When Karen Trezise was a little girl, she was obsessed with aeroplanes. As a high schooler, she got her pilot’s licence before she could drive a car and was the only girl in her woodwork and metalwork classes. Now, as Chief Technologist for Babcock Australasia, Karen is at the forefront of game-changing technologies that solve Defence’s most pressing challenges.
Karen is the kind of outgoing woman that packs a lot into life (ballroom dancing, gardening, tennis, DIY home renovation), but we managed to catch a few minutes of her time to find out what her role entails and the path she’s taken to get there.
Q: Where did your passion for aviation start?
A: I’ve been fascinated by the theory of flight from a very young age! My parents tell stories of me as a toddler, staring up into the sky as planes went past. I will never get bored of watching planes and the science of flight still amazes me! It inspires me to think of new designs, of new ways to fly faster and higher. As incredible as planes are, I feel there is so much more left to create.
When I was little, my dad showed me how to cut wings out of cardboard, and I went through so many wing designs that our neighbors use to deliver old cardboard boxes to our house, knowing I would be so excited to cut out another pair! I would stand on the brick letterbox with my wings on and jump off. In my head, I thought they would get me across the road and each time they didn’t, I would keep on trying. My dad would tell me to watch how the birds came into land, the way they change the angle of their wings to slow down in speed before landing.
Q: It sounds like you were destined to work in aerospace engineering! Was that always the plan?
A: My original career plan was to be an air force pilot and fly – the best office in the world! I was in Year 10 when I first got up in the air, and I was immediately hooked. It was a record summer’s day temperature for Melbourne, it was bumpy, I was feeling queasy, but it didn’t deter me as I couldn’t wait to go up again. I washed aeroplanes at the local airfield to earn flights and get closer to pilots who taught me more about their aeroplanes and flying. I love the view of the world from above!
Unfortunately, though, I am the only one in my family that loves planes this much, but also the only one with eyesight not good enough for air force standards. I was really flat for ages thinking I was unable to fulfil my ultimate career. But the next best thing was to be an aerospace engineer and design the planes! I made sure I pursued a career where I could get my fix of aircraft – and I’m still able to enjoy recreational flying in bug-smashers (single engine aircraft). I’m even building my own plane in my backyard! So, I have lots to be grateful for, despite my original plans not working out.
Q: What kind of study did you have to complete to land your role?
A: I always tended towards the more technical, trade-type subjects at school and was the only girl in the woodwork and metalwork classes. In metalwork, I made an engineer’s hammer on the lathe. My teacher entered it into the Royal Melbourne Show, and it won first prize!
To work out if being an aerospace engineer was actually the career for me, I did work experience at an engineering company. Luckily, I liked what I saw and went on to complete a five-year double degree in Aerospace Engineering and Avionics Engineering.
It was as I was coming to the end of my degree that my mentor introduced me to the Royal Aeronautical Society, where we had regular get-togethers to discuss all things aviation and space. That was where I was able to network with people in the industry and learn about the different options available to me. I really loved the hands-on aspect of engineering and didn’t want an engineering job where I’d be stuck in front of a computer all day.
Thankfully, I found a company where I was able to combine my aerospace engineering and pilot skills and interests and did an undergraduate work placement there while completing my final year of study. I then took up a position as a Graduate Engineer, designing flight test instrumentation. I soon found my groove as an engineer and even worked on the upgrade of the Royal Australian Navy Sea Hawk Helicopters.
Q: How did you move over into the specialized area you’re in now?
A: I am very inquisitive and super curious about how things work. So, for my next role, I decided to expand my portfolio of engineering experience and took on a position as a Maintenance Planner, working shift work at a major airport. Having the responsibility of ensuring the planes got out safely, on time, and working tightly as a team was truly rewarding and challenging. Most of my practical experience of using tools and problem solving was learned there.
I was then lucky enough to be chosen as the Australian representative on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which saw me take a two-and-a-half-year secondment to the UK and USA to work on introducing prognostics health management practises for aircraft sustainment. It was a dream of mine to one day work on this program and it finally came true!
I then moved back to Australia and that’s when I started to take a keen interest in advanced technologies and began a series of short courses in Artificial Intelligence, Additive Manufacturing, and Mixed Reality. I built my subject matter expertise in Human Augmentation Technologies, which looks to advance human abilities in both the cognitive and physical states.
Solving difficult problems in a technology enabled way started to excite me. This is what led me to my current role as Chief Technologist for Babcock Australasia!
Q: Chief Technologist is a very intriguing job title! Tell us what your day-to-day looks like.
A: As Chief Technologist I constantly keep my eyes on the horizon to identify advances in technology and research. I then combine, further develop, and implement those discoveries and ideas so we can meet our customers’ needs now, and those anticipated in the future.
I love my role as I get to work with some of the greatest minds from around the world in research organizations, universities, small to medium enterprises, and with our Babcock global colleagues. We explore the art of the possible in a modern approach that is collaborative, diverse, agile, and rapid.
We look to drive innovative and smarter solutions by working with the latest technologies in artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, autonomy, augmented reality, virtual reality, advanced computing, and sensors. I feel so lucky that my career melds into a lot of my hobbies!
Q: Why do you feel Babcock is a good fit for you and what have you set your sights on next?
A: Since working at Babcock, there have been many moments when I’ve thought “Oh wow! How lucky am I?” A big chunk of your life is spent at work and I’m so grateful my role is challenging, varied, and gives me opportunities to travel and see the world. I have been made to feel I have so much to contribute, and that my experience and opinions are valued.
Babcock promotes equality and as a woman working in this field, and so far, I have not felt any gender bias. They also support a healthy work-life balance and flexible working, which allows me to pursue my hobbies and keep me mentally and physically at my best.
Thinking ahead to the next 10 years, I’d like to develop leading-edge technology that pioneers a change in the way we do things!
Q: What advice would you give to other young people thinking about a career in aerospace engineering?
A: I think I am most proud of my ability to give things a go, and so I’d advise others not to fear failure, to know it’s just learning how not to do things. To not try would be to regret. To dream big, to take risks is exciting! Flexibility is also the key to life, so learn to embrace and cope with change.
I’d also recommend finding good mentors to help guide you in your career. You can learn so much from those who have walked the path before.
Q: Finally, what do you think your high-school self would say about what you are doing now?
A: My high-school self would high five me for being courageous and for following through with my dreams!