When Dr Cathy Foley was in primary school she found out she was dyslexic. She had terrible handwriting and spelling and was struggling in class. As one of seven kids, her brothers teased her relentlessly about her challenges with reading and writing. But she managed to turn her tribulation into determination and resilience. And those are traits that she still carries with her today. The teasing, she says, just helped push her even harder to prove them wrong.
And then when she was just nine years old, her mother passed away. This obviously took a huge toll on Cathy but she says it helped teach her resilience and that even painful situations show you that you can move on and survive another day. In high school, Cathy had a teacher who picked up that although she was struggling in most of her subjects, she was excelling in one – science. At that stage, though, Cathy thought she’d channel this into becoming a science teacher.
“I always thought you had to be sort of Einstein’s relative if you were going to be a physicist. But I still had that secret desire,” Cathy says.
That teacher was one of Cathy’s first science mentors and she attributes some of her success to those formative years where she finally felt like she was doing well in a subject she enjoyed.
It wasn’t until Cathy was at a youth camp that she realised she wanted to change the world. Her compassion for others and a sense of wanting to see more fairness in the world, changed the course of her career.
”At the youth camp, I found one on one interactions were frustrating for me. It was then that I decided I wanted to change the world rather than work face to face, one engagement at a time. Science and technology seemed like the way I could do this. And then CSIRO was the perfect vehicle for me to realise this vision.”
She studied physics and education at Sydney’s Macquarie University with the intention of becoming a high school science teacher.
“But I fell in love with research and I did my PhD in nitride semiconductors and did a smidgen of the early work that led to the white LED,” she says.
Today Cathy’s achievements over a career spanning 33 years are pretty intimidating.
Having decided to pursue a career in research, Cathy joined us as a post-doctoral fellow working in magnetics and was asked to join the team working on applications for the new high temperature superconductors.
Cathy is a world-renowned physicist and science leader most noted for her work developing superconducting systems including a technology called LANDTEM which uses superconductors to create three-dimensional maps of underground ore bodies. The device that Cathy helped develop has revolutionised the way mining companies detect ore underground and uncovered deposits worth billions of dollars around the world.
Cathy has risen through the ranks here holding many senior positions is currently the Deputy Director and Science Director of our Manufacturing business unit.
And in her latest venture, Cathy has just been appointed as our Chief Scientist. This is one of the most senior roles in the organisation and she says her priority will be putting science, STEM and women in science back in the spotlight.
Although Cathy is now less involved in hands-on research than she used to be, she still finds her job exciting.
“It’s pretty exciting to think that the work you do actually has an enormous impact and can make a difference. If you ask the people I work with, they all say that’s what they love about working at CSIRO. We do things that actually change the world and I think that’s a nice thing to do,” she says.
Not only is she one of Australia’s leading scientists, has a Doctor of Philosophy in Physics, a Bachelor of Science and a Diploma of Education, but she is leading the way for women in science and encouraging the next generation of young girls to follow in her footsteps.
“Australia’s future prosperity will be fuelled by science. Science which creates new industries, new jobs and shapes the minds and aspirations of our future leaders. We can’t keep thinking about science as something which is locked away in a lab. It connects and drives everything we touch and do.
“In my new role, I’m looking forward to not just spreading the word, but helping shape the science agenda, raising the profile of the role of women in STEM and being a mentor to other women inspired by science.”
Cathy credits much of her success to being supported by her family, particularly her husband, her six siblings and step-mother.
“My step-mother helped me to not only have attention to detail, but also be organised. While my sisters and brothers have always been my mentors and greatest supporters. We all mentor each other swapping between being the mentor and mentee.”
“And my husband Tony is a rock. Having a supportive husband and great children has been absolutely critical to my success.”