Engineering a better world

GeelongPort’s very own Dr Lisa Mills was recently featured in the Geelong Advertiser‘s GT Magazine, in an article written by Cam Ward.

It is telling that Dr Lisa Mills is wearing a hi-vis jacket when we meet. It is part of her normal workday uniform as Sustainability General Manager at GeelongPort, but can also be seen as a metaphor for her standing in her chosen profession.

Standing out as a role model is not something that the self-confessed “super nerd” takes lightly, but she knows the importance of helping the next generation of young women seeking to follow her lead.

Despite a “royal flush” of degrees bachelor, honours, masters and PhD, it was only a few years ago that Lisa was plagued by self-doubt until a lifechanging trip to Antarctica as part of Homeward Bound, a program that brings together women in the STEMM (science, technology, engineering, medicine or maths) fields from around the world.

The global leadership initiative seeks to tap into the women’s potential to lead and create better outcomes for the planet. And that’s something that has driven Lisa since she was a child growing up in Geelong and holidaying at Lorne.

Lisa loved the natural world the Otways, the beach and back then Lorne didn’t have a sewerage treatment plant. The waste would be piped out into the ocean and, under certain weather conditions, make its way back to shore. Lisa remembers times when she found herself swimming next to sanitary products.

“I hated it because I loved the beach,” she recalls.

“As a young kid I wanted to stop that from happening. The natural progression for me was I studied environmental engineering, I majored in wastewater treatment. And somewhere in that young brain I thought, ‘If I can do all these things I can stop some other community from having to swim in their own waste’.

“I’m a super nerd. I love STEMM, I’ve collected four degrees over my career and I like understanding a problem, getting my hands into a problem, so I know the technical solution or whatever we come up with is fit for purpose.” Coming out of university, that initially led her to working in a Melbourne consulting firm. But she hated the year she spent there before she headed back to Deakin to work on her PhD.

For 12 years she then worked for Alcoa working across its three Victorian operations the smelters at Point Henry and Portland, and the Anglesea coal mine and power station. Then came another consultancy stint, which she found hard on her two young children, before the GeelongPort role came up. Her work is “same same but different” to the other industries she has worked in. Carbon emissions are a universal problem regardless of the industry but instead of biodiversity issues, Lisa is now more likely to be concerned with issues like dust or potential contamination spills into Corio Bay.

Lisa nominates climate change and decarbonisation as the biggest environmental challenges facing the port. Emissions under the port authority’s direct control are relatively easy there is a renewable power purchase agreement covering the emissions from the power the port itself consumes and plans to electrify the port’s own vehicle fleet too. GeelongPort itself has fewer than 80 employees, although the number of workers who can be in the port on any one day could be in the hundreds.

But it is a different story when the focus swings to shipping emissions, over which the port has no control and only little influence. Here the port is heavily reliant on the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to set targets and drive the industry to decarbonise.

The port has around 600 vessel movements in the year, but the arrival of the Spirit of Tasmania at Corio Quay is set to double that figure.

Lisa concedes no-one knows which way the industry will head.

“I think the technologies are there. We know we need to decarbonise, the technologies are there at small scale, one of them’s going to be the right one. We just have to hurry up, we have to commit as corporate entities, shipping lines, do the work and the solution’s there,” she says.

That sense of urgency was brought home on her trip to Antarctica in 2019.

She and the other women in her cohort had 12 months of online learning before coming together at Ushuaia, a town in Argentina on the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, the southernmost tip of South America. They then sailed south for three weeks and while Lisa remembers the “amazing” trip with fondness, it also showed how Antarctica has been impacted by climate change.

“It’s not a future thing and you can go there and you can see it with your own eyes now. By taking us there, showing us what is happening there today, it really has put that fire in our bellies to come back and do something about it,” she says.

But it was life-changing for Lisa in other ways too.

She talks of impostor syndrome a behavioural health phenomenon of self-doubt and how she felt it had held her back in the past. However coming back from Antarctica, she was imbued with the sense of “Why not me?”. She took on the GeelongPort job after returning from the trip and admits that without the Homeward Bound program she may not have felt confident to do that. And she is determined to help ensure no other young woman is plagued by those same feelings.

Whenever she has the opportunity, she gives talks at schools. She shows the Deakin University interns in particular young women who come to the port what career paths are available to them.

“It actually feels like a responsibility but it’s something that’s really important to me. When I came through as a graduate engineer, I didn’t have any female mentors. There wasn’t anyone like me in the work environment. I was surrounded by men and while they were all very supportive, they’re different,” she says.

“That was part of the reason for my participation in the Homeward Bound program; I wanted to be a leader, I wanted to be able to support young women coming through. I’m trying to be visible to show them that it’s normal to have women in senior roles in nontraditional fields and that it’s a positive thing, it’s a great career path. It sits heavily on me. My whole life has been about trying to make a difference and I really want to make the world a better place.”

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, or the body that wears the hi-vis jacket.