Women Finding Success podcast: Episode 4 – Professor Bronwyn Harch

In this episode of the Women Finding Success podcast, UQ's Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) Professor Bronwyn Harch discusses her career journey and the knowledge she’s learned through experiences in research and higher education, and the importance of creating opportunities for people in research and innovation.

About this week's guest

Professor BronwynProfessor Bronwyn Harch is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) and Vice-President (Research and Innovation at The University of Queensland. In addition, she is an applied statistician with 22 years of experience leading and undertaking research in agricultural and environmental systems. Before commencing her role at UQ, Professor Harch was Executive Director of the Institute for Future Environments at Queensland University of Technology. She also worked as a researcher and research strategist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) for 18 years. Professor Harch is passionate about making an impact by generating knowledge, technology and practices that make our world more sustainable, secure and resilient.

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Episode transcript

[Dr Elena Danilova - 00:04] Welcome to the Scholarly Soup podcast brought to you by The University of Queensland Library. In this podcast series we're going to meet with amazing women who found their success in academic and professional roles at The University of Queensland. They are resilient, smart, proactive, and more importantly, they're now working together to implement systemic changes that could make your career progression that little bit easier. If success breeds success, then listen to their stories and learn from the best. In this episode, I meet with Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) Professor Bronwyn Harch. Professor Harch has 22 years of experience leading and undertaking research focused on the nexus of Agricultural and Environmental Systems. She is passionate about making an impact by generating knowledge, technology and practices that make our world more sustainable, secure and resilient. She has become Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) in a research intensive university and all of that, after starting her career quite literally working for peanuts. Professor Bronwyn Harch, good afternoon and welcome.

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 01:27] Thank you, Elena.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 01:28] And Bronwyn as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation), you manage a multimillion dollar portfolio. Does being a statistician help, how did your interest actually evolve?

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 01:40] Yeah, you're right, I have got the best job in the whole world in terms of managing research at a university like The University of Queensland, so I do enjoy my job. And you'll get to hear a little bit more, I hope, through the podcast about what I love so much about my job. So how did my interest in statistics get sparked? Well, as it always is, it goes back to school days, and I was really interested in mathematics. And I was good at mathematics too. So that helped to keep you motivated and that your parents thought something interesting was going on for you as well. So it's when I went to university that I found out I could put two of my great loves together, which was science and technology with mathematics through statistical science, and so I was learning about statistical science. It's one of the only subjects where we went out in the field and did field trips and I thought, 'Gee, mathematics is getting me out in the field. This is pretty cool'. And I was doing environmental science at the time. So we were doing stuff with spiders in rainforests and doing stuff with koalas and birds. And I really fell in love with the fact that back in, back at base, always doing a lot of analytical modelling. But I could see the difference it was making in the field. So what grabbed me on statistical science was its application. And that I could apply it not only in environmental science area that I was trained in, but I've been working in health, manufacturing, defence, so many different areas. So it provided a pathway to many different doors. So that's what really got me hooked.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 03:16] That's amazing. That's such a good plug for mathematics. So how do you use your expertise as a data scientist in your current role as the principal, academic and administrative officer of the University?

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 03:31] So as a research leader when, where there's lots of different decisions you have to make, you have to develop strategy, and you also have to implement strategy. And as I mentioned, through that, you have to make a lot of decisions. So my data science expertise for me, helps me rely on data and evidence for a lot of the different stages I was talking about, data and insights from quantitative information, but also the insights you get from people. So you know, when you're walking around talking to people, that's just another sensing device, quantitative information- qualitative information, sorry. So bringing that together to help form strategy. So I think the kind of questions that you asked as a data scientist or as a statistical scientists, it's about understanding variation in different people's views. How do you manage data in different views to then help develop strategy and implement it? Like the other part about implementing strategy is that you have to take stock of are you heading in the right direction? So I'm a big believer in visualising and tracking performance as well, and that's a big part of my job. How's the University tracking, and it's what I call research vitality, both excellence and impact, how do we track that? So that kind of data visualisation kind of thought process really helps with tracking our performance that we're going to get to where we want to get to.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 05:00] Sounds very exciting, isn't it? And now Bronwyn, can we talk a little bit about your career progression? So could you tell us about the time in Hyderabad, India?

