Kathryn White – 1993 IChO
Dr Kathryn White is a jack-of-all-trades who loves science, teaching, gardening, bushwalking, music, photography and more!
Her passion for STEM began as a teenager, when she undertook a project assessing the environmental impact of her local tip in Bowral. “My methods were about as sophisticated as you’d expect for a Year 8, but I won an award and this helped grow my interest in science,” she says.
In Year 10, Kathryn fell into the Olympiads by accident when she was invited to the Junior Chemistry Summer School for the strength of her results in the Australian National Chemistry Quiz. “I actually felt ill on the day of the ANCQ and almost didn’t come to school – things might have turned out quite differently!”
In 1993, Kathryn made the national team and travelled to Perugia, Italy for the International Chemistry Olympiad. Before the competition, she had never been overseas or met such a diverse group of people. “I was very happy to win a bronze medal, but the most important thing I got out of it was a collection of long-term friends,” she says.
After school, she completed a Science degree at the University of Sydney, with a year off in the middle to learn Italian and get her Licentiate of Music in the violin. She also studied in Germany for a year on an exchange scholarship, before returning to Australia to complete her PhD on soap molecules and a Diploma of Education.
During her PhD, she had problems creating a reaction that wouldn’t end up as insoluble goop, and nearly gave up several times. “In the end, serendipity came to the rescue: I accidentally left a particular sample out of the fridge one night and it turned blue,” she says. “Thoroughly sick of what I had been doing, I switched to investigating what had caused the colour change, and it turned out to be exactly what I had been looking for!”
Kathryn is now a teacher and Program Director of the Junior Science Olympiad. “While I loved research, I have found even more satisfaction in the daily cut-and-thrust of schools and the idea of teacher-as-engineer, inventing and improving interesting ways to teach students,” she says.
Kathryn encourages high school students to pursue careers in STEM, but to be cautious of specialising too early as you may miss opportunities. She also stresses that research is not the only path for a scientist. “If you’re trained in science, you’re prepared for a whole range of careers that will be crucial to the future world,” she says.
She advises students sitting the Olympiads qualifying exams to get started early, attempt past papers and use Olympiads Online.