Engineer’s career shows the power of second choices

Dr Juliet Newson's ability to back herself has taken her to the top.

Her day job as a geothermal reservoir modelling engineer at Contact Energy has her harnessing computer power to visualise the underground steam resources of the Wairakei area.

Fronting up for opportunities - even those that may have made her feel slightly out of her depth - has also resulted in her being elected to the presidency of the International Geothermal Association, an organisation representing 5000 members across 65 countries.

Newson, who splits her time between her Auckland home and Wairakei, where she helps to manage underground geothermal systems for power production, says New Zealanders are seen globally as the experts in that field.

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She was supported into the presidency by the outgoing president and fellow Kiwi, the Stanford University-based Professor Roland Horne.

Newson says she had always made a point of getting to international conferences and presenting papers, even if a lack of financial support meant she would put it on the credit card and worry about the cost later.

"I think that is a really good way to get to know people - it's just a wonderful way of networking.

"For young people the best way to get people to recognise you is to stand up there and talk."

Now midway through her presidential term, Newson is already looking ahead to where she can apply the board management skills she has learned.

"From this experience I actually think I could be on other boards," she says.

"I enjoy it because I like that high-level strategic planning and I'd rather have that than the detail.

"I can do detail, obviously, or I wouldn't be a computer modeller, but it's really interesting being able to see the large-scale aspects of a problem."

Good things take time, though, and Newson's career in the geothermal energy industry took a while to get up a head of steam.

She originally completed three and a half years of an architecture degree before dropping out and hitting the skifields of Ruapehu, at the southern end of the active volcanic zone that contains the majority of New Zealand's geothermal power production.

"I wasn't a bad student; I wasn't very interested." After several ski seasons she reached a point where she had to make a choice between a career ski patrolling or going back to university.

Wanting something that still connected her to the outdoors, Newson leaped on a friend's suggestion to do geology.

She says she was more motivated and brought a better understanding of how the world worked on her return to study.

"I'd also point out, though, and this is not acknowledged very much, that anything you learn is useful, so all that stuff that I learned before, when I did architecture for instance, was all around 3D space and being able to represent 3D space on a piece of paper and see things in 3D in your own head, so that translated directly into geology.

"So it wasn't wasted and I think when people say, 'Oh, I don't know what I want to do,' I would say at 17 or 18, just do something; it won't be wasted, it doesn't matter.

"If you don't know what you want to do you're better off just doing something at university than sitting around home playing computer games." Her bachelor's degree was followed by a master's degree in engineering - bookended by the birth of her children - then a PhD several years down the track.

Balancing family and work with study meant it took her more than 10 years to complete her doctorate - almost falling at the last hurdle when the University of Auckland refused to allow her the summer to write up her thesis, claiming she'd had enough time already.

With legal support from the student union, she made a case for discrimination against women with family responsibilities.

"The university had no stomach for this sort of fight.

"This was the first time I really stood up for myself, fought back; I got the extension and handed in on time.

"I was 50 years old."

Newson says she has given up short-term financial gains to ensure she got those qualifications, but says that often in our lives, no time is perfect.

"If you wait for the perfect time it's just not going to happen." She says some people have a set plan for their career stretching months or even years ahead.

"I'm not criticising that.

"I think that's a really good way to be because it gives you certainty but myself, I'm not such a planner and I've got quite a lot of tolerance for not knowing what is going to happen, but I think if you're like that then you've got to be alert to opportunity because if you're not alert to opportunity then you just drift and it's pointless."

Ultimately, she says she'd like to look back on her career and know she'd made a difference.