Why I mentor tomorrow’s STEM leaders

January 16 2020

Four Academy Fellows and health tech sector champions explain why they mentor for IMNIS.

“These are important people – why would they mentor me?” That’s the question PhD students joining the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS) program ask time and time again.

Dr Tony Radford AO, Dr Leonie Walsh, Sue MacLeman and Professor Paul Wood AO are Academy Fellows and leading lights in health tech. Along with more than 300 other industry leaders in a range of sectors across Australia, they’re passionate IMNIS mentors.

So why do they do it? We sat down with Tony, Leonie, Sue and Paul and asked them what they get from giving back.

four IMNIS mentors

Left to right: Dr Tony Radford AO FTSE, Dr Leonie Walsh FTSE, Sue MacLeman FTSE, and Professor Paul Wood AO FTSE

Why do you mentor? What have you got out of it?

Tony: I have puzzled over this: giving free consultation and advice is not much of a business model! Yet there’s an inherent satisfaction in helping people at the start of their careers. I can recognise the uncertainties I faced at that time of life and act as a sounding board and guide. When a mentee thanks you for changing their life, a few hours of thought and understanding seems a very small price.

Leonie: Each mentoring experience has been different for me. But each time I’ve felt the satisfaction of helping someone unravel a personal challenge, diversify their skill base, discover an opportunity or take a step closer to reaching their full potential. It’s a way to share knowledge you’ve gained through lived experience that can’t be picked up in the lecture hall.

Sue: Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky to have strong mentors who were willing to share their time and expertise. You get to a point where you want to give back. And while the process is useful for mentees, it’s equally useful for the mentors. With each mentee I learn something new and get to view the world through the lens of someone else’s experience.

Paul: The standout for me is seeing mentees get into industry and start to reach their potential. IMNIS defines “industry” pretty widely – it includes government, NGOs, and basically anything that isn’t academia. One of my mentees is in the US with Genotech and another is in Canberra with the Department of Innovation. PhD students are easy to help, they’re newcomers when it comes to understanding industry. I know mentoring really works and that I can make a difference.

What insights has mentoring given you into the future workforce – their values, needs and drives?

Paul: Australia produces about 10,000 PhDs a year, with approximately 6000 in STEM fields. The scary thing is that less than 10 per cent of people doing PhDs end up in long-term academic roles, so nine out of 10 need to seriously think about what they’re going to do.

Sue: The workforce is changing and I’m not sure we’re changing our curriculums fast enough to adapt. As we separate intelligence from consciousness with the rise of new technologies, we’re going to need to hone our critical thinking and enterprise skills. We’re also going to see a rise in micro-credentialing and continuous learning.

Tony: I don’t think much has changed in the attitudes of those looking at a career in STEM. There’s the same hope for a successful career, happy life and chance to make a difference. But social media adds a conscious desire to be perceived well, which is a pressure people don’t need. It’s hard enough to work out your life by yourself without the world looking over your shoulder.

Leonie: My mentees have come from a mix of demographics and faced different sets of challenges. Young scientists are starting to get the message about the value of industry careers, but often don’t know how to transition from academia. Mature-age mentees might be making a career change to work more flexibly or make a societal impact, so need different approaches. There are rich, diverse opportunities out there, but mentees are often not sure where to start.

Paul: We know PhD students are bright. But that doesn’t necessarily make them successful outside the cloistered environment of academia. That’s why they need these other skillsets: adaptability, networking, leadership and both oral and written communication. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of teaching them business 101.


IMNIS is an award-winning industry-led initiative of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering

IMNIS aims to break down barriers, extend professional networks, advance skills, expand career scope and develop future STEM leaders. What does that look like?

Leonie: This is many of these future STEM leaders’ first experience being mentored. Even those who have other big milestones going on in their life get a valuable taste of this type of support. For those who can fully embrace the breadth of the program, the outcomes can be incredibly rich and career-changing.

Sue: I am immensely proud of the work IMNIS does. It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet one-on-one with a dedicated, experienced professional who can provide insights, introductions and guidance. I was delighted that MTPConnect could fund the IMNIS program to go national as part of our support for the medtech and pharma sector.

Tony: Ideally we will see a diminishing barrier between industry and academia. People talk of research as if it is the exclusive province of academia, and this needs to change. Success for IMNIS would be when scientists and engineers within industry and those in academic institutes understand each other’s strengths and interact as equals.

Paul: Australia has the lowest rate of industry-academia connections in the OECD. Industry professionals who do approach universities find that it’s like dealing with an octopus. You knock on one door, but is it the right door? The program creates an easy way for people in industry to get engaged. I do a lot of email introductions – it’s about creating connections.

What’s the next big challenge facing Australia’s health tech sector?