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 05:12] Yeah. So when I was doing my PhD, I was doing my PhD at The University of Queensland, actually. And I was in the agriculture department. So again, you can see that splicing together of an application to main with statistics and that point of time as agriculture and statistics. And I had a PhD project that was funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation. And I talk about it as the period of time when I was working for peanuts, because I was actually working for the peanut industry. And the peanut industry globally is based out of India, it's one of the main staple crops there. So the world banks of seed for crops are based in different countries and for peanut, what they call groundnut, was based in India. So I was working on big data collections that were in a world collection of germ plasm. So think seeds, peanut seeds. They had big fridges there. And at that point in time, data didn't come to me because it was too big. So it was, you know, wasn't last week that I did my PhD, it was a few years ago. So I had to travel to the data. And boy, am I lucky that I had that opportunity. So I ended up working with plant breeders, with high performance computing people working with agronomists and farmers in the field, because it was the understanding how the data was being collected. So in Hyderabad, I was working with a big multidisciplinary team of people on new statistical methodology to analyse these big data, which was then really big data sets. So that's how I found myself to be in Hyderabad. And I went back there twice during my PhD. And since I finished my PhD, I've been back there twice, interacting with the statistical community there. And again, it was about the application or statistical methodology in agriculture. So yeah, I learnt a lot about not only statistics, how to do multi-disciplinary research, but enjoy a culture that was very different from my own as well. So it's such a privilege to be in another country as part of doing my training.

Dr Elena Danilova - 07:20] Uh, were they doing things differently the way we do it here in Australia?

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 07:24] Yeah, in terms of the research and innovation endeavour, no, the way research and innovation was being undertaken at that time was similar. But the difference was, I was working in a university where most of the focus of that time was around discovery research. And so I was really focused on discovery, creating new applied methodologies for these big data sets. But working with this particular Institute in India was the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). They’re a very applied research organisation. And so there they were wanting to know well, all that theory and stuff you're doing is great Bronwyn, but how's it going to apply to how we grow out the seeds, how we interact with the farmers? And how do we manage the data? So I had sort of the best of both worlds back at the university, getting that excellence around discovery research, but working with the applied institution in India, was making sure someone was going to use what I was actually implementing. So I had the best of both worlds that point.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 08:29] Yeah, that sounds absolutely amazing. So what was the next step in your career journey, then? Can you tell us a little bit about your work in CSIRO?

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 08:39] Yeah, I worked with CSIRO for 18 and a half years. So how long have we got? I thought I'd won the lotto actually, when I got a job at CSIRO, because I mentioned to you I'd been working in an applied research organisation in India. And so to be able to work in Australia's premier applied institution was a really, real boon for me. So working there for 18 and a half years, as I mentioned, there are certainly a lot of lessons I learnt so I'll try and give you the top of the pops lessons. I learnt that conducting research is equally valuable whether you're doing discovery research, applied research, demonstrating your research or deploying it. There's no, there's no one that's more important than the other. They're all equally important. And that, as a researcher depends, depending on where you are on that spectrum you have to understand the movement between those different phases and how you have to partner to move through those phases. That was a really important lesson I want people to think about as well. That big challenges, the stuff that really mattered, that had to be solved, it was better solved through multidisciplinary teams rather than than me thinking about it by myself or thinking about it only within my own disciplinary team of statisticians and mathematicians. The other lesson is that excellent research is delivered with excellent research support. So I felt that when my research or that of my teams was being coached along by business development and commercialisation people with comms people, with finance, the infrastructure, the legal people, when it was a true team involving all of those people, we knew we're going to have impact on our research. So I think it's thinking about that full spectrum of the coaching team, you need to get your research out there. And lastly, I think that's the most refining kind of lesson is leading people. And I think it's the one that was the most refining. And I talked about refining fire, that you come out better through it, although it hurt at the time, is when you're leading people, you have to know how to help them reach their potential and achieve their goals. Now that can be really exhilarating. But you also have experiences of very confronting times when you're speaking to staff about their performance that perhaps their aspirations don't align with the organisation. And it doesn't mean individually those aspirations are wrong. It's just they're not meeting in the middle. And how you then have that honest conversation with people that you don't drag them along, that everything's gonna be okay, it'll work out. It won't work out because there's a fundamental misalignment. But then how do you help people discover another pathway? So I think that's a really important lesson around leadership I learnt there as well.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 11:31] And actually does sound like such a successful and satisfying career. So what were you looking for when you actually decided to move to the higher education sector?

