Chemist of the Month - November 2021


Dr Greg O'Donnell



Greg O’Donnell is Chemist of the Month for November 2021.  Greg is a past Secretary of the NSW Analytical and Environmental Chemistry Group.  Unlike most other PhD graduates, he completed his PhD near the end of this career and out of pure interest, rather than at the beginning.  He was among the very first professional chemists to implement measurement uncertainty in chemical analysis, which is now standard in many places.  After an illustrious career at SafeWork NSW, he now spends his spare time on the golf course, exploring and travelling.


Interview conducted by William Li.


WL:     Good to meet you tonight, Greg.  Firstly, how long have you been a RACI Member?


GO:     I’ve been a Member for about 25 years.  I was first a Member back when I was a student in the 70s, then it lapsed for a while and about 25 years ago I took it up again; I was at a stage in my career where I wanted to give back to my profession by getting involved with others in the RACI.  Then about 10 years ago I joined the NSW Analytical and Environmental Chemistry Group, and became Secretary of that Group not long afterwards, taking the position until the end of 2018.  The group organised a seminar back in 2012 called, “And another thing….Hitchhiker’s Revisited”, where I gave a talk on measurement uncertainty, which was my PhD topic.  I then chaired another seminar in 2015 on “Sampling & Quality Assurance for the 21st Century”, where we had a variety of speakers and I also gave a talk on Bayesian decision making.  In 2016, traceability through certified reference materials and calibration was very topical as it was being enforced by NATA for accreditation, so we organised another seminar called, “Are You Up To Standard?”.  Around the time Globally Harmonised System of labelling chemicals was introduced to Australia so we organised for speakers on that topic also.  At the end of that seminar, we invited the Young Chemists’ Group (now called “Earlier Career Chemists Group) to come along and meet fellow chemists over pizzas and drinks.  My time on the committee was all good fun and made a lot of friends in the chemistry world.  I really encourage everybody to go and spent some time in these RACI groups as they are really rewarding.


WL:     That was with the Young Chemists’ Group Committee right before I took over as Chair.  It was a good event for students and graduates to find networking opportunities with professionals like yourself; an early version of the sort of events regularly run by that Group these days.  Now your career has gone full circle there, starting off with a PhD in Measurement Uncertainty and now…


GO:     No!  I actually did not start off with a PhD!  I did my PhD in the 2000s; started in 2002 and finished it in 2011, completing it part-time.  It took 8 years to complete it and another year for examination!  My studies were more or less instigated in 1999 when a new laboratory accreditation standard, ISO:17025, came in and basically made it mandatory for all laboratories to calculate measurement uncertainty.  However, there was very little guidance around at the time on how to perform these calculations.  At the National Measurement Institute, they had a course run by Bernard King, who was the head of the equivalent UK body the LGC (Laboratory of the Government Chemist) Group in London.  He came out for about 6 months and ran those courses, giving seminars on how to calculate measurement uncertainty.  I did it in 2000.  My boss said to me, as I was the quality assurance manager at the time, “you go and calculate all our measurement uncertainties”.  We had over 150 methods and nobody else really knew how to do it.  I got into it so much, I thought I might as well get a qualification out of it, so started a Masters-by-research degree, which turned into a PhD.  So I did it not at the start of my career, but towards the end!


WL:     Yes, I don’t see it being very common for people to do their PhD at the end of the career.  Particularly in science, most would start a PhD straight after their undergraduate studies.  Not so many would come back to study mid-career or later because of the time commitment involved, as well as the cost for doing one – a scholarship has nowhere the amount of a typical chemists’ mid-career salary.


GO:     Yes, that’s right.  I did it part time; doing it full time would leave me with no money!  When I approached Prof. Brynn Hibbert of UNSW on doing the PhD part time, he said that he had 5 people come to him to start a PhD part time and none of them finished!  And he said it wasn’t their fault; more often than not, life got in the way, like a new job or being sick.  I ended up being the only one in the UNSW School of Chemistry who finished a PhD part-time at the time!  However, it really did take a lot of my time.


WL:     Pretty good achievement!  So how are you finding your current career so far and what did you do?


GO:     I actually retired in February 2019.  Since then, I’ve done a bit of consulting work and at present I’m helping to rewrite the Australian standard for the analysis of asbestos in bulk material as I have been the chair of the Workplace Atmospheres group for Standards Australia for about 15 years.


WL:     What about your last job before retirement?