Leonie: How do we leverage disruptive technologies to deliver better health outcomes to a growing and ageing population while managing cost, quality and equity of care? We need to build new skillsets, change the way we educate, and increase investment in health research, translation and delivery.

Sue: We face a lot of challenges: the chronic burden of health, the rise of digital, consumers being more in control of their healthcare, precision healthcare, changing integrated care models, global biosecurity and the needs of developing markets. These megatrends are often disruptive. They change existing business models and presents challenges and opportunities.

Tony: I think the biggest challenge is still the absence of diversity and scale in the commercial sector. Australian health tech companies often reach a certain size then are internationally acquired – only a few become mature standalone organisations. I have no simple answer, but in countries where entrepreneurial STEM graduates make their way in industry, tech sectors thrive.

Paul: One opportunity in Australia is medtech. A lot of big multinationals are pulling back and creating space for start-ups. But while we do the fundamental research really well, we often don’t do the translational piece. Tech on its own isn’t going to make you successful. Innovators need to constantly ask themselves who their customers are and what the benefits will be.

full width imnis gathering

Mentees speak about how the program boosts their confidence and organisational skills. How have you seen mentees change over the course of the program?

Sue: I’m always surprised and delighted by the calibre of the mentees I work with and meet. They’re often ready to take the next step in their career, but don’t know how good they are until you sit down and have that conversation. By introducing them to people, working with them on their CV and helping them hone their “pitch”, you can empower them to reach out and grab those opportunities.

Paul: A lot of students get into the doldrums in their second and third years, wondering what they’re going to do. As a mentor you can lift the scales off their eyes. The gloom lifts off them and the smiles and confidence come back. I was chatting to an overseas student, who said the fact that someone cared was enough to boost her confidence. You hear that time and time again.

Tony: People might be surprised that PhD candidates lack confidence, but in a prestigious environment where excellence is the norm it’s easy to feel unsure if you measure up. Mentoring shows them that industry values their knowledge and skills, and that it’s not that hard to adapt. It’s many mentees’ first exposure to a professional world outside the university or research institute.

Leonie: I’ve seen mentees change their approach to networking, particularly at events. Rather than turning up at a conference and hoping for chance meetings with relevant people, they understand the need to prepare. That means reviewing the conference schedule and researching resources like LinkedIn to target companies and individuals with specific questions. This has a significant carry-over effect for their confidence in other areas.

What would you say to a Fellow who is considering becoming a mentor?

Paul: You can quickly make significant impact and it takes very little of your time. A lot of mentors are serial mentors – once they get going, any qualms just fade away. They’re busy people, but they know they can find an hour a month. The concept is really about two people having a conversation.

Tony: It’s an everything-to-gain, nothing-to-lose, situation. Although not every mentee will be perfect for you in every way, there will be plenty of times when their enthusiasm, energy and ambition will be a wonderful bit of sunshine in your day.

Leonie: It’s a great way to give back. The best things you can give someone early in their career are the confidence to believe in themselves and the ability to make sound decisions. And you’ll get the benefits of being part of a well-managed program: new networks, knowledge and connections.

Sue: Grab the opportunity. If you are thinking about it, reach out to those that have already participated and ask about the value they got from the program. Go along to the info sessions and speak to some potential mentees. You will not regret the experience.

Paul: Do you want to help grow the next generation of leaders? Here’s your opportunity.

Ms Sue MacLeman FTSE
Sue MacLeman FTSE

Sue MacLeman is a pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical technology executive who has held senior roles in corporate, medical, commercial and business development. She is the Chair and Non-Executive Director of MTP Connect, a not-for-profit that aims to accelerate the growth of the health sector in Australia.

Dr Tony Radford AO FTSE

A senior biotech executive with substantial experience in pharmaceuticals and diagnostics, Dr Tony Radford AO FTSE is a founding Director of IMNIS. He has served in leadership roles in various health tech companies, including 12 years as the CEO of Cellestis, which he co-founded. Dr Radford is a Clunies Ross recipient.

Dr Leonie Walsh FTSE

Dr Leonie Walsh FTSE is an expert and adviser in technological innovation and commercialisation. Victoria’s inaugural Lead Scientist from 2013-2016, she is the Director and Founder of Productive Management Solutions. Dr Walsh is the Inaugural Women in STEMM Australia Ambassador and a passionate volunteer.

paul wood
Professor Paul Wood AO FTSE

IMNIS co-founder and Director Professor Paul Wood AO FTSE is a leader in the health tech and agriculture industries, and Director of P&R Wood Partners. A Clunies Ross winner, he is internationally recognised for his research in veterinary immunology, tuberculosis and vaccine development; and his numerous patents.