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 11:40] Yeah, it was a Friday afternoon, and I picked up the phone. Well, I think it's a bit of a lesson, really, that I did something quite unusual at. Usually, I have a rule that I wouldn't pick up phones Friday afternoon because it's never going to be good news. Never going to be good news. So I did actually pick up the phone this Friday, and someone asked me if I wanted to consider going to the higher education sector. So one is make sure you ask someone because you never know what they're going to, to answer. I was intrigued by what they were trying to do, um, this particular university was QUT looking at doing a research institute in a very different mode. So it wasn't about the hero professor leading a research institute. It was they were looking for a research professor that was going to enable others. So I was really interested in how a university would have that kind of a model where it wasn't about, you know, the hero professor, it was facilitating the work of many different people. So I'm someone who likes to change. While I was in CSIRO for a long time, that organisation changes a lot. So I'm quite motivated by challenging myself to do things differently. And in my interview of that organisation, so they, it's always about people think about you being interviewed, but I equally interviewed them back because for me to take that leap, I needed to know the leadership there had as much courage as I had. And so that was what I was looking for when I was kind of interviewing them. Because I was I was quite impressed that the higher ed sector, they were looking at trying to do things differently.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 13:16] Sounds amazing.

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 13:17] I think it's, how.., it's six years later I'm still in the higher ed. So I'm enjoying it. Love it.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 13:24] Bronwyn you're also a chair of a UQ gender steering committee that consists of 23 staff and students from across the university. So I have heard that you played a really big role in the success of UQ's SAGE Bronze award. There's obviously a lot more that needs to be done. But what makes you hope that UQ will be able to improve on our equity, diversity and inclusion culture?

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 13:51] Yeah, I joined the University when the team that was putting together their proposal for the SAGE Athena Swan were probably halfway through and there'd been a lot of work by self-assessment team, of taking stock of where the University was at and some of the actions. So we had a big list of things that we needed to do and it had to be consolidated into a way to tell a narrative. What was the UQ story about what we were doing with gender diversity? So you probably have all this data and insight. So you know, I was in my element of 'how do you create a narrative' and so I worked a lot with the team on creating the narrative to have the evidence for an action plan. So that was great fun, particularly as you joined the uni. I got to really find out a lot about what was going on at the University when you're riding at that gender equity kind of element. So you asked me why am I hopeful? So I'm hopeful because of the progress we've already made since we've got the bronze award. So we were awarded that earlier this year. And it was February. I think, a lots happened since February. And some of the things that I've already seen is it's the basic stuff like people having it in their conversations while when I'm in different other meetings that aren't about gender equity, people bring up the issues about have we thought about gender equity in the context of our discussion, whether it's pay gaps, promotion, recruitment, all those kinds of things. I've seen we've had women only positions. In physics, we've had some of those advertised and recruited in. So it takes a lot of courage go, we're just going, you know, gender only, gender only, women only positions of senior women recruited as well. So I think there's a lot of positive signs, Elena, on on our journey for achieving gender equity.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 15:36] That's really, really good to hear. And how do you think men can support this initiative?