GO:     I’ll start at the beginning.  In 1978, I did a 12-month placement at ICI in Botany in the PVC production lab, being a shift tester doing a range of basic tests for the quality of the plastic produced with a bit of GC-FID and other instrumentation work.  Then I went to University of Sydney and joined a research project on the fermentation of Australian crops for ethanol production, with plants such as sugar cane, sugar beet and sweet sorghum.  I was monitoring the fermentation process.  The problem with university work is that grants never last, so I had to leave when it expired!  After that, it was another 12 months at the Department of Agriculture in their soil laboratory, physical testing of soil and clay content, such as metal analyses using AAS and organic carbon analysis.  Afterwards, I went to Rothmans for 6 years, a cigarette manufacturer.  There was a lot of HPLC and GC work, mainly on pesticides in tobacco, involving a lot of sample clean-up work in extracting the pesticides.  After that, I finally started my job at SafeWork NSW which was a laboratory that specialised in the occupational exposure to chemicals in the workplace.  We provided an analytical service, testing all the hazardous substances in workplaces.  There were 13 of us at SafeWork NSW including 10 analysts, 2 admin people and a manager.  Basically, we covered every industry in NSW, such as the agricultural sector, mining industry, construction and manufacturing, etc.  Similar organisations in other states gradually closed down over the years due to cost-cutting reasons and we ended up covering all of Australia.  We performed analysis of workplace air and biological monitoring of blood and urine.  There was a vast range of analysis performed including herbicides and pesticides, metals, through to solvent analysis and volatile organic compounds, dust testing for metals, silica, and asbestos.  We had to be able to test for all the major hazardous substances encountered in the workplace including the main carcinogens.


WL:     That’s quite a lot of testing at SafeWork.


GO:     Yes, quite a lot.  Also, asbestos testing as well.  Everyone talks about asbestos but it’s only a small part of our work.  We had instruments right across the board; it was far better than being in an industrial lab where you only do a single product or instrument; we had to know all the instruments.  From the chromatography side we had HPLCs with every kind of detector possible, like UV, fluorescence and electrochemical detectors; for GC, we had a fair few with FIDs, electron capture detector and MS; in the later years, we had LC-MS-MS.  For metal and dust analyses, we had an XRD and XRF, graphite furnace AAS, ICP-MS, FTIR, UV-Vis and microscopes for asbestos analysis.  One of the reasons I liked it at SafeWork NSW is the wide range of instrumentation available for use that covered a vast range of chemical analysis.  We also did air analysis of all those things, plus biological analysis such as blood and urine.  So I joined Safework NSW in 1991 and in 1995 I became the QA Research manager, which took me off the bench and supervising 9 chemists doing the analyses.


WL:     Sounds like a paradise for an analytical chemist!


GO:     Well, it was a little gem.  That’s the thing about government labs, where you get a lot of instruments.  Other places such as the Environmental Protection Agency are similar.  A stark contrast to many places in industry.  But there is similar pressure to get things done as per clients’ needs quickly and on time, otherwise, clients keep ringing you up asking for the results.


WL:     So now that you’ve retired and have much spare time, what do you do these days?


GO:     I have taken up golf.  I play golf with Clarrie Ng (“Chemist of the Month” in the June Newsletter this year).  Usually I play on Thursdays, but the current lockdown put a stop to it for now.  I’m well acquainted with Clarrie; he too was in the NSW Analytical and Environmental Chemistry Group committee where we worked together for a few years.  On the day I retired, my colleagues gave me a golf club as a departing present, and later that day, my neighbour walked past me and asked, “You play golf, do you?”  And I said I was about to take it up.  That neighbour then invited me to play golf with him, and by chance, his playing partner was Clarrie!  Small world!  I also do a fair bit of reading, bushwalking and bird spotting.  My wife and I try to travel often and we just bought a caravan, looking to travel around Australia and do a lap!  We also have been travelling a fair bit before Covid anyway, like doing 6 weeks in Western Australia as a 44 camping trip.


WL:     Last question.  If there was one piece of advice you would to give to young chemists, what would it be?


GO:     Don’t be afraid to do the hard things, because doing the hard things are often the most rewarding things.  Attitude also matters.  Doing the mundane things is just as important as doing the things that are interesting.  Having a passion for chemistry is essential, having really noticed it from the people I’ve employed over the years from a range of educational backgrounds that chemists are the ones that really understand the work.  And I recommend people to have a strong background in data analysis and statistics – not everyone stays awake when it comes to statistics, as I’ve seen many times when discussing measurement uncertainty in National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) assessments!