Both of Leela’s parents were scientists and were gaining their PhD’s while she was in high school. But while Leela herself was very good at maths and science, her mum actually told her to not look into science as there were no jobs there!
And then one day Leela attended a women in engineering open day at the University of NSW. And there were some women there who were chemical engineers and spoke about their exciting (and very yummy) work at the Cadbury Factory.
for engineers who predominantly design things for the future and work on things for the future, we need to think about what that future is and what it looks like.
Extra discussions during the episode
Future: It’s a great time to be an engineer!
I think engineer’s are uniquely positioned the identify and to take these things into account when they design and plan and operate
Advice: Engineering can take you anywhere
one thing I always stress to people who are interested in engineering is just the diversity that it offers
Interesting item: Blast Furnaces!
Everything that they do really is still largely educated guesswork
Engineer Leela admires:
Professor Judy Raper
…having such a prominent female role model to look up to from the start of my degree was just amazing
She was always really passionate about working towards gender equality within engineering
About Leela Kempton
Leela Kempton is an Associate Research Fellow at the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC) at the University of Wollongong. She graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering (Chemical) from the University of Sydney in 2004 then worked as an industrial process engineer for a number of years before moving into ironmaking research. She completed her PhD through the University of NSW in 2014 whilst working at Bluescope Steel, with research focusing on numerical modelling of particle deformation within the blast furnace.
After joining the SBRC in 2017, Leela has worked on a wide variety of research projects. Through these projects, she has been involved in field research and monitoring environment conditions in social housing properties to understand the key drivers of condensation and mould issues in properties. She has also been involved in thermal modelling of wall assemblies and comparing the life cycle assessment of building construction options.
Recently she has been involved in co-ordinating the Sustainable Homes Challenge, which is challenging students to work together in multi-disciplinary and multi-national teams to design homes from waste-derived building products.
This is a “close” copy of the words that were spoken during the Podcast, Season 3 Episode 27
It is not 100% accurate.
The guest was Leela Kempton
[00:00:00] Mel: [00:00:00] Welcome to Season 3, Episode 27 of Engineering Heroes. A podcast that presents the incredible engineers that are shaping our society and battling our challenging issues. My name is Melanie. My co-host and our podcast’s resident engineer, speaking to us from the trenches, is Dominic.
[00:00:18]Dom: [00:00:18] Our guest today is an Associate Research Fellow at the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre at the University of Wollongong. She has a Bachelor of Engineering in Chemical and for a time worked as an industrial process engineer before moving into ironmaking research.
[00:00:43] She is now involved in field research and monitoring environment conditions in social housing properties to understand the key drivers of condensation and mould issues. She is also currently involved in co-ordinating the Sustainable Homes Challenge, which is an Australian-wide [00:01:00] university challenge for students to work together to design homes from waste-derived building products. Very exciting!
Today on our show we speak with Leela Kempton.
[00:01:10]Mel: [00:01:10] Both of Leela’s parents were scientists and were gaining their PhD’s while she was in high school. But while Leela herself was very good at maths and science, her mum actually told her to not look into science as there were no jobs there!
[00:01:27] And then one day Leela attended a women in engineering open day at the University of NSW. And there were some women there who were chemical engineers and spoke about their exciting (and very yummy) work at the Cadbury Factory.
[00:01:43]Leela: [00:01:43] I knew right then I had found my dream job.
[00:01:46]I was going to be a chemical engineer who made chocolate
[00:01:49]Mel&Dom: [00:01:49] I have to say, if I had of met those engineers, I would also be a chemical engineer.
[00:01:57] Oh, wow.
[00:01:58]Leela: [00:01:58] um, so that’s what I do though. I [00:02:00] studied chemical engineering at University of Sydney.
[00:02:02] Mel&Dom: [00:02:02] Oh, wow. Did you end up working at a chocolate factory?
[00:02:06] Leela: [00:02:06] No, I didn’t. I really wanted to get into the food industry, but when I was looking for graduate jobs, there wasn’t anything that really suited. And instead I ended up working for a consultant engineer, down at the steelworks, which was not really what I was expecting to do, but turned out really well.
[00:02:27] Mel&Dom: [00:02:27] so is this, have we gone into your first job territory now?
[00:02:32] Leela: [00:02:32] Yup.
[00:02:33]Mel&Dom: [00:02:33] why don’t you tell us about your first role out of uni?
[00:02:36]Leela: [00:02:36] so the first role that I worked on, I worked for a consulting engineering company, but I actually was seconded into the steel works, and I was working on a project, which was relining one of the blast furnaces at the steelworks. So this was a $300 million project that went for total of about five years.
