Simon McKenzie

Publication date
Thursday, 25 Oct 2018
IMG_5693 (Large).jpg

“The scholarship means that I can focus solely on my research. Definitely if I only had an APA I would be more inclined to do demonstrating or teaching. Not that there's anything wrong with that but, I'm very thankful that I can just focus on my research.”

PhD student Simon McKenzie, who is a recipient of a Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship, first came to the ANU in 2012 to study the Bachelor of Philosophy – Science (PhB). Having been interested in chemistry throughout high school, Simon chose the ANU due to its strong research focus, being given research opportunities almost straight away as part of his degree.

“In my first year my current supervisor of my PhD and also my supervisor for my honours gave a lecture and I thought it was really cool,” Simon explains. “I approached him afterwards to find out if I could do a research project because the degree I was in at the time allowed for undergraduate research projects to take place. He said, ‘Being a young freshman you don't quite have the skills yet, come back to me.’ I came back to him in third year, sent him a very long email saying, "Remember me, still very keen."

“That was my first exposure to the Research School of Chemistry, was coming to do a research project with Professor Peter Gill. That transitioned into an honours with him and then that transitioned into the start of my PhD with him.”

Simon’s focus throughout this research trajectory has been computational and theoretical chemistry. He has taken a different angle in this field with each level of his studies.

“My first research topic was in one dimensional chemistry, theoretical chemistry. Basically if you constrain molecules to be just a line, it turns out lots of interesting things happen.”

“Then my honours was in coming up with a faster way of running simulations on molecules containing heavy elements -- things like uranium or platinum. I took an existing method to run simulations on heavy elements and made that method much, much faster than it had previously been.”

“Now my PhD is going to be making very, very accurate simulations run faster based on some work that a previous PhD student's done. This student came up with the theory to be able to apply really accurate simulations of molecules to bigger systems. Because these simulations have been constrained to simple, not very interesting molecules, they haven't been as useful given we can't apply them to things such as solar cells or proteins which are big systems of great interest.

“With the experience of my honours in making that part of a simulation go as fast as possible, I wanted to take this theory that has been developed by a different PhD student and make it run as fast as possible in software.”

In doing so Simon and his team work in a unique, collaborative manner.

“We are an interesting group in that we ourselves don't often run simulations. We develop the tools for others to run simulations. This is part of the collaborative nature of scientists. Whilst we don't see the fruits of our labour, in some sense, we provide the tools for other groups in the RSC or across Australia or across the world to start coming up with novel materials and medicinal drugs.”

Throughout all of this Simon has benefited from two big scholarships. For his honours he received a $5,000 scholarship, awarded by the Research School of Chemistry. Now, as a PhD student, he is the recipient of a Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship. Both have been integral to his research success.

“The honours scholarship was a very generous $5,000 for the year awarded to an honour students with outstanding academic merit, which fortunately I was deemed to be one. $5,000 made a big difference in that I didn't have to work part-time for instance during that year. Honours year, especially in chemistry, can be a very stressful period. Having that relief of not having to deal with that financial stress was really good.”

“Apart from the money there's lots of other great benefits of the Future Leaders Scholarship in that they put a lot of effort into your personal development. There's a year long leadership development programme, the biggest part of which is a week long intensive programme in Sydney, which was fantastic just learning a lot of life skills, a lot of leadership skills obviously. You also join a growing network of Westpac scholar alumni, all of whom have diverse passions and skills.”

With these scholarships Simon McKenzie has been able to pursue a career of study at the Research School of Chemistry, one that will likely have a long future.