It Has To Be Chemical Engineering

At the conclusion of the last chapter I realised that the reader has the right to expect a narrative of my academic path "from a Shepherd to a Chemical Engineer" as the title of this book indicates. Initially I wanted to restrict this book to the period of time that I was in Macedonia, but because my early observations and experiences of nature in Macedonia were instrumental in me obtaining my qualifications and work experiences in Australia they need to be included in this book. Although earlier in the book I have briefly stated that I graduated as a Chemical Engineer and worked at the Defence Standards Laboratories developing and testing military weapons, I feel this brief explanation is insufficient to justify the importance my interest in science and engineering played in my life. That is why I have included this chapter.

Right from the outset I can tell you that I didn't have a preconceived plan to study engineering let alone chemical engineering; my professional career unfolded alongside my social life and followed a path that was dictated by circumstances and choices that were made by me as I was confronted by the constantly appearing forks in the path of my career, and in my social life.

Coming to Australia opened up a smorgasbord of social, academic and employment choices which I relished as I navigated my way through the field of learning with its many fascinating possibilities. Those unexpected but fascinating possibilities took me along the scenic road to chemical engineering and then on to teaching; on the way to engineering I was presented with the possibility of becoming a car designer as well (more about this later). Read on and follow the narrative, it might take you a bit of time but it will eventually take you there via the scenic road.

Starting from my village Mala and at the time when I was in grade 5 or 6 I heard that there were schools named "Polytechnics". These educational facilities embodied everything that I was interested in, the name alone suggested that this is where one would study what is the equivalent of today's "rocket science"; by the way the phrase rocket science was not coined at that time, at least I had not heard of it. At precisely the time that I was in grade 6 my cousin Leta enrolled into the high school in Lerin. During the times that she came back to the village to see her family she talked enthusiastically about atoms, beakers, measuring cylinders and all that science stuff; she made me green with envy. That's it, I thought to myself, I will study science and technical stuff at a Polytechnic; that was my initial dream; I was going to be a technologist no matter what.

My observations of nature and my inquisitive mind about anything technical and my attempts to work out how things worked prepared me well for a course in science-engineering which would be studied hopefully at a Polytechnic. But my actual and real passion though was for me to be involved with the design, construction and the driving of racing cars at a level above that of an ordinary motor mechanic; I kept this passion to myself because I thought that in my situation that goal was unachievable.

In Australia, it was by kismet that dad sent me unintentionally to the wrong school, sort of. He sent me to the nearest technical school instead of sending me to Kew High School where cousin Arthur went and studied humanities type of subjects; fortunately for me the school that dad send me to was the best school for me because it offered the subjects that I wanted to study, which were applied science and technical-type subjects. I can proudly say that Richmond Tech was the most suitable school for me, it was a mini-polytechnic. The teachers and the principal made Richmond Tech a great school. The principal was a diplomat and a humanitarian who often invited at various times a socially prominent guest to the school, the likes of Lindsey Thomson, the education minister at that time; the famous Sir Doug Nicholls, the first Aboriginal AFL player and an ambassador for the Aboriginal community; Percy Cerutty, the Australian Olympic athletics coach; he also invited the ambassador for Sri Lanka. These guests addressed the whole school during extended assemblies for the social and educational benefit of the students. At a different occasion I remember myself together with my contemporary prefects and the principal of the school, Mr Allen, dining out in an international hotel in Little Flinders St Melbourne as guests of an international delegation who were involved with the Marshal Plan for Sri Lanka. One does not get this type of social exposure even at an elite private school.

