Professor Alison Downard – Excellent leadership on an international stage

Professor Alison Downard – Excellent leadership on an international stage

Part of a series of stories from the Public Annual Report. This profile  comes from the Scientific Excellence section. To say that 2014 was a good year for Professor Alison Downard is a bit of an understatement. Even her admission that it was ‘really good’ is somewhat shy of the mark, given that she was made an Honorary Professor at one university, received a Docteur Honoris Causa at another, was awarded the RH Stokes medal from the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, and made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. So, 2014 was a really, really good year. It wasn’t surprising that the international honours preceded the home-grown ones. “In my specific research area there’s a very small community in New Zealand,” she explains. France has always has a significant involvement in electrochemistry since the founding of the discipline, and the mining industry gave Australia a strong basis for electrochemical research and applications. It all seems a long way for the young Alison who headed south from her Te Puke high school to start a Bachelor’s degree in Home Science at Otago University. An early interest in cooking had led to plans to become a dietician, but the compulsory science subjects took her fancy and she graduated with a BSc (Hons) from Otago in 1979. Her career in electrochemistry got its kick-start during her subsequent PhD studies, when she found a fascination with instrumentation, measurement and analysis. Postdoctoral work followed at Southampton and the University of North Carolina; she began lecturing at Canterbury in 1988 and is now Professor of Chemistry there and a Principal Investigator with The MacDiarmid Institute. Alison Downard Honorary DoctorateThe French Honorary Doctorate came as a result of strong connections with the Universitéde Rennes 1 by way of the by the Dumont d’Urville New Zealand–France Science & Technology Support Programme designed to encourage collaborative work. “We did a lot of good science and published a lot of good papers,” recalls Alison. Her visits to France in the early-2000s saw her invited to teach an international Masters class in nanotechnology at the Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble. One of the things that Alison particularly appreciated about the Dumont d’Urville programme was that it allowed her to send students to the overseas institutions. Two of her PhD students spent three months at the Université de Rennes 1. And when Canterbury University’s facilities were unavailable following the 2011 spate of large earthquakes, another student was able to pick up their studies in Grenoble. Other connections led to a position at the Qilu University of Technology in China’s Shandong Province. While that involved an undergraduate class in Applied Chemistry, Alison found herself concentrating as much on teaching specialist English as Chemical Nanotechnology. She found the students there friendly yet respectful, keen to learn and become a part of the international science world, and is looking forward to returning for another stint. Alison sees mentoring students, referring papers, visiting labs, attending conferences—”seeing what’s going on around the world”—as vitally important in developing as a researcher. Seeing different ways of doing things is a necessity, she believes, whether the basic practicalities of lab arrangements and equipment choice or the more intangible differences of cultural approaches and how differing mixes of expertise can enhance a research programme. All these things have contributed to the development of a highly-regarded scientific leader, a leadership recognised by her place on a number of international boards and advisory groups. Not all the roles are high-flying international ones however. One of the things that Alison is most passionate about is The MacDiarmid Institute’s new outreach programme Kōrero with Scientists. She’s hoping that the ties with the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI Te Riu Roa), on working with primary and early childhood educators in their science teaching will see better resources and activities help educators instil an early interest in science and technology. “I think that a basic science understanding—the more, the better—is absolutely crucial for the benefit of the country as well as individuals. Hopefully we can help provide the scientists of the future and improve decision-making across society.”