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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
electric car, my entry into the Electric Vehicle Endurance Competition.
myself at a robotics demonstration that I set up for the Brentwood
Secondary College open night. I introduced robotics and coding at
Future Engineers: My children Stephanie and Anthony with a model solar car.
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.
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.