The maths and science teachers, all of whom were fully qualified engineers with several years of practical experience, complemented the principal's enthusiasm and leadership with their knowledge, with their practical experience and their enthusiasm for teaching in their specialist fields. I loved how they emphasized theory with practical and their own personal examples. The trade teachers on the other hand taught us how to make actual and useful things whether they were coffee tables, watering cans or car-garage tools (they were proper full size useable items). All teachers including the physical education teacher managed to push the students to their limit, literally; for example when it came to swimming, I for one thought that I could swim because of my occasional short swims in the river in our village which at no time during the summer was deeper than waist high. But, one day during year 10 our P.E. teacher realised that I and four other newly arrived (to Australia) students were afraid to venture into the deep end of the council's swimming pool. That day the P.E. teacher decided to teach us how to swim. He lined us up at the edge of the deep end of the pool with our backs to the water, asked us to stand on our toes and not to move until further instructions; the next instruction was a sudden push on our chests which had us all in the deep end of the pool. I don't know about the other four students but I learned how to swim that day; his tactic was similar to Ray Noble's method of teaching me how to ice skate. By the end of the year I went through a whole series of swimming certificates ending with the coveted lifesaving certificate; this swimming ability gave me the courage to try surfing later on which I didn't pursue any further due to yet another fork in my social life, but still I am so grateful to that teacher for teaching me to swim properly. Today that teacher would lose his job and face physical abuse charges if he used that teaching method. It's amazing how once acceptable behavioural methods and social attitudes have changed since then.

During year 11 (the final year of the Tech School) I studied Pure and Applied Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Technical Drawing, Fitting and Machining, Sport and English. English for me was a bug bear; I failed English with a mark of 47 out of 100 (that's how accurately they assessed us then). Because my excellent test result at the end of year 11 (except for English) placed me in the top 1 per cent of the year 11 students in Victoria and the fact that I was the dux of the school and I was awarded a generous scholarship, the English teacher relented and raised my English result to 50 per cent which gave me a pass in English and allowed me to enrol in any tertiary institution.

Don't think for a moment that I thought my English teacher was incompetent or that he was reluctant to help me; on the contrary he was a brilliant teacher as well as a stage actor, he introduced me to poetry which I enjoyed. Public speaking was another area in which he encouraged us. His enthusiasm for all forms of communication in the English language had us involved in a rendition of Shakespeare's play of Romeo and Juliet. To bring realism to the play he had invited two members from his theatre group to teach us how to use swords during the sword fighting scene in the play (I played the part of Paris).

I blame the set of circumstances that I found myself in for my difficulties with the English language. Remember I and my brother Steve were thrust into a secondary school English class with zero prior exposure to the English language, to the Australian way of life, to the local sense of humour, to the Australian vernacular which includes colloquialisms, idioms, acronyms and clichés; we lacked the linguistic and cultural skills to communicate effectively. We had not read any children's books at home or at the primary school because we completed our primary school education in the Greek language; the only thing we had was a thick Macedonian-Greek accent which was an additional hindrance to our academic progress.

During written assignments I would mentally formulise the work in the Greek language and then translate it into English; the result was gibberish, because in the Greek language the sentences are written in the reverse order to the English sentences. In the Greek language the subject of the sentence comes first then it is followed by the adjectives or verbs. It had taken me a long time to realise this and the English teachers were oblivious to this abnormality (remember this was the period in time when Britain ruled the world and therefore everyone in the world was expected to speak English). This explains why the students with an Italian background didn't suffer the same language problem as us, because the Roman language shares the same grammar as the English language.

The form 5 prefects of Richmond Technical school: I am at the right end of the front row; the student standing directly behind me is Jeff Fergusson (he gave me a surf-board because I drove him to a surf beach, somewhere past Geelong one day).

I enrolled in Swinburne College of Technology as it was known then in what they called a Tertiary Oriented Program (equivalent to year 12 of a high school). I chose Swinburne because it was a "polytechnic" and it was close to where I lived.

At the enrolment office at Swinburne, my classmate, Sam (who wanted to study electronics) and I showed our weakness in the English language when we had to write down the word "engineering" on the application form. Sam looked at me and asked me "How do you spell engineering?" I said "I don't know." The lady behind the counter said "You are enrolling in an engineering course and you don't know how to spell engineering." I said to her "We are here to do engineering, not to spell it."

