable network and a global view of what Chemical Engineers are doing across many sectors. It is an honour to serve as Chair and my number one priority is advocacy - to make sure that IChemE is visible and the voice of Chemical Engineering and / or Chemical Engineers in Australia is strong. My goals are to advance Chemical Engineering as a profession and inspire our younger Chemical Engineers, including students, to be more involved in the profession by learning more about the great work IChemE is doing
Amal is promoting the IChemE to younger people in order to attract them into the profession. “We just set up an initiative to have more students involved in real world Chemical Engineering projects. We have appointed student ambassadors for IChemE at UNSW and The University of Sydney and we’re looking to inspire them through involvement in some of the projects that Chemical Engineers are doing and that could benefit society in developing countries. We are encouraging the ambassadors to devise a student led project that might, for example, provide simple technological solutions to the problems in energy, food and water that some countries are facing. My hope is that “grass root” projects of this type will inspire students to be good Chemical Engineers”.
“I am very hopeful for the future of IChemE in Australia. We recently elected the new Deputy Chair for IChemE Australia, Ms Allyson Black, who is going to be the IChemE Australia Chair for 2018 and 2019. It is pleasing to know that after 50 years, we now have women contributing at the very top of our professional body in Australia.”
Amal makes the point that Chemical Engineers are problem solvers who, typically, have the skills to work successfully in different fields such as water, pharmaceuticals, health and business management. She says “Not many disciplines allow its practitioners to be involved in the variety of work that Chemical Engineering can offer.”