Alumni in Conversation: Alison Coutts

Graduating in 1977 as the first female with a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Melbourne, Alison Coutts’ impressive career has spanned four continents and covered a breadth of experience including management of multinational oil and gas projects, strategy consulting, investment banking and the commercialisation of technology We caught up with her recently to hear about her time at the University and the myriad of things she’s been up to since.

Why did you choose to study engineering?

I always liked chemistry and the idea of scaling it up to make it industrially useful. When I see a large industrial plant I think it amazing and strangely beautiful whereas, most people think it is a blight!

I vividly remember sitting in a Year 11 Maths class at my all-girls school when the teacher asked how many of us were going to do engineering. I was shocked by this question and even more taken a-back when my friend sitting next to me raised her hand. Her Dad, a consulting structural engineer, had actually worked with the team responsible for building the West Gate Bridge. I remember a kind of switch turning on in my brain and realising that perhaps it wasn’t such a strange thing to do. I think my interest in studying engineering can be traced back to that Maths class!

What did you enjoy most about your studies at the University of Melbourne?

I feel really fortunate to be a Melbourne School of Engineering alumnus, as well as an alumnus of the Melbourne Business School, where I received an MBA and the Science Faculty, where I subsequently did a biotech degree. My education has placed me in a wonderful position to see the world from all sorts of angles and to operate in a range of roles and industries.

Do you keep in touch with your graduating engineering class?

Yes I do. I maintain close friendships with a number of the guys I did engineering with. I am also a huge fan of our reunions. They are a great occasion to catch up and hear about the incredible careers of those I studied with. It’s wonderful to see how these guys have bloomed and the senior positions many now hold.

What was your first job?

I moved to London during the oil and gas boom of the late 70’s and secured a role working for the multinational engineering contractor, Bechtel, designing oil and gas pipelines for the Middle East. It was a terrific experience; they look after graduates well, ensuring they have great training. They provided me with rotations in a number of departments. Whilst each was a specialised area, I saw how they were interconnected and managed into a cohesive whole. I also saw how they managed really complex international projects as I worked in their Head Office in San Francisco and then on site near New Plymouth, New Zealand.

Can you describe your career trajectory?

It definitely hasn’t been a straight arrow!

My career has meandered all over and I’d consider myself a generalist. I’m equally comfortable with technology and business.

I’ve returned to a large extent to the engineering field, especially in my current role, and feel as though I’ve come full circle now that I’m establishing a working partnership with the University of Melbourne’s Chemical Engineering department. They are providing specialist skills in the development of polymer-based membranes for high value bio-separations.

Can you tell us a little bit about your current role?

I’m currently Executive Chairman of a small listed company called NuSep, a bio separations company. What attracted me to the company was its powerful technology which had never been properly developed but I knew it held massive potential. I suppose I couldn’t resist although I knew there would be some big challenges to start with.

I’m particularly excited by the work we are doing in male fertility for both humans and animals. Our technology, which involves membranes and a technology called electrophoresis, is able to separate the most viable sperm from a semen sample. It has previously led to a number of live human births, but we now need to make the equipment suitable for a busy IVF lab, hence the work we are doing with Monash IVF.

We now have a number of active working university partnerships. The University of Melbourne Chemical Engineering Department , led by Professor Sandra Kentish, who was only a few years behind me in graduating at Melbourne University, are providing specialist skills in developing new membranes. We also have a crucial partnership with the University of Newcastle, led by Professor John Aitken, who is a world-wide expert in reproductive medicine

What do you find to be the most exciting part of this sector and/ or your job?

The opportunity to develop ground breaking technology that’s making a positive difference in people’s lives.

Can you describe the impact your work is having on society?

I’d like to use IVF as an example. It’s such a complex area. There are many people who wouldn’t have been born without it. In this regard, it’s fantastic! However in some cases they carry genetic mutations, some of which lead to diseases and disabilities. These mutations can potentially be passed on to future generations. Like all things, when we intervene in nature, there are some adverse outcomes and unfortunately there are higher incidences of miscarriage, premature birth and genetically-based disease in IVF pregnancy than there are in natural pregnancy. If we can improve the selection genetics in IVF, we should improve its outcomes.

We are working on the development of robust and reliable technology that decreases the likelihood of disease and increases the chances of a successful pregnancy and delivery of healthy babies. I’m excited to be working on something that could have such a large positive impact.

What advice would you give to those looking at studying engineering?

It’s an amazing career choice for both males and females. Studying engineering teaches you a way of thinking- how to think logically, how to problem solve, how to think systematically and how to analyse. I would also recommend a modicum of business training alongside engineering. It’s a fantastic combo!

Things have changed so much since I went through University and I’m thrilled the School of Engineering is now so invested in start-ups, the commercialisation of technology and biomedical engineering. I would be in my absolute element studying in the School now.

What is the best piece of career advice you have?

I’d advise people to get a good mentor – particularly for women but it is also important for men. I started a mentoring program for Women in Engineering when I was on the Engineering Foundation years ago.

Women also often suffer from lack of self- belief. I am sure that a lack of self-belief holds a lot of women back and stops many from considering leadership positions. I think that is one large reason behind the relative lack of women in senior line management and CEO positions in this country.

Being the only female in the course when Engineering wasn’t something that women studied was really difficult. I must say that one lecturer, Professor David Wood, really helped me to believe in myself when I was full of self-doubt. Professor Wood went on to become The Head of Department and Dean years later and he was an inspiring leader.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Being able to say “I made that contribution” because we have successfully commercialised the ground breaking technology we are currently working on. I want to be actively still developing and managing things; I certainly don’t aspire to a languid retirement, of endless rounds of golf or days of gin and tonic on a banana lounge in the Caribbean.