How the CSIRO’s Chief Scientist Makes Time to Shape Young Minds


A day in the life of CSIRO chief scientist Cathy Foley, who packs a cheese sandwich and a canister of liquid nitrogen.

First thing is a six-kilometre run [in St Ives Chase, Sydney]: up Warrimoo Avenue, down the Warrimoo Track and back.

Having raised a blended family of six with my husband and the children’s other parents, I like to pack my lunch. It’s not part of the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet but I’m a fan of the cheese and tomato sandwich on wholemeal bread. Breakfast is a bowl of Woolies no-frills Traditional Muesli. I do housework, check the news and CSIRO media mentions then attack emails.

I drive to the office with my husband [Tony Murphy, a chief research scientist], who also works at CSIRO. It’s a chance to sound out ideas; today – how to get into the heads of the 5500 staff. Tony is a world-renowned plasma physicist and an expert on welding modelling and he gives good advice.

At the office, I review our CSIRO Future Science and Technology paper and check I’ve got everything for an experiment later. I usually keep a pair of safety glasses in my bag because I’m in and out of labs.

I allow 30 minutes to prepare for the executive team meeting. Everyone’s busy so I go in knowing what my most important questions will be and pitch ideas about how we can engage staff using the CSIRO crowdsourcing platform.

There’s a walking meeting with Megan Osmond, manager of the CSIRO SAGE [Science in Australia Gender Equity] program, about KPIs that move towards gender equity in leadership. That’s easy for some business units but for disciplines with fewer women, we’re thinking about how to grow the pipeline.

I like public transport because it saves CSIRO money and it’s better for the environment. But today I drive to an inner-Sydney school for our annual STEM in Schools event because I have a lot of kit. My tip: know where your power points are. There’s technology to help us be connected on the go but flexibility works against you once your device is dying.

The highlight of my day is getting out liquid nitrogen and levitating a rare earth super magnet using a superconductor. I’ve spent more than 30 years in the labs at CSIRO and I’ve never lost my love of experimentation, when all the theory pays off or comes crashing down. This experiment shows how magnetic fields and superconductors interact and are used for transport, such as magnetic levitation superfast trains. Crowd control’s a must; kids love liquid nitrogen but it’s -200°C. I hope they hold onto this fun when they’re choosing careers.


It’s time to pull out the sandwiches. I’m editor-in-chief of the Superconductor Science and Technology journal and my feedback on a paper about superconducting electronics is overdue. I submit my review just as my visitor arrives.

The planning meeting is to test our ideas about quantum technologies with a business partner’s head of industrial development – they’ll use the work in the manufacturing sector if we crack the science questions we’ve identified. Hearing what’s possible always re-energises me.

I check in with a researcher I’m mentoring. Things have changed since I was a young researcher at CSIRO in the 1980s – when the physics building only had women’s toilets on every second floor – but some things never change, like how to balance publication with partnerships, how to manage people. We discuss how to effectively chair phone and video meetings.

I prepare for tomorrow’s speech at NSW Parliament House, Future Science: 2040 – I work best under pressure – before reviewing emails.

Tonight is Scout night. I’m a Joey Scout leader and have been since my children were young. So around 20 boys and girls, six and seven years old, come to my local Scout hall and we play games, do craft and cooking and have outdoor adventures. Tonight is Hacker Night where the Joeys use tools to pull apart old electronics, including computers, toys and a TV set. I hope I’m inspiring some engineers of the future.

My husband and I cook together and eat Italian chicken with our son. Then our son is in his room and Tony and I share a pot of tea and dark chocolate – he makes sure I only have two pieces – in our home study, where our desks are next to each other, to catch up on work. It sounds like we work a lot but it doesn’t feel like it.

I go to bed and read Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies on my Kindle. But first I get my clothes ready for the next day, which I always do. Men can get away with a shirt and tie but there’s more pressure on women to choose an outfit for the variations in their day.

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