From becoming a renowned physicist to now being Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley AO has had an exciting yet challenging journey through her career in STEM.
Cathy is a Fellow of both the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. She is an accomplished scientist who has made significant contributions in the area of physics relating to superconductors.
Cathy has challenged several status quos, one of which is becoming the second woman chief scientist of Australia after Penny Sackett (2008-11) amongst the nine so far.
“There were a few hurdles, no role model and lack of belief in myself. I never thought I was smart enough to be a scientist,” says Cathy.
Getting started in science
The teacher in-charge of science at Cathy Foley’s school must have noticed her enthusiasm for science. Cathy was encouraged to enter the ‘Science Teacher’s Association Research Competition’, she won $7.
“I loved the idea of understanding nature when I was in primary science. I really enjoyed reading my older siblings’ school science textbooks,” says Cathy.
“So going to high school and doing science enabled me to soak it all up”.
Later on, this interest developed into ideas that formed the foundation of pioneering research that Cathy undertook in Australia.
Surprisingly, in her early career years, one of the first research publications Cathy wrote was co-authored with her first-year biology lecturer – a calculation she did to show that Katabatic winds in Antarctica could create sonic booms when they crash into the ice cliffs. This was Cathy’s first science paper, first collaboration and first interdisciplinary research.
Cathy worked on high-temperature superconductors that led her to develop a new structure called a Josephson junction. This is a critical component for devices that can be used for a wide range of applications from mineral exploration, terahertz imaging (like superman vision), broad antennae, high-frequency communications, health monitoring to name a few.
Josephson junction was part of a system that Cathy developed with her team to detect mineral resources. This commercialised system has assisted in uncovering more than $6 billion of mineral ores in Australia alone.
“It is also being used by other research groups around the world and the CSIRO team continues to develop applications and improvements based on my work,” says Cathy.
Current role of Australia’s Chief Scientist
For Cathy, the role of Chief Scientist is an enabler for progress. Science is often portrayed as providing the answer, but for her, it’s the start of problem-solving and provides us with more options.
“As we have seen with the COVID-19 vaccine development, taking science out of the lab into real life is not always easy.”
“We need engineering, social licence, a good business model, appropriate end user design. We need the right people with the right skills at each stage of the process.”
“My sleeves are rolled up and I look forward to championing science and research and continuing to place science at the center of government policy development,” says Cathy.
Fulfilling goals through science
Cathy’s goal is to bring the science sector together into a coordinated team to enable brilliant research to move out of the lab and develop into new products and processes. This way there will be greater prosperity, better solutions and a sector where everyone understands their role.
“Science is only the starting point. Science is the part that provides options – it shows a pathway forward.”
“It is creative, hard, exciting, sometimes demoralising and, having been working as a researcher for the last 40 years, I am here to tell you, an incredibly fulfilling human pursuit,” says Cathy.
Outlook towards diversity
Cathy thinks that greater diversity leads to better quality and more robust outcomes.
“Whether it’s gender, cultural backgrounds, or scientific fields, bringing different points of view to solve a problem will result in a better final product or solution,” says Cathy.
Cathy’s advice to young people
- “Take what you are interested in as a starting point and then do the research to understand your options – for ongoing study, for jobs, for ways of life.”
- “Consider how you like to learn. A science degree can lead you anywhere because the skills are transferable. And there are other learning options.”
- “Talk to as many people as possible who can provide you with feedback on their experience. Ultimately, it’s up to you to be responsible for your own pathway.”
Qualifications and career-path
- BSc (Hons) DipEd (1976-1980) Macquarie University
- PhD (1981-1984) Macquarie University
- CSIRO (1985-2020): Research Fellow (now called a postdoctoral fellow); Chief Scientist
- Australian Government (2021-2024): Australia’s Chief Scientist
To find out more information about Cathy’s projects as Australia’s Chief Scientist click here.
Author: Dr Astha Singh
Astha is the Managing Editor at Refraction Media. She is a STEM Marketer and holds a Honors, Masters & PhD degree in Science. She has been producing STEM marketing content for over 10 years and is an avid advocate of Diversity in the STEM industry.