Best in class: local community helper to STEM patent lawyer

By Louise Jeckells

14 September 2020

4 minute read

Neil advocates for successful STEM career no matter what they look like!

Neil advocates for successful STEM career no matter what they look like! Here he is encouraging the next generation at the BHP Foundation Science and Engineering Awards.

Do careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) always look the same? No! A boy from regional Australia will show you why.

Neil Ireland had an idea to help his local community using his wonderful STEM-orientated brain. He thought he could help farmers improve their product yield through optimising their seed selection. So, he investigated the effect of wheat seed size on various growth criteria. This project earned him second spot in the 1984 BHP Foundation Science and Engineering Awards.

But now a lawyer, how did Neil’s early love for STEM help shape his career?

Where STEM can take you…

Motivated by his BHP Foundation Science and Engineering Awards experience, Neil followed his passion for science into tertiary studies.

“I finished a Bachelor of Science (Honours) and PhD in Chemistry at the University of Melbourne. And then worked for the food industry in research and development. But in 1997 I started investigating alternative career options,” Neil said.

“I was keen to find a career that kept me at the cutting edge of STEM. I wanted my career to use critical thinking and look at the bigger picture.”

Neil left the lab and joined the patent attorney profession. And today he specialises in chemistry and life sciences patents, with expertise in polymers, nanotechnology and pharmaceutical molecules.

“Science and engineering are very important to me. It’s a challenging and fulfilling career choice. And it also means my workdays are spent on interesting topics where I’m constantly learning,” he said.

“One of the attractions of the profession is that I’m exposed to a broad range of innovative chemistry areas. This is both challenging and stimulating. I get to see a wide range of STEM technology areas ranging from herbicides, functional foods and pharmaceuticals. I also assist clients to protect and commercialise a wide variety of cutting-edge science.”

Patent lawyer and COVID-19

Neil believes the importance of science and engineering training has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Recently, I’ve been involved in drafting patent specifications that are directed towards protecting novel compounds that show promise in the treatment of coronavirus infections including COVID-19,” Neil said.

“Not only is it vitally important we have highly trained STEM workforce we can mobilise to assist in the fight against the pandemic but also that the general population has a good understanding of the topic. There is a lot of fear and misinformation in the public arena. But a good understanding of STEM can help the general population combat the fear.

“A solid background in STEM can help people understand the reasons for some of the protective measures put in place to combat the spread of the virus,” he said.

BHP Foundation Science and Engineering Awards 2020.

Neil has been a judge for the BHP Foundation Science and Engineering Awards for the last three years.

Advocating for a successful STEM career

After becoming a finalist in the Awards, Neil went to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in the United States. And had a blast.

“Attending ISEF was a great experience for a number of reasons. At the time, Australia was very good at celebrating sporting success but not as good at celebrating academic success,” Neil said.

“Being able to attend an event where academic success was not only celebrated but seen to be ‘cool’ was highly motivational. It also showed me the wide variety of STEM related research areas that I could explore,” Neil said.

Neil continues to advocate for STEM careers. In 2018, 2019 and 2020 he was a member of the student finalist judging panel. This is just one of the ways our Alumni members support and inspire future STEM innovators in Australia.

The BHP Foundation Science and Engineering Awards are a partnership between CSIRO, BHP Foundation and the Australian Science Teachers Association. The awards featured an impressive line-up of Australia’s best STEM talent, including teachers and school-aged researchers and innovators, set to excel in their careers and become the leaders of tomorrow.