Sam and I completed the tertiary oriented program with passes in all subjects except English, and fortunately we were allowed to begin the diploma course and have another attempt at passing the year 12 level English the following year. Sam enrolled in a course of electronics. I meanwhile decided to enrol in a course of industrial chemistry (because I got 100 out of 100 for chemistry), but because the industrial chemistry course was full due to its popularity the head of the chemistry department interviewed me and asked me if I wanted to study anything else. It was then that I told him that I really wanted to be an automotive engineer, and I told him that there wasn't a specific automotive course available anywhere. The head of the chemistry department explained to me that the chemical engineering course covers subjects that relate to the workings of cars with topics such as: aerodynamics, thermodynamics, forces, composite materials (plastics) and so on. He said "Chemical engineering is the closest course to automotive engineering." I replied with the phrase: "Then it has to be chemical engineering." I completed the course in three years and just scraped through English with a result of 52 out of 100. I was awarded a diploma in chemical engineering from the Swinburne College of Technology (I love that word "technology"). In a previous chapter I stated that I had a degree in chemical engineering and it's true, but wait, the explanation for this comes later.

Unfortunately for Sam and for my brother Steve (who enrolled in a course of production engineering a year later) they were not able to pass English and subsequently qualified and worked as draftsmen in their respective fields. Steve worked at the ammunition factory (next to Defence Standards Laboratories or DSL) and Sam worked in the government aircraft factory; yes, Australia was making small planes named Nomads.

I am sorry to bore you by talking about my experiences during my youth and not restraining myself to my childhood memories only, as the title of this book indicates; but my academic training and engineering work came about because of my childhood experiences and now this chapter has developed a life of its own and needs to be taken further to a logical conclusion.

Qualifying in a field of study is difficult enough, but getting a job in the same field of study is another story. Sure, there were jobs offered in the mines of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. All I had to do was to tick the box that said yes I am willing to work in Bougainville, but I didn't want to go there. There was a job in an oil refinery in Thessaloniki, Greece which required knowledge of the Greek language (which I had), but my fiancé at the time told me that she didn't want her babies born in a foreign country; and besides I wasn't really interested in working in an oil refinery.

So I applied for a job as an experimental officer with the Defence Standards Laboratories (DSL) at Maribyrnong and surprisingly I was offered an interview, but I wasn't confident of securing the job; I had had several such interviews before and they all ended up with a letter in the mail box informing me that I wasn't successful. This time the interview was different. I decided to be proactive during the interview; towards the end of the interview after several technical questions (to confirm my knowledge of engineering) the interviewers asked me if I had any questions regarding the position that I was applying for. I arrogantly said to them "Gee, I thought that you would ask me some difficult questions." At that point of time both of them were jolted back into their chairs and short of saying "OK smart aleck" they posed a hypothetical situation to me. They said "Suppose a projectile is fired from a cannon at great speed and it crashes into a wall of sand bags where it damages itself. How would you capture the projectile without damaging it?" The answer came to me like a bolt of lightning and I outlined to them the method that I would use to capture the projectile. My solution required a series of Kevlar sheets hung and held by clips in front of the projectile's path. Each progressive Kevlar sheet would be thicker and heavier and as the projectile moved towards the Kevlar sheets, the clips would let go and the projectile would wrap itself in a heavy bundle of Kevlar sheets and eventually stop and drop to the ground without any damage to itself. This time the interviewers sank into their chairs as they realised that this was a smart solution to their actual problem (not hypothetical as they initially insinuated). Not to lose face and to show his knowledge of physics one of the interviewers said to me "So you will use momentum to solve the problem?" to which I replied "No, I used my brain, momentum is what the projectile has and it is a quantity measured by its velocity and mass." This time the man's jaw dropped to the ground; he stood up for what I thought was to pick up his jaw, but instead he shook my hand and asked me in a very quiet voice if I could start work first thing on Monday morning.

