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Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)

  • 1,000 - 50,000 employees

Jamie De Piero

Getting to work with innovative technology that enables cutting-edge subatomic research to be conducted is still something which blows my mind everyday I’m at work.

What’s your job about?

My employer, ANSTO, utilises nuclear technology and science in order to achieve medical, research and environmental outcomes (for example, making nuclear medicines from a reactor). I currently work in the Electrical Engineering and Control Systems team at the Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering, a facility where the subatomic properties of neutrons are exploited to investigate the internal structures of many materials in different environmental conditions. My job mainly relates to mechanical, electrical and software maintenance of the instruments and working on upgrade prototypes.

The centre houses a lot of different neutron instruments so there’s a lot to do. Some examples of projects I’m working on include designing a new user interface for when the control systems on the instruments are replaced, performing experiments and conducting thermal analysis on a rotation stage in a high vacuum, cryogenics environment, working on vibration analysis and balancing of a drum and spindle upgrade to an instrument, proportional integral derivative (PID) control system tuning and SolidWorks design/analysis of safety features to allow for prototype testing. Since safety is paramount when working with instruments full of potential hazards (radiation is unique problem to deal with!) we spend a lot of time testing our equipment before its deployed in the field.

For the rest of the graduate program I’ll be able to spend two more rotations across the facility (each rotation being approx. eight months). Since ANSTO does so much (like environmental research, biomedical research, accelerator science, waste storage and treatment etc.) it’s a bit daunting trying to preference where to go next.

What’s your background?

I’ve grown up and lived in the southern suburbs of Sydney my entire life, meaning primary school, high school and university (I swear I’m not institutionalised – I do travel!). As a kid and teenager I was always interested in both science and history, so I loved to read books about scientific advances made in the past (rocket technology during the space race, nuclear developments in the Manhattan Project etc.). I knew that if I wanted to really know the intricacies of how these things worked I would have to know the mathematics behind it so I focussed a bit more on STEM during high school - even though I wasn’t that great at it.

I wanted to continue my learning so I enrolled in a double degree of Mechanical Engineering and Mathematics at the University of Sydney. I’m not sure of the benefits of a double degree over a single one (you don’t know enough about one area in detail) and if I had my time again, I’d probably enrol in a single Mechatronics degree considering how important electrical theory is today.  During my time at university I really gravitated towards control system design and thermodynamics because I got to see not only how these disciplines were applied in an engineering capacity, but I also learned the mathematic fundamentals behind them. This makes you appreciate these principles so much more and allows you to be flexible in utilising them. As an example, I interned at Qantas performing research operations where I used control system techniques originally used for spacecraft navigation but this time in an econometrics capacity.

Outside of my studies I really like to keep fit and active and the hobby I’m probably most passionate about is mountaineering/ice climbing. I also love trekking, swimming, kayaking and rock climbing (but I’m not good like those pro people who go bouldering!). I’ve always had an affinity for nature and being immersed in wild and remote places that these activities allows are some of the greatest experiences you can have in your life. Outside of these physical activities I also enjoy reading, especially books on early Antarctic exploration and scientific discovery (it’s fascinating to see the significant contributions people make to science in such extreme environments!).

Could someone with a different background do your job?

Even though I’m working in the Electrical Engineering team I’m a mechanical engineer by qualification, so I’m not across much of the specifics when it comes to electronics and wiring. Despite this, many of our jobs are often mechatronics based and deal with quite a few mechanical issues - we work often with the mechanical engineering team in the centre. For my current role I’d recommend having at least some technical/analytical background knowledge, for example, someone with a science degree who knows at least basic programming could do a lot of my jobs.

However, the graduate program at ANSTO is rotation based and allows essentially for movement across the entire organisation. This means later I could work in a variety of different areas like environmental science, engineering design and reactor maintenance (or something completely unrelated like communications). So literally any graduate can apply for the program – science, engineering, maths, law, HR, business – you name it. There’s a role for you no matter your background.

What’s the coolest thing about your job?

Getting to work with innovative technology that enables cutting-edge subatomic research to be conducted is still something which blows my mind everyday I’m at work. I love reading books as well as watching documentaries/videos of subatomic and quantum phenomena but working on the equipment that produces tangible results of these effects in action really enhances my appreciation of how amazing the world is and how such large devices are needed when working with objects so small. It might seem strange but it’s a great and humbling experience to realise how little you do know and how much there is to learn in life.

I also know this might be a cliched response but the variety of work in my current role is something which really appeals to me. Since there’s a lot of different experiments being conducted on a lot of different instruments everyday I get to do something different and utilise a part of what I’ve learned at university. So far in my role I’ve employed thermodynamics, control systems, vibration, mechanics, design, programming and materials science – and that’s something which has surpassed my wildest expectations. I always thought that any job I had post university study would involve only one aspect of my degrees with the rest being forgotten about, so getting to practically employ all the skills that I’ve gained while also learning new ones (e.g. programmable logic controller (PLC) programming) is fantastic.  Sometimes I work longer hours or ask for more tasks to perform because I love what I do!

Finally I love the culture and values that underpin how ANSTO operates and is what one would expect of a forward thinking organisation in Australia. For example, you can see from their nuclear medicine and sustainability programs respectively, the positive impacts being made to people’s health and how maintaining our natural environmental is not sacrificed when carrying out commercial business. It’s great to be able to work at a place that uses science to make meaningful contributions for the betterment of our society.

What are the limitations of your job?

Having variety in your work can be a curse as well as a blessing sometimes. Because there’s such a wide range of equipment, fields and challenges to work through I’ll never be able to reach a level of expertise someone else who just focuses on one task/piece of equipment might be able to get (e.g. someone working in the reactor). So essentially I know a little bit of many things but not enough of one single thing.

Another aspect which might be a limitation to some people is the fact that this is a two-year rotation based graduate program where there’s no guarantee of permanent employment afterwards. While I like the rotational structure of the program because it diversifies your skill set and makes you a more well-rounded individual this fact is always on the back of my mind when deciding where in the organisation I’d like to rotate to next. Some facilities and team divisions sound very exciting to work with but might be too bespoke or removed from my degree qualifications to be able to use in some future career paths.

While this might change for future programs our first rotation wasn’t chosen by us (although the ones allocated to us had our interests in mind). I’m very happy with where I was placed and the team I’m with but I won’t lie, it can be a bit embarrassing at times to not have the level of electrical knowledge I know I should when working here. Finally working near a nuclear reactor understandably comes with added levels of security when working with technology and it can be a bit frustrating having to deal with this (e.g. using a virtual machine so I don’t have to ask IT for permission just to install a package like numpy for Python!).

3 pieces of advice for yourself when you were a student…

  1. Participate in as many groups/societies related to your degree whilst at university (e.g. motorsport for mechanical engineering, rocketry team for aerospace etc.). Not only does this expose you to the real-world practical applications of your study path but it also offers you the opportunity to network as well. Networking can be annoying sometimes but often establishing contacts early on can lead to many exciting job opportunities later down the track.
  2. Make sure you take the time to pursue your hobbies/passions outside of your study. You’d be surprised how much of the day you can just waste on your phone! This can also benefit you in your career – employers tend to hire those who take up hobbies like playing an instrument or a sport as well as having good academic results.
  3. If possible, try to participate in an overseas exchange program whilst at university. I was set to go on exchange in my final year of study in Germany in 2020 but it was unfortunately cancelled due to the pandemic and I regret not trying to go earlier. I’ve nothing but good things from others who’ve gone on exchange – living abroad while studying is a unique opportunity you should try and take up.