Dr. Karen Hapgood – family, research and academic success on the unbeaten path

“Dr. Karen Hapgood is a highly successful Chemical Engineer, Researcher and Academic. She started her professional career as an engineer and moved into academia with a good experience in Pharmaceutical R&D. Her research and teaching is highly inspired by her professional experience. Her versatile career inspires young engineers, especially women in engineering. She has received several national and international awards for her research and teaching excellence. Currently she is working as an Associate Professor and Deputy Head of the Chemical Engineering Department of Monash University, Australia. Recently Ms. Thanh Nguyen has taken her interview for ChE Thoughts.”

My eyes examine the patchwork art hanging on Associate Professor Dr. Karen Hapgood’s office wall as I sit and wait for my interview with her. I look at the small patchwork quilt while sitting at her meeting table. The delicate stitches on the patterned fabric outline an image of a high-shear wet granulator with a figure, donning a full astronaut-style safety suit, standing adjacent to it. The figure does not represent a typical male operator; rather this figure represents Dr. Hapgood in her days of working at Merck & Co. Her room shows her enthusiasm of engineering and the pharmaceutical industry with tablets, inhalers, hard hat and a process control unit present on her shelves. Around her working table are pictures of her other source of inspiration – her family. In a profession where 85% of women engineers leave the profession in Australia by the age of 40 for family or personal reasons (Roberts, P. and Ayre, M., 2002), Dr. Hapgood stands out as a woman who not only embraced family-hood, but also embraced her professional career and changed from an industrial to an academic setting to fit in her family commitments. Dr. Hapgood has been passionate about chemical engineering since her days in high-school having won a Comalco Scholarship for her university studies. Dr. Hapgood graduated from her bachelor studies from the University of Queensland in 1994 and commenced her work at Honeywell in Victoria (Australia) as a Project Engineer. After a couple of years working, Dr. Hapgood went back to the University of Queensland to study for her doctorate degree under the supervision of Professor James Litster, researching the effects of “Nucleation and Binder Dispersion in Wet Granulation”. Her research led to the formation of the Nucleation regime map, which is used in both industry and research today. After her PhD graduation (2000) she worked for 5 years at Merck & Co., USA, as a Project Scientist, before transferring back as a Process Engineer to Australia to continue working at Merck (Merck Sharp and Dohme Australia) on Pharmaceutical research and development. During her work for Merck & Co., Dr. Hapgood worked on a drug for HIV. In 2006 Dr. Hapgood started her academic career at Monash University. In the short space of time since then, Dr. Hapgood has successfully established a highly regarded research group, has become deputy head of the chemical engineering department and is becoming globally known as a prominent researcher in the field of wet granulation and particle technology. Dr. Hapgood has won numerous awards including the Merck Pharmaceutical Technology and Engineering Award for Excellence in Technology Transfer (2004), AAPS New Investigator Award in Pharmaceutics and the Pharmaceutical Sciences (2006), Dean’s Teaching Award for Teaching Excellence (2008), ALTC Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning (2010) and The Uhde Shedden Medal and Prize (2010). Dr. Hapgood is also involved in several committees, including being the president of the Australasian Particle Technology Society, International steering committee for the Handbook of Pharmaceutical Excipients, Editorial Board of Advanced Powder Technology Journal and the Australian Therapeutic Goods Committee. Dr. Hapgood’s success in her early academic career is testimony to her dedication towards research, students and the chemical engineering profession, whilst juggling her professional career with her young family. Dr. Hapgood sits down and we begin our interview:

“Being part of different scientific and engineering networks helps to expand your mind and gives a broader idea or perspective of what one can do as a career.”

Thanks for giving me time. Let me start with asking: when did you realise that you took an interest in the “geekier” subjects of maths and science?

It was probably Year 9 science class with Ms. Darcy. She was a good teacher and female! That was probably when I first started taking a real interest in science.

As a child what were your career aspirations and why did you decide on chemical engineering?

I wanted to be a musician growing up. In year 11, I went to the University of Queensland to participate in a high school titration competit ion, where an unknown concentration of acid was given and titration was carried out to determine the concentration. It took a lot of work by the school and countless of lunchtimes were spent practising titration. My group won third prize in the competition but more importantly, I saw the sandstone buildings in the Great Court at the University of Queensland, which looked like a set from a movie scene, and I thought “I am going to go to uni here”.

Do you come from a family of engineers? Is that where the engineering influence came from?

I am the first in the family to study Chemical engineering. The engineering inspiration probably came from the technical side of my father’s job, a flight engineer; being the third person in the cockpit. Later my sisters also took up engineering (one is electrical engineer and the other one is aeronautical engineer) but I wouldn’t say that I played an influential role in their career choice.