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 15:42] Yeah, there's a lot. Without men, we're not going to have gender equity, are we? That's pretty important. No, I think it's great that you've raised that issue, because we've all got a role to play in gender equity, because it's not always, not everything's always the deficit is in the women, it's in women for their issues. Sometimes it's in men as well. And again, I go very practical about what some of the things that that men can do. I think importantly, first of all, for your organisation, whichever one you're in, you need to make sure you know what the issues actually are. And where are the issues for when women in your organisation. In your UQ there's particular spaces within for academic staff that there's a ceiling for them going between being levels B and C. And understanding that different disciplines have different contexts. So it's sort of make sure you're, you understand the issues. I think it's how you talk to people, how you treat them. How you make sure you're thinking about opportunities for people and thinking about the gender issue as you're doing it, whether you're a male or female, the unconscious bias training, we've got at UQ is really useful, you can give yourself quite an education to find out that you know, all of us have biases, but you have to understand which, what are yours. And the other practical thing is some, there's really great leave entitlements for men in terms of not only caring duties as a parent, but also, I'm at the stage where I have to think about care for elderly people and also in our family care for someone who's disabled. I think there's a lot of great leave entitlements that men should take advantage of, in terms of supporting their families in whatever way they can as well.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 17:28] It is so satisfying, frankly speaking, to actually see how gender barriers are being destroyed. And in this case, I'm talking about women taking on high leadership roles. And just one of the recent examples is the announcement that Professor Cathy Foley, an Australian physicist will be Australia's ninth Chief, Chief Scientist, and the second woman appointed to this role. And by the way, the first time I saw this announcement was from your posts on Twitter. You have a very active presence in social media. How do you find time?

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 18:09] Well, and congratulations to Cathy Foley. You go girlfriend. So I know Cathy from my time in CSIRO. So Australia got it right in putting her in that role. Um, social media for me has two, two purposes. The first, number one, is spruiking the achievements of the organisation that I'm in. So you know, when you're working in an organisation, I want to be proud of what it's doing. So I use social media across Twitter and LinkedIn mainly to spruik about all the research effort that goes on UQ. And I think that's part of my role as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation). I'm the chief cheer squad leader for what's going on in research. And a lot of people pay attention to things like that on social media, because you're giving sound bites and people just get to know, 'Oh UQ is doing that, oh, that's about an individual within UQ' or.. There's certain research, I didn't know research like that was going on at UQ. So I find it as a good way of helping with our reputation as an organisation. But I'm no fool. The second reason is I have to think about my personal brand too, and what I associate my personal brand with. And so I, by spruiking about the research and innovation, it keeps building my brand about being across what's happening in the research and innovation ecosystem. People will follow me because I'm trying to keep up to date with what's who's moving around like Cathy, for example, and who's doing what in terms of major research and innovation there. And it helps people connect to me as well. There's a lot of people that think about, 'Oh, well that's an interesting place. I might go and work there', and they connect through to me or they might connect me into other opportunities with industry and government. So I keep doing it because it helps me connect to people in ways that I wouldn't, nationally and globally.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 20:03] So it's not about finding time, it's about finding the satisfaction in that communication, isn't it?

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 20:08] Yeah, I think it's because I think it's... we all have to communicate and so you have different means of doing it. And I find it's the most efficient way for me to let people know. So even for my internal teams on the internal websites, I haven't linked through to my social media, because I don't need to write all the blogs and everything, just watch the Twitter feed. That's what's going on. So it's more efficient.

[Dr Elena Danilova  20:33] That's correct. So what do you enjoy then? What do you enjoy most in your current role?


