'Never lose your love for experimentation': Q&A with Dr Cathy Foley

‘Never lose your love for experimentation’: Q&A with Dr Cathy Foley

‘The Link’ is our new, revamped Q&A series on women in STEM, where you can catch a quick glimpse into the life and work of a woman excelling in her field.

Below we hear from Dr Cathy Foley, chief scientist at the CSIRO and the winner of the Agenda Setter award at the Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards in September.

When we first interviewed Dr Cathy Foley six years ago, she spoke passionately about her mission get more women into leadership positions in science, encouraging girls in high school to study maths and sciences, and spurring women to put themselves forward for promotions.

By then, she’d already had one seriously impressive career in science — especially given she never believed it was a career option when she was in high-school.

She’s also raised a blended family of six kids including three step children while building her career, describing the experience while she accepted our Agenda Setter award back in September as proof that the “kids will be fine!”

Six years after that first interview, Dr Foley is now Chief Scientist at CSIRO, and she’s  mobilising her position to spread her influence and remould the country’s scientific agenda.

What’s something awesome that you’re working on right now?
In my role as the Chief Scientist for Australia’s national science agency, I have been leading CSIRO’s Future Science and Technology which focuses on existing and emerging transformative science and technology. As science reinvents itself and as the speed of science discovery  accelerates, we will need a more adaptive capability. We need to make sure we can respond to challenges, advance missions and catalyse the creation of new sustainable industries and solutions to our greatest challenges such as the impact of climate change and dealing with waste.

What does your work environment look like?
I work in Lindfield, in NSW which is classic 70’s blond brick building which is next to the Lane Cove River National Park. It is also home of the Lindfield Collaboration Hub – an innovation incubator. It’s a dedicated space for start-ups to develop new to the world deep-tech products. Early stage companies can move to CSIRO’s Lindfield campus and access our facilities, science know-how, experience, business networks and commercialisation savvy. It’s a great vibe and energy. It is great to support start-ups to grow and create new jobs and exports.

What do you believe is the best path to success in your field?
Loving what you do, I love science and technology and have never lost my love of experimentation. It’s about embracing opportunities when they came up. I remember there was a speaking role with ABC local radio that I did every week for 5 years starting back in the late 80’s. I never knew at the time how significant and how great that experience would be for my role today as Chief Scientist where I travel the country attending speaking engagements. Because of that training and experience I feel well equipped to handle media and all speaking situations and feel confident to talk about all CSIRO science whether it is the latest quantum technology, a new wellbeing CSIRO diet or an important environmental issue.

As a little girl, what did you imagine your working life would be like?
My Mum who died when I was 9 years old in 1966. She was an architect. Because she had to leave her job when she started to have children (mothers could not work for the public service then) she started her own architect practice building homes, schools and churches. So I always thought I would work. I was also brought up in the Catholic Church and had a strong expectation that when you have privilege and talent, you need to use this to make the world a better place. At first I thought I would be a missionary or a teacher. But eventually a pathway into scientific research revealed itself and I followed it.

What makes you happy?
My family. Watching my kids grow up and find their own way in the world has been true happiness. Plus having a dream come true husband and the best job. How could I not be happy.

What makes you angry?
Bigotry and bias that leads to actions that are only considering self-interest at the expense of looking at the bigger picture and universal win-win outcomes.

What would most surprise your younger self about what you do?
Writing as much as I do. I am dyslectic and not a natural writer and at spelling. Now I correct others writing and am the editor-in-chief of a scientific journal. My primary school teachers would be amazed!

What traits do you most admire in female colleagues or leaders?
Clarity of purpose and the ability to create the strategy to deliver it and then execute it into action, while doing this with grace, passion, resolve, humour and kindness. Michelle Obama, Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel are to amazing leaders who demonstrate this.

How do you stay fit and/or manage your wellbeing outside of work?
For me it’s jogging. I run several times each week.  I love to cook with my husband and prepare most of our meals. After having raised a blended family of six children, who are now all adults, with my husband and their other parents, I still prefer to pack my own lunch. Being prepared and making healthy choices is important for me to try to be fit and healthy. I’m a big fan of cheese and tomato on wholemeal bread with some nuts and fruit are my work day regular food items!

 What do you feel particularly passionate about right now?
Australia is an amazing country that has incredible potential but is being held back by not having all the different parts of the community working together and collaborating to jointly succeed. Using our full human potential including embracing the culture and knowledge of our indigenous first people and not being caught up by side issues is limiting our ability to have the nation we could have dealing with our major challenges and working together to solve them.

How do you most like to make and nurture professional connections?
For my whole career I have been fortunate to have many mentors and sponsors along the way. So for me, it is very important to nurture early career researchers and provide advice and support  to those seeking it.

Many things have changed since I was a young researcher at CSIRO – such as there being more women physicists – but some other things never change, like how to grow your confidence, how to balance publication with partnerships, and how to lead others in your team. As Chief Scientist I love being able to hear directly from our researchers and hopefully share some advice, or better yet, influence changes at CSIRO that help many of them.

 What do you believe about ‘work life balance’?
We work for decades. Over these years we have different stages of our life when our work and non-work lives have different needs and priorities. When my children were small and at school, I used the amazing flexibility of my job to be able to pop out to do reading (I had the kids in a public school around the corner from my lab), take kids to sport and deal with all the things that make our children’s lives rich. As they were more independent, I was able to take on more responsibility and travel. Now my husband and I have our work life pretty integrated as we both love our work and our family life.

 Best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
I had not really considered a life in research as a scientist until my professor, Prof Heather Adamson, at university, boldly stated that I wasn’t going to be a teacher, that I was going to be a first-class honours student, win a scholarship, do a PhD and go on to work as a scientist. Her belief in me, stirred something and I went on to accomplish everything she said!

Got a great business book or podcasts you’d recommend?
I love reading Women’s Agenda. It makes me feel linked into a network of women pulling together. Also, the ABC Science Show and Family Matters on Radio National. As to books, I tend to read material for the Harvard Business Review. This usually has a lot of great evidence-based advice.

What are your career goals from here?
I am trying to figure this out as I am now 62 and trying to figure out what to do next. It is hard to keep a scientist down so when this role ends, I hope I can see if I can solve some science problems in my research field or spin out a company to commercialise the devices I have developed.

Any social media accounts or a website where readers can see/hear more from you?
LinkedIn and Twitter and of course CSIRO.au and the CSIRO Instagram is amazing and funny!

 Who would you like to see featured in The Link?
Kylie Walker, Kylie Noon, Tanya Monro, Michelle Simmons, Julie Bishop, Julia Gillard, Penny Wong and Karen Andrews.


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