Chemists of the Month - December 2021
Dr Mary Smal
For the December/January edition of the RACI NSW Branch Newsletter, two highly contrasting chemists are presented. Both are at different stages of their careers, with different qualifications, industries and backgrounds, and along with the 2021 Chemist of the Month series so far, demonstrate the great diversity of chemists working in various professions.
Mary Smal is a veteran of the veterinary pharmaceuticals industry. After completing a PhD and spending her early career in research and teaching, she made the switch to the corporate sector and made a distinguished career, where she was involved in the company laboratory, and in developing veterinary pharmaceutical products. Nowadays semi-retired, she spends her time mentoring aspiring chemists in the RACI Mentoring Programme, as well as gardening, playing bridge and outdoors activities.
WL: Good to interview you this afternoon, Mary. Firstly, how long have you been a RACI Member?
MS: I think I joined as an Honours student back in 1977, and was a member for 6 or 7 years. After taking a break, I’ve rejoined RACI and have been a member for over 25 consecutive years.
WL: Wow, that’s a long time! Some aspiring chemists would love to hear about your wealth of expertise!
MS: I’ve had three different mentees from the RACI Mentoring Programme; all are at different stages of their education and in their job search. I’m looking forward to mentoring more people.
WL: Notice how your mentees might have that common interest in wanting to start a career in chemistry, but they may not necessarily be doing the same degree or going into the same industry even! Such diversity in aspiring chemists!
MS: Yes, definitely. I got some people who had an interest in pharmaceuticals.
WL: The more relevant they are to what you do, the more of help you can give them. Talking about industry, what do you do these days?
MS: I’m semi-retired now. I work on average, 2-3 hours per week, as a consultant, though the work is sporadic. Some weeks or months I’ve got nothing, and then I might have a sudden burst of activity, where I might need to be working 5-6 hours a day. Just depends on the clients’ needs.
WL: What sort of clients do you have? Are they in industry, academia or government?
MS: Mostly those from the veterinary pharmaceutical industry. It’s a relatively large industry, and I service not only Australia, but internationally.
WL: Pretty good to have clients around the world, understanding different regulations between countries and getting to know how they do things - very interesting.
MS: Yes, it’s an extension of my career since 1994 when I entered the corporate sector.
WL: Over 25 years in the industry! Now going back to where you started. After Honours, did you do your PhD?
MS: Yes, I went straight from Honours to my PhD, which was about synthetic organic chemistry, dealing with sulfur compounds. I published a lot of papers until the time I entered the corporate sector.
WL: That implies you were in academia, and then transitioned into corporate.
MS: I worked in a hospital research institute, and then in . I also did some part-time teaching at different points.
WL: You’ve certainly had a flying start to your career and got to experience working in academia, both as a teacher and in research. So what made you want to make that transition into corporate?
MS: Well, it was actually accidental! I wasn’t contemplating going into the corporate world, but at the time, I was doing cancer research at University of Sydney Pharmacy Department, and I was preparing grant applications at the time. I happened to see a job ad on the noticeboard in the corridor, a position to an analytical chemistry department, and so I applied for that job, and after a 6 month hiring process, I made the transition.
WL: Very interesting. And not uncommon to have former academics going into corporate and they find greener pastures there, getting a solid career out of it.
MS: Yes, I was helped very much by the hiring manager during the transition. It was a steep learning curve, which is something I tell my mentees - being different to academia.
WL: What did you like the most about your career before you became semi-retired?
MS: Well, my job in the corporate world was extremely satisfying. I learnt a lot and I transitioned from heading up a department to being expert . And here we’re talking about a global, multi-national big player company where we worked with international teams, which was all made possible by technology
, I represented the company to various government agencies around the world as a subject matter expert. I had interactions with the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency, and other government agencies around the world.
WL: Great to be in a position where you have international exposure, and also getting to work in different approaches depending on the country.
MS: You know, the work to develop new drugs for new animals was done in such a way it would satisfy the requirements locally, as well as in major regions around the world. There are a set of international guidelines on how to develop a veterinary pharmaceutical product, and was heavily involved in developing some guidelines with my expertise. So the highlight of my career was representing the company at an international level.
WL: Sounds really good to be the face of the company.
MS: Though I was never interested in being at the top of the corporate ladder such as CEO, or even a senior such as a divisional manager.
WL: That’s fine, as long as you feel satisfied in what you do. Looking back, if there was one piece of advice you want to give to someone who wants to follow your footsteps, what would it be?
MS: You never know when opportunities appear for you. You never know what’s around the corner, and so you keep an open mind. Also, being a chemist opens up a bunch of fields for you. For example, you can move into manufacturing, administration and biological science; knowing how molecules behave helps a lot your career.
WL: Yes, not all chemists wear a lab coat! Their job might not involve chemicals or testing things, but all involve the use of problem-solving skills of some sort, and think scientifically to solve the problem.
MS: Indeed. I’ve seen chemists move around a lot in the companies I
for. They all started as a chemist, and now could do something like managing a product development team. Or even marketing. Just need to keep an open mind; there’s lots of opportunities elsewhere.
WL: Definitely. So what motivated you to take up a career in science?
MS: I guess it was my father. When I was little, he encouraged me to look at natural phenomena, enquire on what’s going on or showing me little experiments such as trying to light paper with a magnifying glass! He was a mathematician.
