“My PhD taught me to read widely and follow odd hunches, and the importance of relationships for making change”
LinkedIn: Kristin Alford
Dr Kristin Alford is the Director of the MOD, an immersive museum of discovery, a place to be and be inspired. Previously, Kristin has directed the Science Education Creativity (Sci.C.Ed) Studio and founded the foresight agency Bridge8. She has consulted in science, technology, innovation, cities and the arts.
At high school Kristin was interested in processes and change, and chose engineering because it was a way to apply her interests in chemistry and maths. At university she was awarded a mining vacation scholarship in north-west Queensland and loved the experience. Her PhD was very practical with experiments in the iron ore and diamond mines of north Western Australia and on Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory. After graduating, Kristin worked as a metallurgist commissioning a silver-lead-zinc mine, and realised she was attracted to the people and strategy parts of the business. Dr Alford applied for a job in human resources with the research labs in Melbourne and was lucky to find a manager willing to take a risk.
The high was short-lived when the labs were closed, but Kristin’s experience was sufficient to land her in human resources with the aviation industry, later expanding her network to opportunities in strategy and industry engagement in agriculture and marketing and science communications for nanotechnology. These experiences were consolidated into a new profession when she did a masters in strategic foresight at Swinburne University.
As a futurist, Kristin has led a start-up company commercialising a nanobiosensor for the water and wine industries, collaborated on the Australia 2050 project with the Australian Academy of Sciences and provide artists and the local Port Adelaide community ways to imagine and respond to 100-year climate futures. She also lectures in foresight at the University of Adelaide.
Kristin sees MOD as a great opportunity to draw on her engineering and foresight disciplines to engage young adults and the broader community in asking big questions about how science, technology, engineering and maths, as well as the arts, humanities and design, can inform discovery, innovation and our shared futures.
What do you believe are the greatest attributes of a successful leader?
Great leaders have flexible minds. They are able to reflect on their own thinking, they are genuinely empathic and they can cope with, even celebrate, paradoxical concepts. They are not afraid of being wrong. They retain an ongoing curiosity and tend to work more collaboratively than leaders who rely on expertise or authority. The best leaders I know are also able to clearly articulate a vision of the future that draws people forward with excitement, interest and commitment. Far preferable to creating cultures of fear or derision.
What is the one thing you would change to improve gender balance in senior level scientists?
Quotas. Science doesn’t benefit from having people with the same type of thinking and backgrounds solving problems. Gender and cultural diversity is imperative to good science. If organisational leaders are charged to reach quotas then they are forced to change the often unseen cultural and structural barriers that currently bar the way to the promotion and fair pay of skilled people. I don’t mind whether the quota is self-imposed by a leader, or mandated by the organisation or external body. Softer approaches are fine if you’ve got time, but I’m not prepared to wait until 2133 for equal pay.
If you have done multiple types of roles, what skills from your PhD could be applied to all?
As a futurist I draw on processes and frameworks to inform my approaches, and this for me is clearly linked to my studies in chemical engineering. My PhD taught me to read widely and follow odd hunches, and the importance of relationships for making change. It also taught me to procrastinate by doing unrelated but ultimately useful things as my half-finished business degree demonstrates.
What is your ideal holiday – and do you always work on your holiday?
I’d prefer either somewhere quiet, where it’s easy to take walks close to nature and bring a case of wine and a box of novels. Or a city I’ve never visited, with history, art and food to explore and where I make a fool of myself trying out a new language. I always try not to check emails and social media – and always fail. Keeping my mind open to new learning experiences is the important work for a science creative professional.
Do you have a mentor? What is the most important advice they have given you?
A big thank you to Dr Peter Binks who I met first at BHP and then when he was CEO of Nanotechnology Victoria. In each of my big transitions – to HR, to marketing and even to this latest role with Sci.C.Ed – he always said “How hard can it be?!”. We both know the answer is simultaneously harder and easier than you think and that’s been an ongoing mantra for me.