CSIRO's SWITCH program has given a research scientist from halfway across the globe the opportunity to get her hands – figuratively – dirty while immersing herself in prospectivity analysis at mining company BHP for three months. ROB HOBSON reports

woman in red top

CSIRO geologist and research scientist, Margaux Le Vaillant

Gaining industry perspective

It was an opportunity Paris-born CSIRO geologist and research scientist Margaux Le Vaillant found out through, of all things, a brainstorming session, about ways to improve collaboration between industry and research institutes.

"During one of the brainstorming sessions I said, 'We should have more placements, secondments and close direction', and through that I found out there was already a program in place," she said.

"At the end of that session I asked for more details about the SWITCH program, and I started to think about who I would do the secondment with because I’ve always wanted a bit more industry exposure."

SWITCHing mindsets

The program is open to everyone at CSIRO which aims to give its researchers direct exposure to the 'business side' of scientific research by embedding them in partner organisations for a period of time.

It is hoped these placements will broaden their horizons by being exposed to the host organisation's business models, markets and commercial operations, and using that information to better align their research to the needs of industry.

Margaux said research scientists can often fall into the trap of designing projects or research proposals first and seeking industry approval and funding second.

Understanding industry challenges first-hand

If the approach was the other way around, it could give researchers more clarity as to the challenges faced by industry and thus forming their research solutions and projects to overcome those challenges.

This would also increase the possibility of funding being granted for their projects.

"I came straight from academia, so I haven't spent that much time within the mining industry," she said.

"I think if you want to align your research to what they really need, you have to understand how their funding model works, the cycles that they have, when is a good time to ask for funds and when it’s definitely not, how they pick the project they’re going to fund, and how they identify the areas they need research done in."

BHP's Technical Centre of Excellence and Legacy Assets

The off-the-cuff comment certainly paid off for Margaux who decided on a placement in BHP’s Technical Centre of Excellence and Legacy Assets, which she describes as the company's 'internal experts' because of their work in identifying system bottle-necks and issues, training and upgrading staff capabilities, and providing guidance as to which research projects to fund.

She also gained experience with the Metals Exploration and Nickel West teams, where she applied her research into magmatic nickel sulphide systems into developing best-practice procedures, workflows for prospectivity analysis and potential applications of geochemical exploration tools.

"Before I started the secondment, I knew I wanted to work on bringing my expertise, which was around nickel, and combine it with mineral systems thinking," she said.

Margaux on the job in the Pilbara with CSIRO colleagues Mark Pearce, Samuel Spinks and David Fox

Combining expertise

"So by using mineral systems thinking and applying it to magmatic nickel sulphide systems I helped build some of the frameworks for exploration targeting, which basically applied a lot of what I was doing in the past eight years of research."

"Working with the BHP teams was a highlight for me because I got to work on real projects and did some actual prospectivity analysis on actual exploration grounds."

The SWITCH program also has great benefits for the host organisation, enabling them access to the skills and insights of their secondees for their business.

BHP's Head of Geoscience Excellence Cam McCuaig said Margaux's knowledge of nickel, the ability to hit the ground running and applying mineral systems thinking into real geoscience datasets made her a valuable addition to the company.

"Margaux was our first secondment from CSIRO in the centre and she integrated very well with the teams," he said.

"Commodity experience was an essential part of her input and specifically her very high calibre knowledge of the processes which form a nickel sulphide system,"

"Her prior experience in applied academic research in a variety of nickel deposits allowed her to frame and articulate a solution to the work she was asked to complete for us."

"Her work definitely impacted our thinking and we would certainly consider taking advantage of the SWITCH program again for the right individual."

A recommendation to SWITCH

Margaux thoroughly recommends the SWITCH program, however, advises candidates to ‘do their homework’ in the areas and industries they wish to be seconded to.

"I think because CSIRO is an applied research centre it just makes sense to understand who we do research for. And choosing the right partner for that is important," she said.

If you are interested in being a secondment partner or would like to discuss potential secondment opportunities to host CSIRO team members at your organisation, please contact Keryn Mendes, CSIRO Human Resources Advisor by emailing keryn.mendes@csiro.au.

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