The reason I explained the interview in detail is because I want to show you, the reader, how observations of actual events can be applied to solve unrelated problems. The solution to the problem of the cannon-fired projectile didn't come to me out of thin air. I had seen something very similar in action before. I had seen my cousin Arthur practising his cricket batting skills by throwing the cricket ball vertically up in the air and then smashing the ball into a blanket that was hanging from the Hills hoist in the tiny back yard of his house in Coppin St, Richmond. A projectile smashing into a sheet of Kevlar was no different to a cricket ball smashing into a blanket.

I worked at DSL for three years and enjoyed every day of those years because of the interesting work. The first project that I was asked to work on was, surprise, surprise, that hypothetical projectile which turned out to be the nose of a cluster bomb being fired out of its main body to allow the bomblets to spread. Other projects included the development of a system to cut an air to air missile in half after it had been launched from the fighter-plane and if it missed its target. Perfecting tracer bullets that can work in the humid jungles of Vietnam was another project (this project required substantial knowledge of chemistry which I had). Non-military projects included the cutting of power lines by crop-dusting planes to prevent them from tangling with the power lines and thus crashing to the ground (by adopting the missile cutting system). Another project required the fabrication of a cloud seeding rocket to be used to initiate rain from clouds. This was my childhood dream job of making and testing things and yet I left the job. Why, you might ask? It is because another fork appeared in my career path.

By this time I was married to that lovely girl from Bouf in Preston and we were planning to start a family and thus I wanted to have a job which had holidays during the school holidays, so I could spend time with my future children during their school holidays. For the above reason and because of the long drive to Maribyrnong from my house in Blackburn (out of frustration I actually counted the number of gear changes I made during the drive to Maribyrnong and I counted 362 of them, very frustrating), and because of the mild but constant racist remarks that I was subjected to at work, I decided to leave DSL and apply for an advertised job at RMIT (another polytechnic) chemical engineering department who were looking for a person to design, set-up and test experiments for chemical engineering students and for industrial research projects (another childhood dream job). RMIT employed me, matched my DSL salary and gave me one afternoon off per week in order for me to study the additional subjects required to convert my diploma into a degree; with additional night-studies I completed the subjects required for a degree in one year. Now I was qualified for a position as a lecturer in RMIT, a position that would provide me with time off during school holidays. This was in 1973, a degree and few years of practical experience were sufficient for the position of a lecturer at RMIT at that time, just like what I had.

Now though, another fork appeared in my career path. During 1974 there was an exodus of well-educated professionals from South Africa (due to the racial tensions in South Africa), most of whom had PhDs in their respective fields and were seeking lecturing positions in universities including RMIT. The dean of RMIT decided that from then on only applicants with PhDs would be accepted for the position of a lecturer. I then enquired about continuing my studies on a part time basis with the intention of gaining a PhD in chemical engineering and I estimated that it would take me at least seven years to complete the PhD course. I decided that this was a long time to spend on studies instead of with my future children; so I took an alternative route and went into secondary school teaching.

Secondary school teaching also satisfied my childhood interests, though at a lesser level, but it involved me in a close and real human interaction with young adults from many ethnic backgrounds, which I found interesting and rewarding. And it allowed me to spend time with my own children during school holidays. Because of the human interaction in teaching which was both challenging and interesting I continued with teaching for 28 years, until I retired at the age of 55. There is no need to describe my teaching career any further because it was not my initial intention to write about it in this book, but I must say that it gave me the opportunity to pass on to my students my interest and love for science and engineering, particularly physics which I taught every year.

Now, about that car-designing job. In early 1968 General Motors launched a "future-car" design competition around the world; General Motors Holden handled the Australian part of it. The competition was open to anyone under the age of 21 and required the applicants to construct and present a 10th scale model car for judging at the Hawthorn Town Hall by the end of the year. General Motors supplied the scaled-down tyres and the applicants had to made the model car including the wheels and write a description of any special features and safety features that the car would have. This was a serious undertaking. Naturally I and my brother entered the competition and constructed and entered a model car each alongside 400 other participants and fortunately for us my model car was judged 4th overall and my brother's model car was 5th overall. Here again, I was in the top 1 per cent in the model car competition.