[00:02:59][00:03:00] Slightly delayed because of the global financial crisis hitting about in the early stages. so my role in that, I was working on the cooling systems, which were all the different water, cooling systems around the Blast Furnace. And I got to design pipework runs, size up equipment like heat exchangers, pumps, tanks orifice plates
[00:03:21]I also, I did some hydraulic modeling of all the systems, so working out where the pipes would go and what the pressure drops would be. And I also got to work in the control systems so developing all the emergency control procedures because basically the cooling systems are vital for running the furnace, and if anything goes wrong with the cooling systems, there needs to be redundancies and backups.
[00:03:46] I think we had about five layers of redundancy. If something went wrong, then other things would happen. So it was a real pure process engineering job. We had a great team on the project , and it was a really interesting [00:04:00] project, but it did involve a lot of long hours , especially during the construction and the commissioning phase.
[00:04:06] But the best thing of all was just. Being able to see something that we designed actually built, and then testing it all out and making sure that it all worked and seeing it all in person. It was just an amazing experience and troubleshooting when things went wrong because they didn’t always go right.
[00:04:23] Mel: [00:04:23] And not a chocolate in sight, how depressing.
[00:04:28] Leela: [00:04:28] No, no, no. Chocolate.
[00:04:30]Just smelly Blast Furnaces.
[00:04:32] Dom: [00:04:32] It’s amazing easy. from what was chemical engineering coming from chemical engineering to what you were doing. I would have assumed would have been more along the lines of mechanical engineering, which is sort of what I did. So it just goes to show the versatility.
[00:04:44] It really doesn’t matter what degree you do when you come out the other end. and for that matter, the amount of people who come at the end thinking, I’m going to do this, and then end up doing something completely different though, I’m going to make chocolate. And, um, [00:05:00] and then obviously not making chocolate.
[00:05:02] Working on blast furnaces. So yeah, it’s strange. where, , it takes you, where engineering
[00:05:07] takes you
[00:05:07] Leela: [00:05:07] and, I think there’s this misconception around chemical engineering too, that people think you do chemical engineering, so you like chemistry and you end up working with chemicals or those sorts of things. But it’s probably process engineering is more descriptive of what we learn because we learn about how things happen and how things are made and how to control it.
[00:05:30] But there is a real overlap with mechanical engineering there. So my boss was a process engineer with a mechanical engineering degree, but he thought like a process engineer just like me and the other guy I worked with who was a chemical engineer, There are little blips
[00:05:47] Mel: [00:05:47] yeah, the chemical engineering, just when you’re explaining, I’m like, where’s the chemistry in that? And, but as Don was saying and what you were saying, it’s more process and stuff.
[00:05:58]Dom: [00:05:58] So where are you working now?
[00:05:59][00:06:00] Leela: [00:05:59] So it’s a bit of a long story . After the blast fitness re-line, I had a really strong interest in the actual Blast Furnace itself. So I actually moved into iron and steel making research and to sink my teeth in the, some of the more technical aspects of the blast furnace and how it worked. and I did my PhD in that group looking at particle scale modeling of the furnace, particularly where the iron-ore particles start to soften and melt and change shape and how that impacts the whole operating of the furnace. So that was really interesting. Then I had a, I had a couple of kids while I was doing that, and then there was a big downturn in the steel industry, so I found myself at home with the kids and enjoying some time with them for a little while.
[00:06:44] Mel: [00:06:44] Silver lining.
[00:06:47] Leela: [00:06:47] It was perfect timing actually. But then my, eldest side of school and I thought, well, I want to try and get back into work, but I wanted to do something a bit different. And this comes back to you, to your comment about the versatility [00:07:00] in engineering. people had always told me that engineering is about… teaches you how to think, and especially doing a PhD, my supervisors had always told me the whole way through. It wasn’t about the project you did, but the way it teaches you to learn and to research and to study. So taking those things, I thought, well, I’ve always had a strong interest in sustainability. And I wanted to move into something completely different.
[00:07:24]So I started to look at what research groups were around, particularly around the University of Woolongong, cause that’s where we lived. And I didn’t want to move. And I came across a group called the Sustainable Buildings Research Center. And I’d always thought building designs were fascinating. I thought maybe this would be really great.
[00:07:40] So I thought I could transfer my skills from heat transfer of the blast furnace to heat transfer of a house. It’s not that much different. And I managed to kind of talk my way into some projects there and instead I’ve discovered a whole new world of research and ideas and have ended up working on a really wide range of projects [00:08:00] from looking at mould issues in social housing properties.
