Ground-breaking discoveries with Scientist Renée Webster
A rough start
Renée loved primary school, especially her science and maths classes. But just as she was about to enter high school, her family moved to a rural area in Western Australia.
“I had a lot of trouble adjusting to the new environment,” Renée says.“I was bullied at my new school, my grades started to slip and my self-confidence eroded away.”
Her new school wasn’t focused on academic achievement or preparing students to go to university and there was a lot of disadvantage, with many pupils lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills which took up the majority of the teacher’s time.
Love of chemistry
Despite her social and emotional struggles, it was during high school that Renée discovered a love of chemistry.
“I liked doing chemical reactions and experiments,” she says. “I liked thinking about atoms and molecules and how, in different combinations, they make up everything around us.”
But her inner critic convinced herself she wasn’t smart enough to study science at university, and nobody disagreed with her.
“So I made a deal with myself: I enrolled in a general science degree at the University of Western Australia and said I could keep doing it, as long as I could keep passing the classes.”
Downs and ups at uni
Renée’s first year was really tough and she almost didn’t make it. She had to work to support herself financially and spent more hours at her part-time job than at her university classes. However, she managed to pass with a rating of 56%.
Things started to get better the following year and her grades improved. “It began to dawn on me that maybe I was smart enough to be a chemist,” says Renée.
She was right! In 2005 Renée graduated with first class honours and a double major degree in chemistry. Since then, she has applied her degree to a whole bunch of interesting jobs in very varied industries.
Wonderful (and stinky!) jobs
Her first role was a scientist in an environmental lab. “Up to this point, I’d only being doing chemistry because I enjoyed it, but suddenly I could see the impact it could have on people’s lives,” she says.
One of her tasks was to measure levels of dangerous chemicals that people were exposed to in their jobs, to make sure that they were safe.
She then worked as a food scientist, analysing fats in supermarket foods and undertaking DNA fingerprinting to classify potato varieties. “I could even figure out what sheep or cows or kangaroos were eating by looking at their poo!” she jokes. That sounds like a seriously stinky job!
When Renée joined DST, she solved fuel problems that have saved millions of dollars for our defence forces.
It’s hard to believe that Renée ever doubted her ability to study science. She has now completed her PhD, studying how to use renewable fuels (from things such as soybeans or sugar cane waste) for fighter jets, ships and tanks.
Her latest research focuses on chemical and biological defence to figure out the molecular signatures of chemical weapons to work out where they come from and who most likely made them. How clever is that?
Get your game on!
DST has created the game “Escape from Space” with lots of science-based problems to solve.
Download here for iOS
Download here for Android
To see me in the Jasper magazine, click here