Chemist of the Month - October 2021


Dr Dianne Werden


Dianne Werden is Chemist of the Month for October 2021.  Dianne is not a typical chemist, having undergone a non-linear career path since finishing a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry.  After a long stint in chemical testing and then in pathology, she transitioned into an educator in Horticulture and Environment of TAFE NSW, an area with little obvious connection to chemistry.  Her involvement with RACI is mainly with the NSW Consultants and Contractors Group.  Her passion for the arts is evident with a broad range of hobbies, including piano, languages and knitting.


Interview conducted by William Li.

WL:     Pleasure to interview you tonight, Dianne.  Firstly, how long have you been a RACI Member?


DW:    Oh, I’m glad you asked that question!  I think around 12 years.


WL:     That’s a fair length of time.  You’ve appeared to be closely involved with the NSW Consultants and Contractors Group?


DW:    Yes I have.  My role has been as the Secretary of the Group where I have mainly organised events, undertaken administrative duties, and supported the rest of the team where I can.


WL:     Always good to find ways to give back to the chemistry community, like your colleagues and others in your field.  As a TAFE educator, what are your days like?


DW:    My role is an Educational Team Leader of Horticulture and Environment, I oversee the delivery of education across 6 different types of horticulture areas, such as landscape design, landscape construction and applied environmental management.


WL:     It’s quite interesting being in a field that’s not immediately related to chemistry; you’ve certainly done a lot of work to help people to be qualified and employable in those horticultural and environmental industries.


DW:    I initially worked for TAFE NSW over 10 years as an educator in the chemistry area, and was involved in the delivery of the Diploma of Laboratory Technology that specialises in chemical and forensic testing, but I did return to industry, working with Douglass Pathology Laboratories at the time, mainly involved in the pathology testing area.


WL:     That’s not a very common career path.


DW:    No, not common.  But I’m the type of person who likes to reinvent myself and diversify, and I believe one’s skills are very transferable.  My understanding of pedagogy and how you’re supposed to deliver a range of concepts, has enabled me to provide the guidance and advice to educators who deliver horticulture even though I’m not a horticulture specialist.


WL:     Quite fulfilling to be able to provide expertise even though you may not be a specialist, but still being able to contribute so people can take it in and apply it wherever they go next.


DW:    I bring my skills to a range of settings not only to chemistry and horticulture, but also to the delivery of water operations for companies such as Sydney Water.  This type of delivery requires an understanding of the clients’ wants and needs, as well as the training requirements in order to provide advice and guidance on what the delivery product should look like for that client.


WL:     What interested you in science in general?


DW:    Since I was a child I’ve always had a natural inquisition and love for science, particularly chemistry.  I believe chemistry is the key to life.  When I taught biochemistry or any concept in biology, I always used to draw the concepts back to chemistry as the reason why things happen.  My research experience was in synthetic organic chemistry, and this was an area I was really good at.  I’m also a very good cook so both worked really well, except one is with chemicals and the other is with food.


WL:     I recall a lecturer teaching people how those good with chemistry are often good cooks!  Mixing chemicals in a lab is like cooking something!


DW:    And it’s really important to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and being able to tweak it - that’s what synthetic organic chemistry is about.  Whether it’s maximising efficiency or introducing other variables into the process to improve yields or changing the product.


WL:     And that was your PhD, right?


DW:    Yes, my PhD project was ‘The Synthesis and Reactions of some Tri- and Tetracyclic Nitrogen Heterocycles’.


WL:     You’ve had quite a career, starting off with a PhD in synthetic organic, then chemistry teaching, pathology and now more teaching!


DW:    I also had a teaching stint in the School of Pharmacy, University of Sydney for 2 years.  That was in oncology research.


WL:     It seems you’ve worked in all 3 areas of industry, academia and government!  With your current TAFE role, how has COVID-19 affected your work recently?


DW:    Last year, I worked on a team that was to support the educational team across TAFE NSW during COVID-19.  The impact of COVID-19 resulted shifting to online delivery.  My role was less impacted because I was still able communicate with the whole team online and I didn’t deal directly with students.  But it did impact the wider team and their ability to deliver their teaching materials.


WL:     Not to mention, students not being allowed on campus and exam arrangements having to change as well.


DW:    The good thing about these situations is they bring out new thinking and different delivery methods especially in vocational education, which is very practical based.  For example, doing practical demonstrations online where students can see in real life how it’s done.


WL:     Now as an educator with a non-linear career path involving numerous transitions, if there’s one piece of advice you like to give to people, what would it be?


DW:    My advice is that it’s really important to follow your passion, but also finding ways to diversify and reinvent yourself.  Skills developed are transferrable and open different doors along the way.  One set of skills doesn’t necessarily fix that person to a perceived career pathway.


WL:     Yes, you don’t want to pigeonhole yourself into the one career, like being so specialised that you don’t have the flexibility to change positions, if necessary.


DW:    Absolutely.  The current pandemic is a great example of that, where you might be fixed in doing something in a certain way and if you’re not open to change and adapting, you won’t be able to move forward.


WL:     Definitely a big problem in certain industries, with mass layoffs, and those people all of a sudden thinking about where to get their next job and where to get the required skills for the next job.


DW:    And you have to be reasonable with your expectations as well.  Some people might say, “actually, I’d like to try this”, even if it’s below their pay level or something they’ve never done before, but you have to be open to it and opportunities will come by.


WL:     Last question.  If you have any spare time, what would you like to do?


DW:    I started learning piano 5 years ago and I am having lessons every week.  I also have 3 children who are all accomplished pianists and they have taught piano as a part time job.  I also love languages and I once studied French and Italian.  I also walk an hour every day while listening to language Apps.  I’m also very creative and upcycle clothing quite a bit.  I am also currently an active member of the NSW/ACT Landscape Associatio