Education Comment: Plantations and Particles – Science Lessons for All

Did you know that cutting down a tree for timber is controlled by a computer in a harvesting machine? Each tree is felled today in a way that best maximises its yield, with calculations based on the product it is destined to become. It’s an example of how your high school science (and maths!) might come in handy in future, and highlights how pervasive science is today.

Strathcona students and staff were inspired by two guest scientists at a special breakfast on Wednesday as part of our Science Week celebrations. Sharon Occhipinti, Timber Resource Planning Manager at HVP Plantations and Dr Anna Phan, Research Scientist at IBM and former member of the ATLAS Experiment at CERN’S Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, inspired with an insight into their current work projects. They also shared stories of the study and work opportunities that have seen them lead varied, fascinating and fulfilling scientific careers.

Sharon Occhipinti (pictured above) held up the paper her talk was written on, telling us she was almost certain it, and the paper in our school printers, had come from one of HVP’s Plantations. The company grows pines and a smaller number of Eucalypts, Mountain Ash, Shining Gum and Blue Gum. Sharon’s role involves leading on strategies to manage the estate, forecasting for the next 60 years and feeding this information to staff on the ground who implement her team’s recommendations. The company strives to produce the best possible timber for structural building work and paper, whilst managing soil and water health and biodiversity, and working with government to eradicate disease in trees.

Particle physicist Dr Anna Phan (pictured above) also specialises in working with data, though for different industries. She recently worked for three years in Switzerland with a team of 3000 physicists from all over the world at CERN. Anna wrote algorithms to detect atoms faster and more accurately, and to predict what the discovery of the Higgs-Boson would look like when it happened. The team’s work was behind the Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded to François Englert and Peter W. Higgs in 2013. Now at IBM, Anna works with people with physics, chemistry, biology, maths and computer science backgrounds on a range of problems in healthcare and life sciences, emergency management, and natural resources.

Each woman surprised us with the broad remit of her role. Sharon does not just analyse and forecast data, she and her colleagues also don blue overalls and join firefighting teams in summer, as well as protecting the relics of European and Aboriginal settlement which sit on HVP’s plantations. At IBM, Anna works on more than just technology problems. She is currently engaged on an evacuation plan for the Mt Dandenong region, exploring a range of ‘What If’ scenarios for fire in the region. Her modelling can calculate how long it takes to evacuate people against the speed of a fire in certain conditions, but the most valuable information she needs to keep in mind is how humans behave – will they feel a false sense of security and leave their homes later if a fire shelter is just down the road, and what happens if an entire town decides to leave at the same time?

Both women encouraged girls interested in pursuing science as a career to take any opportunity offered to them, and indeed to make their own opportunities by seeking them out. Anna says that a sense of uncertainty in a Science career is inevitable, without the traditional pathway of, say, a doctor or lawyer. But this is what can make the work more rewarding. Being open to offers of unfamiliar work, seeking out a mentor, and taking the chance to lead and work above your job title level, are strategies both Sharon and Anna recommend to ensure that you are in a process of continual learning and development. This open and willing attitude will always lead to another opportunity; on a new project, in a different field, or with a new employer.

After working with 3000 physicists from over 100 countries, with English the shared but not first language for the group, Anna believes that “being a scientist is not just learning the theory, but learning how to communicate and collaborate with others.” It’s a valuable message for all Strathcona girls, no matter what discipline they aspire to.

Michelle Newell, Online Communications & Publications Manager