WL: Really good to have family encourage you to take up science as a career. Lastly, what do you do in your spare time these days?
MS: I spend time gardening, particularly fruit and vegetables; I was inspired by my former toxicology colleague to take up gardening after retirement. I play golf; took it up also after retiring from industry. I also snow ski, and I play bridge. And I find time to travel and catch up with family, friends and former colleagues. We used to travel much internationally before covid times. And my favourite places to visit are volcanic areas - goes back to high school
s where I was interested in being a geologist, which didn’t happen! Canary Islands would be of interest my next trip.
Roberto Garcia Soto
Roberto Garcia Soto is an aspiring early career professional, currently a Trainee Consultant at MAS Management Systems. After completing his Bachelor studies in Mexico and then moving to Sydney for a Master of Laboratory Quality Analysis and Management at Macquarie University, he joined the RACI Mentorship Program to get advice from senior professionals in the chemical industry on how to land on his first role. He spends his spare training martial arts and exploring his adopted city.
WL: Good to meet again, Roberto. Firstly, how long have you been a RACI Member?
RGS: I joined RACI 3 years ago while I was studying my Master degree. I heard about RACI from some of my other senior classmates, who had industry experience and how good it was for their career. That awakened my curiosity, and I started asking them for more information about RACI. Finally, I was told my program director Danny Wong (Past President, NSW Branch) was part of the RACI, so I decided to approach him and get more information about RACI and how to join.
WL: Lucky that you heard about RACI from people around you because it's often easier finding out about things when you know people who are already involved in it. So what did you study and how did you find university life?
RGS: Back in Mexico, I studied a Bachelor of Biotechnology Engineering. After a year of completing my studies, I got a scholarship to study the two-year Master of Laboratory Quality Analysis and Management at Macquarie University. The first half-year was the one that presented more challenges because I had a lot of new things to process and learn. First of all, I had a language barrier because of the broad variety of accents in English that were unknown to me. Back in Mexico, I was used to only hearing the American accent. Another challenge was adapting to a new educational system as well as a completely different country, society and culture. After some months, I got used to living in Sydney; I got a casual job in my second half-year here, where I had the opportunity to meet many people and get more adapted to the environment.
WL: It's definitely not easy moving half a world away and to transition into a different society with a language barrier. What other things did you find interesting in transitioning to a life in Sydney?
RGS: I feel like the multicultural environment is fantastic, and the incorporation of technology in services and daily life is excellent. I can confidently say this is a city with great potential because of its great people. Being a pretty multicultural city, has brought together a great diversity of ideas and points of view, which is very positive for scientific development.
WL: You seemed to live a good life so far here and settled here well. What do you miss most from Mexico?
RGS: I obviously miss my family, the social interactions with my own culture, my traditional food and speaking Spanish!
WL: And also not being able to talk to people there conveniently due to timezones.
RGS: Yes, there's a 17- or 18- hour difference in time zone, which sometimes makes it hard to communicate with my family.
WL: Sticking to your origins, what inspired you to a career in chemistry?
RGS: I saw great potential and applications chemistry has to a range of critical areas for human development, such as medicine, food and pharmaceuticals. Having the opportunity to create such a positive impact in the society and improve people's life, motivated me to study chemistry.
WL: When did you find your motivation?
RGS: During high school, when I was 15. Also, at that age, I figured out that my skills and abilities matched with this discipline.
WL: Now that you've got a career started in chemistry, what do you do in your role?
RGS: Right now, I'm working as a consultant helping Australian laboratories and testing facilities to develop, maintain, improve, and implement their QMS to obtain accreditation to international standards. I have liked it a lot so far.
WL: Sounds quite interesting to apply principles of quality management systems to a range of environments around the world and getting to know the different ways of doing things depending on the country of the client.
RGS: You know, there are some slight variations in how something is applied in each country. Mainly because of the individual requirements of each accreditation body and other external parties that can impact a QMS, such as regulators and the market.
WL: Absolutely. Looking like a great start to a career.
RGS: One critical thing in helping me start my career was asking questions and information to learn from more senior scientists, such as Danny Wong and Maree Stuart. Furthermore, in the RACI Mentorship Program, I had the opportunity to meet Dave Sammut, my mentor Daniel Bucio, and the incredible network of mentors and mentees who provided me with excellent advice on job seeking and networking. I am grateful for having this opportunity.
WL: From a person who found valuable help in mentoring, if there was one piece of advice you would like to give to someone who wants to follow your footsteps, what would it be?
RGS: The best piece of advice is to ask questions to people who have more experience than you. There are many articles on finding a job after studies, but how to actually apply the principles and undertake real-life situations is something no book or article can give you. Additionally, senior professionals have seen much more stuff than you both professionally and personally; hence, they can see opportunities and perspectives you would not even think about as a young person. I think the best way to go in life, is being humble and be nice to the people you meet. Remember that what goes around turns around.
WL: Any idea where you see yourself in, say, another 5 years?
RGS: I'm still planning. Let's just say that!
WL: That's fair. Lastly, and most importantly of all, what do you do in your spare time?
RGS: I like to go to the gym and practise martial arts – it's a great stress reliever for me and has taught me many skills such as discipline, strength, and determination. I also love to hang out with friends around the city and go for a run in the park.
WL: What sort of martial arts?
Interviews conducted by William Li.