Who were your role models growing up and now as a professional engineer?

Growing up my role model would be my year 9 science teacher Ms. Darcy and later the group of women involved in the Comalco scholarship. There were eight women in the group and they showed me the diversity in engineering – there is no one way to engineer. This had a big influence on me. My friend, who is the other winner of the Comalco scholarship, Kate O’ Brian was also a role model for me. Currently my role models include Professor Jim Litster (Purdue University, USA), Dr. Jim Michaels (Merck and Co. Inc., USA), Professor Jean Armstrong (Monash University, Australia) and Professor Ana Deletic (Monash University, Australia). These are role models who I look up to do and feel comfortable enough to ask for advice.

As a student studying chemical engineering, what advice would you give to students and what memorable memories have you had while studying?

I understood the concepts of chemical engineering more during my work experience and working with others at the end of my degree. As well as taking time to study alone in the early hours of the morning, I made sure I took time off to socialise, as I feel it is not good to just concentrate on studying, it is just as important to socialise. Hence balancing study and taking breaks helped me to succeed.

Could you please share any experiences in your work at Honeywell or Merck or teaching duties at Monash University?

At Merck, I got to see and learn more than what I could have learnt if I worked in a pharmaceutical company in Australia. For example, I got to see the process of product development from formulation design to the full-scale production. When I worked at Merck in Australia, I learnt what could go wrong for a simple formulation on an industrial scale – all the possibilities. I don’t think I would be able to see this in a research-scale process. So my research proposals are influenced from my experiences working in Merck.

For young women in engineering who are motivated to succeed both professionally and personally (family commitments), what advice would you give to those women?

My advice would be to go and talk to other women when you are feeling vague because often you will find that you are not alone in dealing with a particular issue. By talking to other women, you can find that “one line response”. Some conversations with other women engineers about issues are the same as the 1950’s while other conversations are not. I have also found reading Amanda’s Sinclair’s book entitled “Doing Leadership Differently” gave me good advice on how to be a leader by encouragement and inspiration rather than by demand and expectations.

How do you juggle family and academic life?

I think having a supportive husband helps a lot in juggling family and work. My husband and I sat down after finishing our PhD’s and decided to invest in my career and move to the US. Also having an extended family close by, even if it means having a long commute to work, has been very helpful in helping me fit my work commitments.

What drives you to be passionate about your research and teaching duties?

Working with people around me inspires me to work. I strive to be a knowledgeable, helpful and reliable colleague, lecturer and researcher. I also enjoy researching on wet granulation; I appreciate the extended family in the research field as everyone offers advice and encourages each other, even when the research can be improved.

You take pride in using technology in your teaching to help students learn and as direct feedback on your teaching, what would be your ideal teaching environment in terms of using technology?

I think it would be nice to have a professional editor that can take recordings from the lectures and format them into modules for students to learn from, or in other words to have modules of concepts presented rather than recorded lectures.
I still like to use the real time remote controls which students can use to answer questions in a presentation quiz.
My tablet PC is also helpful to me.
I also think that lectures can be set in a different system where students can be sitting on a chair and can turn the chairs around to face each other for group discussions, then can turn again to listen to a lecture. Something similar to having a ‘Qantas club’ for students and a ‘Qantas club’ for staff.

What is your favourite piece of technology?

That would have to be my 1kg laptop and my iphone.

What helps you to relax from your busy schedule?

I like to do yoga, gardening, sewing and recently cooking Jamie Oliver’s recipes.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

I would have to say Apollo bay (in Victoria, Australia) as it is a small country beach town where you can have the beach virtually to yourself.

Would you like to say any final words to the readers of “Che Thoughts” magazine?

Being part of different networks (such as women in engineering, women in science, pharmaceutical and wet granulation) helps to expand your mind and gives a broader idea or perspective of what one can do as a career.

With that, the interview concludes and it is evident that Dr. Hapgood has created a successful path in an unbeaten territory for herself. As Dr. Hapgood returns back to her table to continue her work, little does she knows that while she has her role models to look up to, she herself is a role model to the younger generations of women in engineering – thank you Dr. Hapgood, may you continue to inspire the next generations of women in engineering!


Roberts, P. and Ayre, M. (2002), “Counting the losses…….The Careers Review of Engineering Women: an investigation of women’s retention in the Australian engineering workforce.” National Women in Engineering Committee, Engineers Australia.


To cite this article, please use following information:

(use the given format or any standard citation format)

Nguyen, T., Dr. Karen Hapgood – family, research and academic success on the unbeaten path, ChE Thoughts 2 (1), 30-33, 2011.


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