Q&A with Professor Vicki Chen

19 Feb 2019

Professor Vicki Chen is an experienced researcher known for her strong leadership and industry collaborations. As a chemical engineer, she has previously held the position of Director of UNESCO Centre for Membrane Science and Technology and has close to 7000 citations to her name. Last year she joined The University of Queensland as the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology, where she hopes to continue building on the Faculty’s collaborations and partnerships and increasing UQ’s standing as a global university.

What sparked your interest in chemical engineering?

My interests in design, physical sciences and biological sciences is what led me to explore a career in chemical engineering. My father’s work as a chemical engineer also helped me to realise that following in his footsteps would allow me to pivot to different areas, from micro-to macro-scale processes. Not only that, I realised it was a career that could take me around the world and allow me to work in a wide variety of industries.

What have been some of your research focuses?

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I undertook my PhD at the University of Minnesota. My thesis focussed on colloid and surface science. I later joined the Centre for Membrane Science and Technology at UNSW as a researcher in membrane separations. I focussed primarily on bioseparations and water treatment in my earlier work, but this eventually expanded to cover surface functionalisation, nanocomposite materials and hybrid biocatalytic systems. My research has involved major collaborations with industry partners such as BASF, Australian Low Emission Coal R&D, Dairy Innovation, Coal Innovation NSW, Bluescope Steel, Beijing OriginWater, Printed Energy, and Sydney Water, as well as three Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) and the National Centre of Excellence for Desalination.

What have been some of your career highlights?

A particularly proud moment was when chemical company BASF took up new materials based on work I was involved in with the Cooperative Research Centre for Polymers. I also worked on new nanocomposite materials for gas separation, which is currently being tested with real flue gases. Finally, I’ve really enjoyed working towards understanding and controlling fouling in membrane systems, particularly complex mixtures that are relevant for water and wastewater treatment.

What do you hope to achieve as the new Executive Dean of the Faculty?

I want to realise the extraordinary potential of UQ to contribute to the Australian and global stage. How we design, build, and operate is changing rapidly in both the technological as well as societal context. This poses both challenges and opportunities to prepare our students to successfully make a positive impact over their careers. Similarly, we want a culture and ecosystem where our researchers and academics can flourish and contribute to the global thought leadership of their disciplines as well as translating the outcomes of their work to the wider community.