[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 20:38] So yeah, I have to ponder this, because I have to, I have to do a kind of strategic statement about what I enjoy. I think it's fundamentally about creating opportunities for people around research and innovation. And so that comes down to three things for me, what I really enjoy is connecting people. So it's connecting people within the organisation, and then helping them connect to people outside the organisation to make sure their research and innovation can get out there. And particularly for our discovery researchers is making sure other people notice what they're doing so then they can connect to them in ways that pulls them through that pipeline I was talking about in application, demonstration and deployment. The other is convening groups, you know, I like a party, but in convening groups, you’re getting people together for, around a common goal. So whether that's changing policy or processes within the uni, and I get a lot of feedback on that. How do you convene people with industry and government? So that convening kind of construct I think, is really important. And I really enjoy that. The last see, so that's connect, convene, it's catalyse. I really like catalysing things, whether it's new projects big or small and helping people see their part in it. So if I had to summarise why I really enjoy my job it gives me the opportunity to connect, convene and catalyse.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 22:07] And how do you strike a balance between work and life? What's your secret?

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 22:11] Yeah, so I think it's, I always struggle with the word balance because it may, it thinks things are kind of all equaled out. And it's hard to achieve a balance in any one day. Sometimes it's hard to achieve a balance any one week. So what is it you're trying to balance? Because life for me has got so many different dimensions to it. And often work, work's dimensions and as rich and full as the life dimension. So I always struggle with the balance bit. So what I kind of do, my family would say all I want to do is connect, convene and catalyse everybody. So I spend a lot of time connecting with my family. So I have my immediate family is not too far away. So I do a lot of things with them, whether it's gardening, whether it's climbing a mountain, swimming in the bush, or doing a jigsaw. I do a lot of things with with my family, they're really important to me. And I think apart from that, it's a lot of a lot of my time is making sure I do de-stress too and doing the things that give me joy and happiness by myself. So while I am a big people person, there is a point in time I want to be in a cave all by myself and making sure I take that time to inject it back into me. Because if I'm doing really well, and I'm motivated to connect, convene and catalyse people, then I'll be able to do it.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 23:39] And one of the last questions actually on my list, can we take you back to when you were 20? And what would you advise a 20 year old Bronwyn on how to best accelerate her career?

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 23:54] Yeah, back to my 20s. That's a bit scary. It's a great question, though. Because it really makes you stop and think. So I think I'd tell myself, invest in knowing about yourself, know what you're motivated by, know what your derailleurs are, when is it you're going to be in a situation so you can pull yourself up. So if you know yourself well, you can seize opportunities when they're in front of you, you can avoid the quicksand. And I think the other thing about knowing yourself is that you can actually help others if you know yourself, because you can sometimes see yourself or give a story or narrative to help people seize the opportunity or avoid the quicksand. The other thing I'd tell myself is, it's good to get advice, Bronwyn. But in the end, you've got to command your own decisions. So collect the advice, but make sure you command the decisions that you need to make. Spend time with your loved ones. I think I had a period in my career where I was very, very busy and I think that's why you heard that impassioned thing before about spending time with your loved ones because they're not always going to be there. They may be overseas they may pass on, etc. So spending time with your loved ones, seize the moment. The next is you've got to back yourself. It's great if people back you but you can't expect them to back you. So if you don't back yourself, you know, you don't seize those opportunities and thing. And the last one sort of goes back to the other comment you asked what I do when I'm not at work is work just as hard on making yourself happy as you do in your actual work as well. So part of my happiness comes from doing a good job of work, but make sure you love yourself for the bit that you don't do it at work as well.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 25:43] What great advice. Thank you so much, Bronwyn for your time today. I've certainly learned a lot and I hope that will help others as well to navigate and understand, you know, the academic environment and what it takes, you know, especially when you are in the leadership positions. Thank you.

[Professor Bronwyn Harch - 26:02] My pleasure, Elena.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 26:07] That's it for this episode of Women Finding Success. The podcast series was initiated by the SAGE Athena Swan team at The University of Queensland. Thanks to Workplace Diversity and Inclusion team Gender Steering Committee for their support and coordination. The series is produced by Dr Elena Danilova, with technical production by John Anderson. If you enjoyed this podcast, please like, subscribe or write a review on the platform you get your podcast from. Thank you for listening.


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