In the Spotlight – Professor Lesley Chown
F: Tell us how your career began
LC: Engineering captured my interest in high school and I went to Wits University to study Metallurgy and Materials Engineering. In 1991, after a year in Germany with my husband, on a bursary from Iscor Ltd (now Arcelor Mittal), my career as a metallurgical engineer started at Iscor R&D in Pretoria.
F: How long were you there?
LC: I worked there for ten years, first as an engineer in training, then as a senior engineer. When Iscor unbundled, I joined the Iscor-funded Industrial Metals and Minerals Institute (IMMRI), based at the University of Pretoria in 2000. When our contracts ended in 2002, I moved to Mintek, where I did research on platinum alloys for high temperature use, development of ferrous and titanium alloys, and powder metallurgy of various alloys.
F: Did you do any post-grad work?
LC: My postgraduate research (on prevention of cracking during the continuous casting of steel) was done part-time, starting with a Master’s degree in 1997. After upgrading this to a PhD, I went on to graduate in 2008.
F: When did you start at Wits and describe what you have done there?
LC: I joined Wits as a senior lecturer in physical metallurgy in 2011, lecturing undergraduate courses and some of the welding engineering postgraduate courses, and supervising postgraduate students. I have coordinated the Strong Metallic Alloys focus area in the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials since 2012. To date I have supervised 15 Master’s and 7 PhD students, mostly in the research areas of: creep resistant steels for high temperature use, development of titanium alloys and aluminium composites. In 2018, I was promoted to associate professor.
F: How have things changes over the years?
LC: When I started at Wits, we had little state-of-the-art equipment. So, in 2014 Tony Paterson (SAIW Chair in Welding Engineering), Lesley Cornish and I successfully applied to the NRF National Equipment Programme for Gleeble 3500 thermomechanical testing equipment. This facility, valued over R15 million, is an integral part of our vision for welding and fabrication engineering. Apart from high temperature mechanical testing on metals, the Gleeble is designed for welding simulation and post-weld heat treatment under controlled conditions. The SAIW Chair sponsored infrastructure upgrades to house this equipment, and more recently, enabled us to purchase a plasma cutter and welding equipment for SMAW, AC and DC TIG, and pulse MIG, which is currently being installed. I manage these two testing facilities.
F: That’s the equipment side. What about the academic programmes and R&D?
LC: Well, we have been building up the Welding Engineering capabilities at Wits, first with Tony Paterson reviving and revamping the 12 postgraduate courses that cover the IIW Modules. In 2018, I took over some of Tony’s responsibilities: managing the welding courses and leading the welding research programme, as he is now semi-retired. The broad aim of our research is to link the microstructural effects caused by welding to changes in mechanical properties, and ultimately to use various modelling platforms to predict these changes.
F: That’s very interesting. In terms of the local welding industry in general, what is the situation?
LC: I think that the local welding industry is in a period of adjustment. Many welders have been trained over the last decade to meet demand, especially in the construction industry. With a downturn in the global economy, and the maturation of local infrastructure projects, many South African companies have had to downsize. One effect is that spending on further education and training has been reduced. While this may make financial sense in the short term, this will be detrimental to the manufacturing and construction sectors over the medium and long term.
F: And the role that the SAIW plays?
LC: The SAIW plays a critical role, as it provides not only training to welders, inspectors, and postgraduates (through Wits and University of Pretoria) but also the accompanying international accreditation through the IIW. This ensures internationally accepted standards which are available throughout the local industry. Our link with the SAIW enables students to do applied research on industrially relevant projects.
F: Tell us a bit about your personal life
LC: I have been married to my husband Graeme for 28 years, and we have two sons: Matthew (21) and Darren (18) – both studying engineering! I enjoy hiking, especially in the Drakensburg and along our beautiful coastline. At home I relax by doing some gardening, and I dabble in painting, mosaics and poetry. I also sing and play acoustic guitar in our church worship team.
F: Thanks Lesley.