It may be 25 years since Sally Brooker received her BSc(Hons) First Class from Canterbury University, but she hasn’t lost her connection to students. The MacDiarmid Institute Principal Investigator and Professor of Chemistry at Otago University maintains a strong research group of Honours students, PhD students and postdoctoral fellows, fondly referred to as “Brooker’s Bunch”.
“Working with my team is the highlight of my working day. A large chunk of my enjoyment is from the interaction in the day-to-day basics,” Brooker maintains. This can vary from discussing the direction of doctoral research, advising on funding applications, preparing the many joint publications that come out of the group, or simply shooting the breeze over a cup of coffee. Brooker has deliberately kept her group numbers at 8-10 to ensure that she maintains quality time with each member of the team.
Four MacDiarmid Institute-funded PhD students and postdoctoral fellows have come through the team and, like their 50-odd counterparts, are now scattered throughout the world at leading research institutions and universities in Ireland, Switzerland, England, China and Germany, as well as around New Zealand.
Brooker credits a strong network of international contacts with providing her bunch with broad opportunities. She travels to overseas conferences and institutions regularly, encouraging high-level researchers to visit New Zealand. The 2012 International Symposium on Macrocyclic and Supramolecular Chemistry conference Brooker hosted here earlier this year saw her encourage contacts between students and international researchers. “Those personal contacts are very important and [such connections] are very common – the world is a very small place!”
As a result, one of her bunch, Bright Futures PhD student-MacDiarmid Institute postdoctoral fellow Jonathan Kitchen, headed off to Trinity College Dublin to work with Professor Thorri Gunnlaugsson. She describes Kitchen as “one of the superstars that has come out of my team”, a postdoctoral fellow with 17 papers so far from his time in Brookers Bunch.
While acknowledging the importance of international research experience, Brooker is keen to see the likes of Kitchen and other talented ex-pats return home, bringing with them a broader depth of understanding and their own networks of collaborators and contacts. She knows that limited research job opportunities can make that difficult, with many Kiwis remaining overseas permanently, but is pleased to see that the emphasis on analytical thinking, problem solving and clear communications drummed into students is recognised and valued as much outside the lab as in. Hence, graduates are readily able to take up a non-research career path, opting for patent law, consulting or teaching in New Zealand. “Part of the New Zealand thing is you need to have a fairly open mind about what you do next.”
Brooker is keen to do as Sir Paul Callaghan encouraged – to refund, and more, the grants awarded over the years through the successful commercialisation of research. She recognises that this requires increased awareness of intellectual property issues and commercial drivers. However, Brooker remains a tad wary of the push towards commercialisation, aware that overemphasis on this could harm student prospects. With a low probability of commercial success and a strong tendency to discourage publication due to the possibility of commercial sensitivity, a student caught between commercial failure and no academic publications to their name would be in a very tight spot when it comes to progressing to the next step in their career. And that’s not something she’d wish on any Brooker’s Bunch graduate.