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20 March 2023 5 min read

Dr Brianna Ganly spent 4 months as a visiting scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, US.

Dr Brianna Ganly juggles multiple projects leading CSIRO’s X-ray Science Team in the Sensing and Sorting program and working on the Autonomous Sensors Future Science Platform (AS FSP).

She is crystal clear on the single priority for all of them.

“Every project I work on at CSIRO has an industry application. Our number one customer is Australia,” she says.

Dr Ganly leads a research theme developing next-generation sensors that will be deployed to enhance outcomes in everything from biosecurity to mineral processing.

She joined CSIRO in 2014 as an industrial trainee while completing a Bachelor of Engineering in Materials Science at the University of NSW and switched to studying Radiation Physics for her PhD.

Dr Ganly jokes that she was a “terrible” engineer.

“I’m passionate about ideas being applied to industry,” she says.

“I’m really good at cool science and I’ve got big ideas about what we could test. I love testing new ideas in the lab and then working with the engineers to build prototypes that can be tested in industry.”

Colliding with physics
Dr Brianna Ganley is leading projects in CSIRO’s X-ray Science Team in the Sensing and Sorting program and working on the Autonomous Sensors Future Science Platform (AS FSP)

Dr Ganly always loved science and maths and was naturally good at it.

However, even though it was relatively recently – she started university in 2010 – old-fashioned gender stereotypes could well have tripped her up.

“At school, a lot of girls thought they couldn’t do maths and science,” she recalls.

“I’d think I was going to fail a maths test and would end up doing really well. I didn’t think I’d be any good at science, which is why I did an engineering degree.”

There was a steep learning curve when she switched disciplines for her PhD, and she built it for herself on the fly.

“I picked this PhD because there was a bit of overlap in the engineering trainee job I’d had that I was generally bad at,” says Dr Ganly.

“We’d been looking at X-ray physics as well, but I had to teach myself how to code, I had to teach myself physics. All of it! It was the right move."

“As soon as I entered the doors of CSIRO, everything turned around, it turned out engineering wasn’t a good fit,” she says.

“I went from being a practical engineer running instruments to being a researcher investigating how we develop new instruments – looking for a creative solution to solve a real-world problem.”

“It became my passion.”

She says all of her CSIRO training was about applied science.

“I didn’t do a PhD where it’s research for the sake of research,” says Dr Ganly.

“I learned research in the CSIRO context, where you are working towards taking it out into the field – you don’t even know there’s research that’s not for a real-world application!”

Analysing matter on Mars with NASA

Last year, Dr Ganly headed to California for four months as a visiting scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a research placement that was enabled by CSIRO’s Julius Career Award to enhance the careers of exceptional early to mid-career researchers (EMCRs).

It was a dream gig for her passion for cool science – she was working with the Mars 2020 Mission Perseverance Rover team.

The Perseverance rover landed on Mars in February 2021 to collect rock and regolith samples, which will in the future be collected and returned to Earth for further study. In the meantime, the JPL scientists are analysing the data it is beaming back to Earth.

“We were doing elemental mapping with an instrument called PIXL,” says Dr Ganly.

The Planetary Instrument for X-ray (PIXL) “tells you the elemental composition of a rock”, she says.

“It measures a 100 micron point, and maps it across the surface, showing how the elemental composition changes on the surface of interesting geological features.”

Dr Brianna Ganly worked with JPL scientists analysing data beaming back to Earth from the Mars Perseverence rover.

Working on more cool science – for Earth and Space

JPL wasn’t the first time Dr Ganly had ventured into Space. During her PhD, Dr Ganly won a scholarship to conduct research at the University of Guelph in Canada.

“I worked on the Curiosity rover, and that was the first time I took what I was doing for the mining industry into a Space team,” she says.

“They were using a similar sensor to what we were using in mining, and I could apply the same techniques I’d learnt for remote control of minerals processing on Earth to exploration on another planet. I realised I wanted to do more of that translation of research from one industry to another.”

At CSIRO’s X-ray science research program, her work is very similar to that at JPL, “it’s just that there I was doing it for Mars and here I do it for the mining industry”, she says.

“I use X-rays to interpret the elemental signatures and pass that information on to geologists so they can infer what geological history, or where the minerals that are important to the mine are expected to be.”

Within the Emerging Sensor Technologies area of the Autonomous Sensors Future Science Platform (AS-FSP, “we are developing novel physics-based sensors, and three are specifically X-ray projects, two of which I manage.”

There’s cross-pollination between other CSIRO FSPs, particularly the Space FSP, which has in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) as a focus area, where autonomous sensors will be key.

Dr Ganly put her hand up to work on CSIRO’s project to advance the translation of mining technologies to ISRU, and in January 2020 CSIRO sent two people on a five-week intensive course, the Southern Hemisphere Space Studies Program (SHSSP) in South Australia.

“I got to know a lot of people in the space industry – and met the man who’s now my husband!”

Advancing sensing science for harsh environments

“At the AS-FSP, our aspirations are to develop new sensing technologies that will benefit Australia's industries,” she says.

“There are so many things that we currently can't measure. A lot of Australia’s environment is really harsh. If we put traditional sensors out there, they can fail in the heat. We are working to create new technology – thinking out of the box to develop transformative solutions for industry and environmental monitoring in Australia."

“The Sensing and Sorting program focuses on mining and the FSP is about what we can do for any industry,” she explains.

“Let’s take what we’re doing for mining and see how we can apply it to health, or biosecurity.

"We’re passionate about innovation translation. Sensors are so important to every industry where you need to monitor an environment, a process, or a product. In the mining industry, there’s been a lot of focus on sensor development, and we’re taking those innovations and translating them for other industries – there should be no limitations.”

Read more about Dr Ganly's work in the Autonomous Sensors FSP.

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