Say yes to opportunity

If you’d told young Liesl Folks at the 1984 inaugural NSSS (National Science Summer School) that one day she’d be the Dean of Engineering and Applied Sciences at a major American university she wouldn’t have believed you. It certainly wasn’t part of the plan. There wasn’t one. “I’ve never had plans or expectations. I live in the moment. I have this mantra. You have to remember to say ‘yes’ to opportunity.”

Before I went to the Summer School I’d been thinking about doing chemistry but seeing the accelerator changed my mind. 

Portrait of Engineering Dean Liesl Folks Photograph: Douglas Levere

  Liesl Folks
Photograph: Douglas Levere

 

When Liesl was headhunted for the top job in engineering at the University at Buffalo (UB) it was a real surprise. “I kept saying you’re crazy. Why would they even want me?”

There were many good reasons. It wasn’t just her international reputation in the fields of nanotech and magnetism that elevated her above nearly 60 other candidates from around the world. Over time Liesl has acquired a diverse mix of industry and academic experience and built wide-ranging connections through government agencies, advisory panels and educational initiatives.

Her present trajectory actually began years before at the NSSS when the Perth native came to Canberra and visited the nuclear accelerator at the Australian National University (ANU). “Before I went to the Summer School I’d been thinking about doing chemistry but seeing the accelerator changed my mind.” She was staggered not only by the raw power of the machine but also by the possibility of experimenting with sub-atomic forces.

Liesl went on to study physics (with honours) at the University of Western Australia and then completed a PhD there on permanent magnetic materials because “she had no other plans”. She credits her supervisor, Prof Robert Street AO, with providing tremendous guidance at this time that still resonates for her decades later. When she was invited to work on nanoparticle arrays at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in California in 1998 she thought it would be just a two-year stint. She ended up staying in Silicon Valley for 15 years working in the hard disc drive business with both giants of the industry, IBM and Hitachi.

The industry is marked by being incredibly multi-disciplinary. You can’t make a hard disc drive unless you’ve got physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and computer engineering all lined up

“The industry is marked by being incredibly multi-disciplinary. You can’t make a hard disc drive unless you’ve got physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and computer engineering all lined up. The complexity of the technology is keeping other players from entering the game. It’s a very thrilling industry in terms of how fast the technology evolves and the many different disciplines that have to be at the table to make products that work.”

After six highly productive years as a researcher with IBM, in 2008 Liesl moved to Hitachi and led the development and delivery to the marketplace of advanced new media technologies. Today she holds 14 US patents and is the frequently cited author of dozens of peer-reviewed research papers.

Her academic position in Engineering and Applied Sciences at UB does mean leaving all those bright, shiny machines behind, but it sounds as if Buffalo has plenty to offer. The historic city is going through something of a boom with millions invested and generous tax benefits for new start-up companies within a mile of the university. And with Niagara Falls hydro just up the road energy is cheap. The University has had a huge uptake in students wanting a place in its Engineering program. Liesl has a new set of goals and top of the list is increasing the percentage of women studying engineering. It’s currently hovering around the 20 per cent mark.

“It’s infuriating,” she says, “because every employer I talk to is desperate to improve their diversity statistics but they can’t actually get their claws into enough people to hire. There’s no issue with aptitude. It’s all about culture. Somehow, culturally within the US it’s just not acceptable for women who are bright and otherwise talented to do engineering. It’s the same in Australia.”

But Liesl has a plan to market engineering differentially. She’s currently trialling two streams of promotional information at a Buffalo high school and is hopeful that one of these will create more interest among females. She’s also a strong advocate of girls-only schools such as Penrhos Ladies College in Perth that she attended. “I think they offer girls a huge advantage,” she says “No one’s going to dissuade them from doing physics, chemistry, and maths because somebody has to be in those classes with those teachers.”

She also sees the role of programs like the NYSF where students get to see an engineering operation or meet a scientist in the laboratory as absolutely critical. “I think it’s almost a universal truth that no one ends up in engineering without having one of those experiences. If you don’t open those labs up, and get those students in there to see what you’re doing you won’t get them to follow that trajectory”

As for this latest twist in her own life Liesl now seems right in her element.

“It’s been quite the change but in a good way. I love the fact that I go from working with a fantastic faculty, dealing with marvellous students, and hearing from alumni who all have these interesting stories and have grown great businesses. And just being back in a university community is fabulous too. You know you’re interacting all the time with humanities, social sciences, medical sciences, whatever… just the diversity of things I get to do every day is very stimulating. I’m very happy.”

Story by Geoff Burchfield

Liesl Folks

Liesl Folks

“Being a nerd was a good thing!” – David Snowdon, Alumni 1998

It sounds like an overstatement, but the NYSF was one of the truly formative experiences of my life. The two weeks in Canberra during 1998’s Session A were a critical step. Most of my best and lasting relationships stem from
 my time at NYSF, the people I met through it, or the confidence I gained
 as a result of meeting a load of truly like-minded people.

Most importantly, I learned that being a nerd was a good thing. Some might think of science as a pursuit of the anti-social, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Being a leader and being a scientist or engineer are one and the same thing.

Being a leader and being a scientist or engineer are one and the same thing.

The NYSF also taught me to think and aim big; this only being reinforced during the intervening 16 years by the achievements of my fellow
 NYSF attendees.

Offered a scholarship, I studied Computer Engineering at University of New South Wales (UNSW). While the engineering course was fantastic, it was the extra-curricular that allowed for the real education. The university bar was one of the best classrooms — we taught ourselves how to think via argument and debate.

Doing a PhD was another fantastic education. I studied power management and operating systems, and it took far longer than it should have. Being a nerd is good but it can be distracting when you’re interested in so much. In how many professions can you find people who are really excited about what they’re doing? I’ll bet that the people who study science and engineering rank high on that scale.

David Snowdon 2

David Snowdon 1

One of the biggest thinking, extra curricular activities I got into at University was the UNSW Solar Racing Team. I learned to build cars — which drove 3000 km across the desert —
with a diverse team with real deadlines. Ten years, six races and three solar
 cars later, it culminated with my picture in the Guinness Book of Records (2012). I’m now a member of the technical faculty of the World Solar Challenge.

MM_David_Snowdon_009 resized

So where did I end up? Over the last five years, since finishing my PhD, I’ve been involved in a race of a different kind: optimising financial systems around the world. I started, and now run, a business, which designs and manufactures the network hardware carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in trades each day. We are the best in the world at what we do, and we do it from Australia.

Not bad for two weeks at the beginning of year twelve!