Bronwyn Fox is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) at Swinburne University of Technology. Bronwyn is an internationally recognised expert on carbon fibre and composite materials and is Chair of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (Victorian Division), a Fellow of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), a Fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) and a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (GAICD).
Career and expertise
I studied chemistry at uni. I did honours and my first job was at CSIRO in Clayton where I was doing a lot of chemical reactions. There was one particularly challenging reaction where at 1pm every day it would be a disaster and it would gel into a clump. I was so frustrated, and I could see the engineers across the corridor making things and breaking them and getting data and always getting results. And I went, "That's actually what I want to do." So that's how I got into organic chemistry and started my career as a materials engineer.
My favourite material is carbon. Carbon fibre composites are great because they combine both chemistry and engineering. I think carbon is fascinating, because just by changing the arrangement of the atoms you can go from a lubricant graphite to the hardest material known to man, diamond, to create carbon fibres, which are very strong, lightweight, stiff fibres and then of course, graphene, which is atomically thin carbon. For example, the 787 Dreamliner, the new Boeing aircraft, comprises 50 per cent composite materials by weight, saving around 20 per cent of fuel compared with a similar sized aluminium aircraft. The material has almost an infinite fatigue life so it's an important material for the future. It is essential to lightweight trucks so you can carry more cargo, to lightweight air transport so that it is less damaging to the environment and cars, of course, too. The majority of my research has been focused on carbon fibre composites; lightweight, high strength materials.
I was one of the founders the Carbon Nexus research facility at Deakin University focused on the manufacture of carbon fibre. The process previously has been secret and kept under lock and key. But we, through this research facility, brought it into the light so that further innovation could occur. When I started my career at Deakin I was a one person research group. I worked with a company called Quickstep for many years who had a unique process for making composites faster and cheaper. I gradually recruited some amazing students and as a group focused on the problem of the high cost of the raw material and how to get the cost down. So the establishment of Carbon Nexus was part of a big ecosystem that grew around Deakin. Some of my PhD students from the Quickstep days spun out a company called Carbon Revolution. Back then they started as three guys in a shearing shed with a prototype carbon fibre wheel and have today just recruited over 500 employees and are exporting all over the world to highly prestigious car companies like Ferrari and Ford. It's just wonderful to see what they've been able to do. Being part of the group at Deakin, including industry partners and students and all the academic staff, brought about impact that has had a phenomenal and long-standing positive effect on the economy in Geelong and the economy in Australia.
I've worked on prototypes and demonstrators, but one of the projects I'm most proud of is with a company called Multimatic Engineering in Canada who has now opened up in Melbourne. The customer we worked with was Mercedes in Germany and with the University of Stuttgart as a partner, we developed a one part per minute manufacturing process. To give you context, when I made my first composite as part of my PhD, it took 20 hours to curate and I had to come in at midnight and pull it out! Within two decades we've seen this enormous advance so that we can now make one part per minute. This particular project led to a particular part being developed, which is in a rear wall on the S Class Mercedes (you would never know it’s there!). It's a very elegant part, and it gives some structural rigidity to the car. To know that I contributed to an important part in an actual production vehicle is probably one of the things I'm most proud of.
My history is putting large scale manufacturing processes into university campuses in research environments. I love working at that pilot scale, but most research environments are a little bit risk averse and so you’ll have a group of people telling you why it shouldn't be done, how hazardous it's going to be and all the reasons why it can't work. You have to be really resilient to get there and make it happen in the end.
When you have an initial concept and you're trying to raise funding or convince people that it's the right thing to do and will work; to articulate your vision and the benefits of implementing it and then having to face the naysayers is challenging. I've been fortunate to have some fantastic industry partners. I think developing that coalition and that core group of thought leaders who are willing to back the idea is important. I try and understand the other person's perspective. You can't just see it as a block. You must try and understand their perspective and when you do that, you can often find a path forward.
First and foremost, my parents were incredibly influential. Both were scientists, and I grew up making volcanoes in the backyard with my brother, doing scientific experiments with chemicals I probably shouldn't have been using!
There were two other people who have had a massive influence in my life. The first is Karen Modell. She was a scientist I met when I first started at CSIRO. She was fiercely intelligent and I desperately wanted to be her friend. I felt I had to really prove that I was worthy. And once I was a friend, she adopted me for life and she was like family. She believed in me wholeheartedly and encouraged me to think bigger and bolder all the time. She just had the most incredible, strategic brain. She really was amazing.
The other person is Brad Dunstan. Brad, I met when he was the chief engineer of HSP, and we were both working for Quickstep or with Quickstep. He later became the CEO of the Victorian Centre for Advanced Materials Manufacturing, which is an intermediary technology organisation. It was their role to create the link between industry and universities, and I did some incredible work there. I worked with him for 16 years, travelling the world.
He really encouraged me to think commercially, and to put myself in industry shoes and understand their perspective. Brad was my commercial mentor.
Sadly, both Karen and Brad died in 2018, within weeks of each other, which was an enormous loss because they were two people who absolutely had my back and believed in me through thick and thin. Brad would often play the commercial role and me the technical, so after he died I had this crisis of confidence thinking, "Can I? Can I actually do this?". And then after a while I realised everything I'd learned from him and that I actually could do both. I'm so grateful for everything they taught me.
I am excited what we're going to do at Swinburne in partnership with CSIRO, which is an additive manufacturing process for making carbon fibre composites that is completely automated and digitalised. It’s exciting to be a part of a group that is focused on transforming Australian manufacturing so that we're competitive, and so we can make bespoke products. We’ll be helping Australian manufacturers embrace digitalisation, which will keep us competitive and ensure we have software manufacturing capabilities here so that at times, like now, when we are cut off from the rest of the world, we have everything that we need, but remain globally competitive.
Ultimately though my legacy will be the people I've worked with. My passion is mentoring, helping people, watching them develop, watching them grow. So many of my former PhD students are like family to me now. I think back to the first lot that I recruited, and by the time I left Deakin, I had a team of 30 researchers and half of them were women. That's something I'm incredibly proud of. And that was because I'd recruit some great women and then they'd recruit other women that it became this cascade effect. It just happened without me consciously realising it. It was just, "Hey, we're having fun over here and come and join us".
Advice to young women considering going into research
Find some mentors, find people in the industry, talk to them, don't be afraid to approach people. They will love to tell you about their careers, their experiences, the things that they love about their job, the things that they don't, they will just be generous. Explore everything. Keep an open mind. You never know. In high school, I wanted to be an optometrist or a dentist because I wanted a job that involved science and people.
I was one Anderson score point off getting into optometry and I was devastated at the time. And now I think, "Oh, thank God." I would have had a very different life. And I mean, it would have been great, but just for me, what I'm doing now, I adore, and it's so satisfying and varied. I think really keeping an open mind and exploring every opportunity you can is so important.
If not research, then...?
I'm an absolutely mad live music fan and love seeing any kind of live music, whether it be opera or independent rock or jazz, jazz in particular. I played saxophone in a jazz band in high school, and I played bass guitar in a band for a short, short time. I would be a musician if I wasn’t a scientist!