[00:08:04] Through to looking at the life cycle analysis of multistory buildings. so it’s been a really steep learning curve, but a very rewarding challenge.
[00:08:14]Mel: [00:08:14] And a long way from that blast furnace, I’ll say
[00:08:18] Leela: [00:08:18] A long way from the blast finish, and even longer from chocolate.
[00:08:22] Mel: [00:08:22] I was, I was going to go there. I’m like, God, it’s even further from the chocolate.
[00:08:27] And so you’re looking at how people can build buildings sustainably.
[00:08:32]Leela: [00:08:32] Our group looks at quite a wide range of research issues from right through, from the designs to the actual design and materials that are used in buildings all the way through to how people live in buildings and the impacts that people have in them, because the way people live and use their building has just as much impact as the design of the building itself.
[00:08:56]Dom: [00:08:56] Yeah, we’ve spoken about it before, I’m sure on the [00:09:00] podcast that people just think about the building and I throw up the building, but they forget about the, holistic nature of it as well, just in regards to , not only now, but also in the future in relation to the systems that are in it and the adaptability of it in the future.
[00:09:14] And, you know, just exactly how when you’re building it now, how that’s gonna play into, future generations and how they use it and how they want to use it and whether or not you’re making the best use of the resources when you’re building it right at this moment in time. And unfortunately in a lot of cases, just a case of throw them off as quick as you can and get them done as cheaply as you can to make lots and lots of money.
[00:09:33]in the long run, everybody suffers when it’s done like that where you spend a bit more money up front and, you definitely get the benefits further down the track.
[00:09:41] Leela: [00:09:41] Yeah, definitely. Especially when you look at it from an energy perspective in making buildings more energy efficient from the design, the amount of energy that they can save over the lifetime is amazing. Whereas a lot of people just think, well, you stick solar panels on the roof and it’s all good.
[00:09:57]Dom: [00:09:57] Yeah.
[00:09:57] Leela: [00:09:57] There’s a bit more to it than just that.
[00:10:01] [00:10:00] Dom: [00:10:01] It’s like there’s a three line tick box. So we’re putting that in yes. So we’re putting that in here. Okay. .. It’s sustainable, it’s great. Let’s go the much more that you could do.
[00:10:09]Leela: [00:10:09] So one of the most exciting challenges that I’m actually working on at the moment is running an international student challenge called the Sustainable Homes Challenge. So the concept of this, it’s actually been philanthropically funded through the McKinnon Walker trust at the University of Wollongong, and the concept is to bring 30 students from different backgrounds and disciplines all across the world and get them to design a home from waste-derived building products.
[00:10:34]So we’ve been looking at what the students can actually identify and how they can design building’s different, but doing it in a multidisciplinary group.
[00:10:42] which is really exciting. However, just last week,
[00:10:46] we’ve had to postpone it to next year because of some other things that are going on.
[00:10:53] Mel: [00:10:53] I think all of society’s changed cause of COVID-19 so, yeah.
[00:10:58] That’s a massive [00:11:00] project to do.
[00:11:00]Leela: [00:11:00] yeah, it’s been really exciting. it’s sad that we had to postpone it because of , situation with the Corona Virus. But look, we’re still planning on running next year. and it’ll be really great to get the students in and to see what they can come up with. cause really they are the ones who have all the ideas.Hot Topic insert
[00:11:17]Mel: [00:11:17] Such an interesting journey Leela has had since her introduction to engineering through engineers at the Cadbury factory. And while her career seen her actually be involved with chocolate, she’s definitely enjoyed herself.
[00:11:30] Before we get back to Leela and the great hot topic she wants to talk to us about, I wanted to let you know that a few things are changing in Engineering Heroes-land. Very exciting changes which will be starting later in May.
[00:11:48] I won’t say much more now, but keep listening to learn more.
[00:11:52] And to find out more about Leela and the team she’s working with at University of Wollongong, [00:12:00] be sure to check out the May 2020 edition of Create from Engineers Australia.
[00:12:05] Now, in this time of struggles and change, Leela wanted to speak to Dom & I about the importance of having resilient engineers.
[00:12:14]Leela: [00:12:14] I think one of the things that we really need to think about as engineers is the word resilience, which is basically the need to be adaptive, to cope with changing in an unexpected circumstances. it’s definitely something that people are facing at the moment and our world is just constantly changing.
[00:12:34]But I think being able to be resilient and adaptive. Is a huge challenge, not just for engineers, but for the whole world, but for engineers who predominantly design things for the future and work on things for the future we need to think about what that future is and what it looks like, so that what we’re doing now is actually able to cope with what comes in the future.