After the judging of the model cars, General Motors Holden invited the top ten finalists to their Fisherman's Bend Headquarters where they (including me) were dined and entertained by the Delltones no less (an Australian all male singing group). After the formalities I was asked by the Holden executives what course I was studying and of course I answered "chemical engineering". This was my undoing, I was ignored as if I didn't exist as the Holden executives moved on to the next person. The irony is that the very course that was closest to the automotive engineering course and I was studying denied me the opportunity to enter into my dream vocation. The designers of the first three model cars and the other student from Richmond Tech whose model car was judged below mine were offered a position in the design office of Holden cars that same day. What is going on here? I thought to myself. Later on I worked out that I was the person with the wrong qualifications applying for a job during the wrong era. One might say I was ahead of my time, but actually I was ignorant of the prevailing work culture in Australia at that time. During that period in Australia if one studied a particular course, he was expected to work in that field until he reached retirement age and received a gold watch. In the case of the General Motors model car competition they were looking for young people studying industrial design or at the very least drafting; I was satisfied with this assumption by the fact that the first three-placed young men in the model car competition were studying industrial design (this was pointed out in a current car magazine that featured an article on the model car competition) and as far as the student from Richmond Tech was concerned I knew that he was training to be a draftsman.

If only I had pointed out to the Holden executives that the reason I was studying chemical engineering was so I would be a more effective automotive engineer. Ignorance on my behalf and an instilled dogma possessed by the Holden executives robbed me of my dream job.

GMH Trophy awarded to me for 4th place in the model car competition.

My interest in car design and personal transport is still smouldering inside me and it flares up every now and then as it did during my teaching career. A colleague of mine Neil Whiffen (who is now a very good friend of mine and a fellow car enthusiast) and I involved a group of students in an extra curriculum activity at Mitcham Tech. Under our leadership the group constructed a small single-person vehicle to compete in an event The Shell Oil Company sponsored and named the "Shell Mileage Marathon". The competition was a fuel economy run and was open to all, including universities, car companies, schools and private individuals within Australia. We were competing with the big boys now. Our two drivers and the car made us proud with an outstanding fuel economy result of approximately 700 MPG. For the great effort and an amazing fuel economy result by a first time entry our team was rewarded with a trophy (see photo below), an article appeared in an American newspaper and a short video of our overall project was screened on ABC TV that year.

Mitcham Technical School's Shell Mileage Marathon car after that amazing performance photographed with two very light drivers, I in black and Neil wearing a tie.

The success of this extracurricular project encouraged me to continue with it, which I did for the next 15 years at different schools and in different forms. I organised groups of students that competed in such events as the Electrathon (electric powered cars), a 2 hour competition in a similar fashion to a Formula 1 race, and in the RACV Energy breakthrough at Maryborough, Victoria (hybrid cars, powered by 2 or more different energy sources) that ran for 24 hours. When the technical schools eventually closed (which was the greatest blunder by the short sighted politicians) I moved on to Brentwood Secondary College and I continued with the RACV Energy breakthrough project, but it had to be curtailed due to the lack of technical facilities at secondary colleges. The hybrid-car project was eventually replaced with model solar-powered cars, still an important and relevant activity which brought success and prestige to the school.

