From farm to forefront of innovative science

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From farm to forefront of innovative science

9 July, 2024

This article was originally published on Farmers Weekly.

Her day job of working to decarbonise the zinc and steel industries is a fair stretch from lambing time on a west Otago spread for Lily Clague.

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Lily Clague knew she wanted to work in science but didn’t want to do a PhD, and said she feels fortunate to have landed a job at Zincovery last year (credit: Farmers Weekly).

Growing up on a sheep station in west Otago, Lily Clague didn’t see herself one day working to decarbonise the zinc and steel industries. 

“I had no idea I would be part of helping the future of humanity on this planet, by reducing carbon emissions in the zinc and steel sectors. Or that science would take me here,” she said.

Her current role as a research technologist at start-up company Zincovery is a long way from the farm she grew up on. 

“Our farm was in the middle of nowhere. A 45 minute drive to Gore. No mobile reception.”

She said the farm had been in the family since her great-grandad came out from Isle of Man in 1930.

“Gore was the ‘big town’. We’d go visit my older brother at boarding school there and my grandmother.”

Clague spent her childhood helping around the farm, with her favourite time being lambing season.

“I really loved mothering the orphan lambs onto another ewe.”

She first realised she loved science while in Year 7 at Blue Mountain College in Tapanui.

“I wasn’t the most popular kid, so I used to study lots, especially maths and science.”

She spent her teenage years boarding at Gore High School (now Māruawai College) and was always top of science.

“I had a really cool science teacher, Gregory Clinton. I sat at the front of the class. He would give me extra work.

“I adored chemistry, especially the titrations, watching the colours change. I loved learning how everything is made up, and what was happening at the small scales of atoms and electrons."

Clague had initially planned to study chemistry and neuroscience at university. But in her second year she ended up with complex medical issues that led to her being in and out of hospital and resulting in her having to drop some subjects. Although this didn’t keep her from her beloved chemistry.

“I loved chemistry so much I would study it in hospital.

“After three years in the lab I quickly realised I was a desk person rather than a lab person. Fortunately, I loved maths and physical chemistry, so I moved into computational science and did my Master’s with Anna [Garden] and Courtney Ennis, on astrochemistry and computational chemistry.”

I had no idea I would be part of helping the future of humanity on this planet, by reducing carbon emissions in the zinc and steel sectors. Or that science would take me here.

Lily Clague Research Technologist Zincovery


She said it was a tough Master’s project with lots of challenging maths. And that things initially didn’t go to plan.

“I spent six months trying to create a specific chemical via the computer programming, and it just kept not working. I eventually decided to give up. But I did the experiment one last time. And it worked!

“My Master’s taught me a lot about handling failure. I came to realise that it is normal for things not to work in science. I’d go back to the literature and take it slowly and read up why things weren’t working, and try new chemical pathways. I wrote my thesis as I went, so when it finally worked, I was there.”

She said her roots in the sheep station have a lot to do with how she managed to keep going.

“You kind of have to have this perseverance, to be a farmer. It’ll be raining and there are jobs to do and you just have to get out on the farm and do the work. I remember my dad doing the ‘lambing beat’, where he’d be out looking for all the orphaned lambs. He was one of the only people who still did that, and sometimes the other farmers would rib him for it.

“It wasn’t just about the money – he really cared about each little lamb. Turns out there’s a lot of my father in me, and he has bucketloads of perseverance. Like me he’s stubborn, and very determined, and won’t take no for an answer.”

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Lily Clague spent her childhood helping around the farm, and said her favourite time was the lambing season (credit: Farmers Weekly).

She said living on a farm, there’s a lot of picking yourself up and keeping on keeping on.

“Living in such a remote location, Dad had to fix everything himself. He couldn’t just call up a mechanic. So he’s pretty handy and resourceful. My farming upbringing taught me how to be good at handling stuff when things go wrong. That’s what I drew on during my Master’s thesis when things weren’t working out. I knew I just had to keep going.

“Mum would always say,,‘How do you eat an elephant?’ The answer is, of course, ‘One bite at a time.’ And it’s true. We can always break things down.”

She said that after her Master’s she knew she wanted to work in science but didn’t want to do a PhD, and feels very fortunate to have landed a job at Zincovery last year. Zincovery is a start-up company that is based on deep-tech science that then engineering student Jono Ring discovered while doing his Master’s thesis at the University of Canterbury.

“Zincovery is using that technology to decarbonise the zinc recycling industry in order to make zinc green.”

She said as a research technologist her work day changes all the time.

“One day I’ll be in the lab running experiments or processing zinc dust, using magnetic stirrers and beaker, pouring chemicals, using pipettes – the classic scientist in a white coat with goggles. The next day I might be leaching the process with acids to get zinc out of the waste, creating pucks with a press for analysis, and flattening samples so they can go into the machine. I’m on the computer a bit – characterising spectra, using the XRD. When I’m in the pilot plant I’ll be in a full-face respiratory mask because of the zinc dust. I do lots of analytics, using XRD and XRF, figuring elemental percentages of the sample.”

She said a scientific start-up can have a reputation of long hard hours, but that this hasn’t been her experience at Zincovery.

“Here at Zincovery I work with an amazing team. There’s a good understanding of work/life balance.”

Looking back at her upbringing on the farm, what would she say to other young aspiring scientists with similar backgrounds?

“I’d say where you’re from doesn’t stop where you’re going if you have perseverance, will and drive. I took every opportunity I could – I did science camps and science forums, like the Rotary Science Forum and Powering Potential.

“And think outside of medicine and remember there are many more jobs than you’d think there’d be for someone with a science background. They’re not all necessarily in a lab. At uni I figured that if I do what I love, then I’m painting the future. Until you start looking, you never know.”

Clague said she couldn’t be in a better place.

“Everyone in the world is going to be affected by global warming so when you have science that can help the world, this is invaluable, it’s priceless.”