[00:12:58]Mel: [00:12:58] Do you feel engineers as [00:13:00] a whole hadn’t been as resilient in the past?
[00:13:03]Leela: [00:13:03] It’s a tricky question, I think engineers typically think about the future when they are designing. So they typically plan for what will happen. And I think back to my time at the blast furnace and designing cooling systems, when you do Haz Ops and safety procedures, you have to plan for and make sure that you have controls in place for imaginable consequences.
[00:13:27]so anything that could go wrong, you have to think about what would happen if it did go wrong, and what would be the impact and how would you design to make sure that you’re controlling that impact? I think where we struggle with resilience is when we don’t know what that future looks like and we can’t predict what that future is going to be.
[00:13:50] And that’s where it starts to become a real challenge
[00:13:53]Dom: [00:13:53] and I think part of the problem is it’s almost, we focus on what we’ve got in front of us as well. So whilst [00:14:00] we’ve been very good at, over the years making buildings more efficient in regards to the economics of them so that we can derive a better product for the client. By the same token, that has then left us in a position where if we had of built a bigger, better, stronger than it would have had a bit more resilience to it. But it’s balancing those two factors. I think it’s only something that sort of, it’s been creeping back in. cause I know on a project that I was working on when we started doing the design, it’s been going for quite long time now.
[00:14:31] It was about six years ago and they were talking about storm events and we will planning on not just doing the design for. The current Australian standards, but we had to take it that bit further because they knew that in the future, a one in a hundred storm’s not going to be a one to a hundred storm.
[00:14:45] It’s more likely to become a one 20 storm. So, I think we’re definitely on the right path. It’s just , trying to make sure that we’re doing the right things.
[00:14:53]Leela: [00:14:53] And one of the other aspects of buildings especially, is the need to [00:15:00] protect buildings through bushfires. So resilience is talked about a lot in terms of buildings ability to withstand and provide protection against Bush fires, which we know as Australia has just been through the last few months. Bush fires are getting worse and worse each year. And I think we’re seeing that as something that is growing. but also designed for it to, designed to withstand those changing conditions.
[00:15:27]And that’s certainly an area that is growing as well.
[00:15:29] So there’s been a lot of changes to building codes around bushfire prone areas. there’s been a lot of work that’s gone into looking at how they buildings can be designed better. and I think a lot of the buildings that will be built , in replacing those houses that were lost in the recent Bush fires, will, be built too much different standards than what they were replacing.
[00:15:52]Mel: [00:15:52] I’ve learnt that as a parent, one of the key things you want to teach your children is resilience. And I’m [00:16:00] like, well, what is resilience? So I’ve looked into it and it’s actually not just being strong and staying forward, facing and moving on in the face of difficulties.
[00:16:09] It’s actually also adapting. Being able to learn a lesson and move left next time and I’ll move right this time. And, you know, being able to adapt to evolving changes. And have you felt engineer’s have been adaptive in that respect that they’ve learnt from, things that have come and they’re actually able to make these big changes that are needed?
[00:16:33] Leela: [00:16:33] Yeah, for sure. I think there’s plenty of evidence of that happening. as we just mentioned, from the design perspective, from designing houses to withstand Bush fires, but even things like what many universities around, especially our country and around the world are doing right now, in terms of changing the way that things are taught and being able to deliver, complete subjects through online systems, and having to adapt [00:17:00] there.
[00:17:00]I guess the thing is the technology and the capability is there, but it’s actually taking that. Technology and capability and turning it into a reality. and I think that’s something that’s happening a lot for engineers in different areas too. The way they work is different – a lot of them work a lot more remotely.
[00:17:20]that means that you can get the right perspectives and the right people involved, even if they’re not physically there. That’s always helpful.
[00:17:27]the issue of climate change and the impact that that’s having on our world. People are realizing that the impacts of climate change are real.
[00:17:38] And if we don’t change what we’re doing now, then those impacts are going to affect us quite strongly in the future. And so we need to be resilient and adapt what we’re doing now, not just to prevent climate change, but also to deal with the natural consequences that are going to come from the effects of that climate change happening.
[00:18:00] [00:17:59] Dom: [00:17:59] are there solutions that you can see in regards to resilience that being put forward and we will be seeing more of in the future?
[00:18:07]Leela: [00:18:07] I think as we look around the world around us at the moment, I think we can see. People are learning that they have to adapt and they have to change.
[00:18:16] Mel: [00:18:16] Absolutely.