Throughout my teaching career I felt that quite a number of my students were inspired by the car projects and by my follow-up lessons in physics for them to further study maths and science and to pursue careers in either science or engineering. None less so than my own children who by now were at secondary schools and who often accompanied me at the abovementioned competitions. I haven't directly instructed my students or my children to study engineering but they must have sensed my enthusiasm that was bursting out of every part of my body. I know that several of the students who participated in the solar car competitions went on to study engineering - they told me so. As a result of the surround-engineering-ambience in our household my daughter Stephanie did graduate with an engineering degree, not just any engineering degree, but an Aerospace Engineering Degree from RMIT, a real polytechnic and Stephanie is the real "rocket scientist" of our family. She had a successful career with British Aerospace Engineering and as a result of her success she was able to go into very early retirement and spend quality time with her daughter. My son Anthony on the other hand, another "rocket scientist" who is interested in all technological things as his father is, graduated with a degree that covers every technology he could think of, a degree of mechatronics and robotics (mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and robotics) from yet another outstanding polytechnic, Swinburne University of Technology. Anthony is now employed by the Australian Road Research Board and is deeply engaged in artificial intelligence that is gradually being implemented in autonomous cars.

If you were to ask Stephanie what inspired her to study engineering you would be taken aback when she will tell you that it was the time when her father (me) had taken her to the waste recycling centre in Vermont and she saw those machines compacting the rubbish, reminiscent of me looking at that bogged truck when I was her age. Similarly, Anthony was amazed when he saw the intricate underpinnings of cars at the car wrecking yard that I had once taken him to; another similarity to mine, that is, when I saw the soldier pouring water in the army truck back in Mala. One does not need to take kids to exotic science or engineering exhibitions in order to inspire them towards engineering.

Looking back at myself as a child (at the age of 8-10 years) when I was sitting on the side of the hill that we call "Chukata" and wondering how things work and more precisely how things in nature are interconnected, I feel a sense of pride that I had the opportunity and ability to unravel and understand some of nature's mysteries. Now my children are in the middle of the same learning, researching and development cycle. Coincidentally or otherwise they both followed my lead into engineering and pushed the envelope of learning further. Stephanie attended RMIT, now named RMIT University and Anthony attended Swinburne University, the very same institutions I attended; Is this a coincidence or part of a repeating cycle?

And now I observe that my energetic grandchildren - with their inquisitive minds, who have been primed by their parents via many books being read to them, and who have been exposed to various activities - are ready to start all over again and go through the cycle of learning from the beginning. I wait with great anticipation as they are about to embark on that great and interesting journey of learning and discovery. My grandchildren now are at the edge of a vast, blank, learning field that stretches to the edge of the universe and it waits to be rediscovered by them. As they are about to start the great journey of discovery I can only give them that simple Macedonian blessing "Odi napred so zdravje" (go forward with good health).

Thank you for reading my book.

Photo of me at the age of 70 with my first grand daughter, Grace, who inspired me to write this book.

My grand children: Greta, Grace and Hugo.

The first four photos below are of car-based extra-curricular school activities that I initiated and ran.

The Shell Marathon car, Mitcham Technical School's entry in the Shell Mileage Marathon Competition.

An electric car, my entry into the Electric Vehicle Endurance Competition.

A hybrid car entered in a 24 hour race in the RACV Energy Breakthrough Competition in Maryborough, Victoria.

Enjoying myself at a robotics demonstration that I set up for the Brentwood Secondary College open night. I introduced robotics and coding at the school.

Future Engineers: My children Stephanie and Anthony with a model solar car.

With one of my classic cars, an Austin Healey 100/4. The car was styled by Gerry Coker, a draughtsman working for Donald Healey, the founder of the Austin Healey car company.

With my classic Alfa Romeo.

I am a boy shepherd who wanted to know how things work; in particular how motor cars work. I fulfilled my dream by dabbling in various types of experimental cars while I was teaching physics. My enthusiasm for science and engineering was instilled into my students as well as my two children who are now successful engineers.

In my retirement I pay reverence to my heroes: automotive engineers and car stylist. The Alfa Romeo pays homage to Vittorio Jano , the Alfa Romeo engineer, and to Giorgetto Giugiaro, the famous car stylist.

I have a small collection of interesting cars, but don't call me a "petrol head" because I see well-thought-out and styled cars as works of art.

My cars are three dimensional works of art when stationary, four dimensional works of art when the engine is running and five dimensional works of art when they are in motion. I think people are lucky if they see the fourth and fifth dimensions in good cars.

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