It can be tough when a career in academic research comes to an end. However, it can also open doors for a whole range of new possibilities and new directions. That was the case for RSC alumni Glen Walker, who has taken the skills he learnt at the School to work on an ambitious project in chemical assessment in the Australian Public Service.
We spoke to Walker on a visit back to the School, where he spoke to students about the different career paths available to chemistry graduates.
“I first came to the ANU as a vacation scholar in 1988,” Walker explains. “I then came back to do a PhD with Alan Sargeson and Len Lindoy from 1990 to when I finally finished up in 1997.
“I did my PhD in coordination chemistry. This is the chemistry of metal complexes which are made up of metal ions bonded to organic and/or inorganic ligands. Alan Sargeson and Len Lindoy were both world leaders in this field, with Australia having had a long, distinguished history of producing high quality, globally recognised and renowned, coordination chemists.
“It's a very interesting field to be in because it draws together aspects of inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry and physical chemistry. You're often making measurements on the complexes you make with the aim of trying understanding their properties such as the rates of chemical reactions. In the case of the work that I did here it also included some biological chemistry, because Alan Sargeson was very interested in the biological effects of metal complexes. We studied, for example, some surface active cobalt(III) cage compounds that I had made which also have toxic effects on intestinal parasites.”
After completing his PhD Walker was a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After some time in the UK he returned to Australia, deciding to join the Australian Public Service in the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA). After two years there he moved to the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, where he has been working ever since.
“I decided to join the public service after a recognition that there weren't many jobs in academia,” Walker explains. “You had to face the prospect of more non-ongoing research contracts or moving to something else. So it was time for me to find something else to do, and, happily, the Australian Public Service provided me with a position which I've built upon and developed into a new career.
“I'm now the team leader for existing industrial chemicals at the Department. I lead aspects of a national programme to prioritise and evaluate the large number of unassessed chemicals that are available for industrial uses in Australia.”
Walker explains that unassessed industrial chemicals are a major global issue, presenting potential risks for human health and the environment.
“There's tens of thousands of industrial chemicals available for use in Australia that have never been assessed. We don't know very much about them apart from their CAS registry number and their systematic name. All developed countries are faced with similar challenges. They all have large inventories of chemicals that are available for use in their economies, but they have not been subject to the kind of detailed assessments that newly introduced chemicals are now required to undergo.
“So countries have been wrestling with this problem and trying to find a way to, at least, prioritise the chemicals that have not been assessed and figure out which are the ones that are most in need of attention by regulatory scientists. We’re figuring out which are a high priority for regulatory assessment, and which are low priority for regulatory assessment, because you need both to be able to have a balanced approach. We still need chemicals to live our lives, but it's possible to identify chemicals that have lower impact both on human health and the environment.
“So that's a major project operating nationally, and there are similar projects happening internationally. They're all trying to come up with ways to get through this large number of chemicals using whatever information we can find. A big part of my job is leading a team which has to figure out what we know, and then figure out, from that, what additional information we need to reach a conclusion about the risks that those chemicals pose.”
Walker explains that his training in chemistry is essential to be able to conduct this work.
“The foundation of a lot of my work is understanding the chemistry of the chemicals that we're dealing with. Unless you understand whether, for example, a chemical's highly reactive or not, you won't really know how to view the long term fate and behaviour of that chemical. Often, there is no information available and you have to use your training and expert judgement to make a call. It is a constantly changing and evolving set of high technical scientific problems that have to be solved. So this is where a good grounding in chemistry allows you to solve problems which are of significant importance to both the government, but also to the community.”
Despite having left academia, Walker still likes to return to the RSC, hoping to inspire other students to pursue diverse career options.
“I think reflecting on my time at RSC where it was very much focused on curiosity driven research, my story, like so many others, indicates that, well, it's not always going to be about research in academia. In fact, the vast majority of students will end up in non-academic careers.
“So, I was invited to come back and give a talk to the students about my experience of having transitioned from a fairly focused academic research career into something that's not. And part of the purpose is to show people that that's possible, but also to show them that what they've learnt in their research career, in advanced chemical degrees, can be translated, repackaged, repurposed to develop a new career.
“That’s what I want to do, to show the current generation of students and post-docs how their skills and training can be used to basically construct a new career which is both rewarding, and has some tangible outcomes in terms of improved quality of the environment and, in some cases, new scientific discoveries and products.”