Chemist of the Month
Dr Clarrie Ng
Clarence “Clarrie” Ng is the Chemist of the Month for June 2021. He is now retired, having spent much of his career in the food industry working for Arnott’s Biscuits and as a NATA consultant. He has a long history of involvement with RACI, being a former Chair of the NSW Analytical and Environmental Group, as well as being a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology (AIFST). A fourth generation Australian whose family in Australia traces back to the 1880s, he now spends his time with his grandchildren and in the Scouting Movement.
Interview conducted by William Li.
WL: Pleasure to interview you tonight, Clarrie. Surely you’ve been around with RACI for longer than anyone could remember! How long have you been a RACI Member?
CN: I thought about it, and I recently said to Danny (Wong), close to 50 years! I joined RACI probably around the mid-60’s when I was student at UNSW School of Chemistry, in my Honours year, so around 1968! I remember, around that time, there was an international carbohydrate conference at Sydney Opera House, which I attended after encouragement by John Stevens, who was my Honours supervisor and who had such a long career as a carbohydrate chemist in academia.
WL: Wow, you remember all these details! It’s incredible to be a member for 50 years!
CN: It is, though I didn’t do much when I first joined; I became more involved with RACI after finishing my PhD around 1972.
My first role was at Arnott’s Biscuits at Homebush as a research chemist. That site has a history of its own, which is now the Bakehouse Quarter. We had a general quality lab and there was a small group of quality personnel. I was doing work on their instrumentation, and that was the time when the first automated equipment, such as GC and HPLC, began to emerge. My job was to get those instrumentation going. It drew back on my Honours studies at UNSW when instrumentation was built in-house within UNSW at the time, so not like that of the instrumentation you see from companies like Agilent and Perkin-Elmer nowadays. That was also around 1972. To get information on the available instrumentation, I contacted David Carrick, who had very strong ties with HP (now Agilent). He was on the NSW RACI Analytical Chemistry Committee and he encouraged me to join.
WL: What a start to your career!
CN: In the late 70s, Arnott’s built a research centre which was where I spent a good part of career. I was also the site supervisor during its completion period. In the early 1990s, Arnott’s was increasingly outsourcing tests, and our focus became more with quality but less chemistry. Around that time, I picked up a side role with NATA as an Assessor, which helped with my supervisory activities.
I continued to be involved with RACI and also was member of AIFST, in both cases I was made a Fellow before retirement.
WL: When did you leave Arnott’s? What did you do before you retired?
CN: I left Arnott’s in 2003 with a redundancy. I then did a bit of consultancy with mainly international companies before retiring for good. I maintained involvement with the NSW Analytical and Environmental Group (NAEG) and the RACI NSW Branch. I also kept links with RACI by doing a bit of work for the Branch Office, handling some administrative jobs and Fellowship member applications.
NAEG continues to be fairly active, organising an instrumentation fair every 2 years, the most recent one being the 2017 NAEG Symposium - first one being in a Symposium format and first at Macquarie University. NAEG made a lot of money from its activities, and with the income, we were giving prizes to every tertiary institution around NSW; prizes of around $500 each for top performance in an analytical chemistry subject.
WL: That’s pretty much entire career spent in the 1 company!
CN: Yes, it seems unusual these days. There was a time when people in the food industry were moving around, especially if they couldn’t get a promotion or move up the corporate ladder. I wasn’t one of them - I enjoyed my work with my young staff and not a career seeker. Those people at Arnott’s looked after me well; quite a lot of chemists who worked with me are still out there somewhere, doing quite well for themselves. They were a friendly mob.
Around 1991, after analytical activities were outsourced, I inherited a project to measure bake colour of our biscuits using digital imaging to cross match with human judgement. At that time, bake colour was judged by the quality people in the factory and the project was to assist their work with digital imaging.
It was something like how to judge the samples and scale the colour from 1 to 9, taking pixels and elaborate the correlations with programming between the lots to make an actual system to judge the products. It was done in collaboration with Len Hamey at Macquarie University for around 5 years. Nowadays, off the shelf instruments are available – no need to do that much work!
Still on instrumentation, when I finished with NATA accreditation work, I backed off because the new instrumentation that came out was way too advanced for me! In 30 years, technology has gone that far! While at the beginning, we had typists who used carbon copies with manual checking, fax machines (no computers), and ‘brick phones’ - my phone today probably had 100 times more power than the first computer I came across!
WL: That’s quite an interesting career in science. If you remember, what motivated your interest in science in general?
CN: Back in high school, my parents bought me a chemistry set. They owned a fish and chip shop, and at the back of it I got to have a little lab, so after school I played around with lots of chemicals, of which most of those a kid can’t play around with today! I happened to also be good at maths, and felt that if I was good at maths, I would be good at whatever I do. As I mentioned earlier, I studied food science at university, and got the job at Arnott’s because of its relevance to my studies in carbohydrates.
WL: You’ve retired for over 10 years now. What do you miss most about your career?
CN: At the moment, I say the comraderies with the other chemists. They are the ones who you met but not regularly, hopefully still remembering their names. It was really good to meet that many people, and when I had a problem, I often found someone who could help me work on it.
In addition, there were a lot of CSIRO and ANSTO people within RACI, some of whom I owed my career to. CSIRO North Ryde worked on the first mass specs, not to mention a lot of equipment they made from scratch. Unfortunately, the government didn’t really appreciate their work and research into these instruments.
WL: From your 50 years of experiences, if there is one piece of advice to give to people who want to be like you, what would it be?
CN: RACI is an opportunity to broaden your contacts, if you’re new to the profession. You have your contacts from your tertiary institution, as well as with people you meet along the way such as meetings and conferences, and RACI is the perfect place to start off and build a network. It’s a good place to get your contacts - they can help you when you have a problem of some sort, like a business problem. They are the kind of people who you can ring up and talk about a problem with, and if they can’t, they refer you to someone who could.
WL: Last question. What do you like to do in your spare time?
CN: I have 5 grandchildren, of which 3 live close by. I spend a bit of time with all of them. I also have a hobby of being a handyman, inheriting the habit from my father.
I’ve also been involved with Scouts since the 1990s - I still run the 1st Brush Park Scout Group.