This week we’re celebrating International Women in Engineering Day and we spoke to Emma Coen to learn more about her journey from chemist to rocket scientist! With a passion for scientific study and research, as well as a life-long love affair with target rifle shooting, Emma Coen says the path that led her to work as a Senior Research and Design Engineer in the Research & Development Team in Australian Munitions was one of many happy accidents. Moving from the bright lights of Sydney to regional New South Wales, Emma has spent the last 15 years contributing to an industry she loves and is proud to be a part of. Here is her story.
Emma started her professional career as a theoretical polymer chemist, applying her knowledge in the pharmaceutical industry by developing inhalable insulin for a biotechnology start-up in the early 2000s. During this time, she also obtained a PhD from the University of Sydney and a Post Doctorate from the University of New South Wales, conducting research into high pressure gases and their unusual properties. Emma then moved into pharmaceutical formulations, in a biotechnology start-up. As with many start-ups, the company was experiencing financial challenges and Emma decided to pursue opportunities elsewhere. When Emma saw an ad for a position at Australian Defence Industries, she thought to herself “it’s a far cry from my work in polymers but I’ve been target rifle shooting since I was 14 so I know a bit about bullets.”
In 2007, she started working as a Product Development Scientist in the Research & Development team for Thales Australia in regional NSW. She was heavily involved in the development of mining boosters, a product that become very commercially successful. “When you’re in the lab mixing things in a beaker, you’re so concentrated on the job at hand, you don’t think much about the flow on effects. However, it’s been very gratifying to know I was part of something that has hugely benefited Thales and led to job creation, which is so important in small country towns.” During this time, she was selected to study and obtain a Master of Science in Explosive Ordnance Engineering from Cranfield University in the United Kingdom. “I’m never one to shy away from taking on extra studies to increase my knowledge so I loved my time there and am very grateful to have been given the opportunity.”
After another two years, Emma started to look for new opportunities within Thales to broaden her skills and experience. “I didn’t have to look very far or hard because as soon as I saw the high explosives plant, it was love at first sight.” She took on the role of Production Engineer – High Explosives and considers learning to be a shift engineer for the plant as one of her career highlights, likening it to driving a cruise ship - “challenging but so, so beautiful.” As much as Emma enjoyed her role, she realised that shift production work is difficult as a single mother with an energetic five-year-old and made the decision to return to her former team of Research & Development, in the role of Senior Research and Development Engineer.
One of the major projects she’s currently working on is the bilateral collaboration between Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG), the Advanced Rocket Motor Technology Demonstrator. Emma explains that DSGT had spent eight years developing advanced rocket motor technology in the lab - Thales is now industrialising it to be made on a commercial and industrial scale. Emma is working on the propellant for larger rocket systems - one of the challenges when scaling up is ensuring the rocket fuel interacts properly with the rocket because the fuel starts curing as it is being made, “we have to mix the propellant ingredients fairly quickly to make sure we can pour it into the cases before it hardens,” explains Emma, ‘also, to ensure we keep a safe distance, we are in a building that’s a fair distance away when the ingredients are being mixed together, which means we can’t physically see and check its consistency. We have to rely heavily on advanced process control, and on our experience.”
Once the rockets are made, the team will start the testing program – both static burning and flight trials, in conjunction with DSTG and our Australian SMEs supporting this program. “If the rockets perform as we expect, then we may look to make even larger rockets. It’s a long-term strategically importance program, and is very exciting.”
More broadly, Emma and the team are looking to bring in the next generation of scientists and engineers into the Research & Development Team to support growth in sovereign capability. There is no university in Australia that teaches explosive ordnance engineering and so the Thales Australia’s strategy is to hire smart, passionate people to train and mentor whilst working with the education ecosystem to develop these courses. “It’s such a fascinating field and I encourage anyone who is interested in the field to just go for it,” Emma says before adding “It’s a male dominated industry, no doubt about that, but in all the years I’ve been in the industry, no one’s ever told me I couldn’t do something because of my gender. The Research & Development team hires talent based on merit and intellect. We value people who are passionate and are creative problem solvers.”
Find out more about the collaboration with DSTG here.