[00:18:17] Leela: [00:18:17] People are becoming aware. I think people realize that the future of this world depends on us being able to make those changes now
[00:18:25]Mel: [00:18:25] what are your thoughts on the future of engineering?
[00:18:28]Leela: [00:18:28] I think the world around us is changing and that’s clear to everyone now. After what we’ve seen in Australia with the Bush fires over the summer and the current situation with the whole world, with this coronavirus, no one can stay where they are and think that changes in the world and the climate around them are not going to affect them personally.
[00:18:49] and I think engineer’s are uniquely positioned the identify and to take these things into account when they design and plan and [00:19:00] operate. Not just to cope with and to survive, but to really thrive in the changing environment that we find ourselves in.
[00:19:08]Dom: [00:19:08] And so what would you say to people just starting out?
[00:19:11]Leela: [00:19:11] one thing I always stress to people who are interested in engineering is just the diversity that it offers. and I think my career is a bit of a Testament to that as well. So I strongly believe that engineering teaches you how to think, how to approach and solve problems, and those skills can be applied in so many different areas.
[00:19:32] So. You don’t just become an engineer and then have the same job for the rest of your life. you can follow what you’re passionate about and bring those engineering skills to just about anything that you want to do.
[00:19:46]Dom: [00:19:46] I agree completely. So
[00:19:50] cause I know Ben has been often said on this. I started out. Doing mechanical engineering because I was going to work in the world rally [00:20:00] championship. Then I now have building consultancy firms, so I don’t know how that happened.
[00:20:14] Leela: [00:20:14] just happened
[00:20:15] Mel: [00:20:15] It does. Life happens. Life does happen.
[00:20:17] and to wrap up, we always like to have little key takeaways for our listeners. what’s the pace of engineering that has impressed you.
[00:20:26]Leela: [00:20:26] Being in the building industry now. You think maybe something like an impressive building, but the may, it still comes back to the blast furnace. Blast furnaces have been around for hundreds of years, and yet there’s so much we don’t understand about what happens inside them.
[00:20:42] Engineers and metallurgists have studied and they’ve created models of them. Everything that they do really is still largely educated guesswork. it doesn’t help that all the really important stuff happens at temperatures where you just can’t use a probe to find out what’s happening. So it makes it a little bit [00:21:00] difficult.
[00:21:00]but there’s just so many complicated things in a blast furnace. As a chemical engineer, you get taught all the different unit operations, like chemical reactions and heat transfer and mass transfer, and the blast furnace contains every single one of them in the one piece of equipment. So it’s quite amazing.
[00:21:18]Mel: [00:21:18] Yeah.
[00:21:19] Dom: [00:21:19] And just finally to wrap everything up, do you have an engineer that you admire.
[00:21:25] Leela: [00:21:25] So, one engineer that I admire is Professor Judy Raper. So she was the Dean of Engineering at Sydney Uni when I started my undergraduate degree. And she was actually the first female Dean of Engineering there. And even as I was a first year undergrad student, she had time to meet up with and encourage the students and having, like a prominent female, and she was a chemical engineer too. But having such a prominent female role model to look up to from the start of my degree was just amazing. So she moved to America before I completed my [00:22:00] degrade, but our paths actually crossed again because she moved to the University of Wollongong. Uh, she was at the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research there for a number of years. so after I started at the University of Wollongong, I got a chance just to catch up with her and reconnect with her. And she was still just as inspiring and encouraging as I remembered her. She was always really passionate about working towards gender equality within engineering and trying to identify ways, especially in teaching engineering, that would make it more, equal and more appealing and just, yeah, try and reach that equality between the genders in engineering . so she’s actually now, she’s now a founding Dean of something called the Plus Alliance, which is looking at exploring and delivering different ways of teaching engineering across the world.
[00:22:53] So she’s taken that passionate and has really run with it.
[00:22:57] Mel: [00:22:57] Yeah. She sounds amazing. Like a [00:23:00] real trailblazer.
[00:23:02] Leela: [00:23:02] Yeah, she is.
[00:23:03]Mel: [00:23:03] Thank you so much for joining us today.
[00:23:04] Dom: [00:23:04] Yeah, thank you so much
[00:23:05]Leela: [00:23:05] That’s all right. Thank you for having me. It’s been really great.
[00:23:09] Mel: [00:23:09] And thank you for tuning into another episode of Engineering Heroes. If you want to know more about our podcast or the episode you just heard, visit our website, www.engineeringheroes.com.au. The best way for you to show your support for our show is to tell people either in person or in a review.
[00:23:27] Either way, just spread the word seriously. It is that easy. We look forward to you and your friends joining us next week when we bring you another interview with one of our engineering champions.