FORGING A CAREER IN THE SCIENCES: OLIVIA UNDERWOOD’S JOURNEY WITH HILL LABS (SO FAR)
HILL LABORATORIES has a reputation for developing people. However qualified a person is when they arrive and whatever their experience, if they wish to expand their skills and progress, a pathway exists to that end. It’s a unique development culture and Olivia Underwood knows it first-hand.
A knack for science
Before joining Hills in 2017, Olivia was completing a Bachelor of Science at the University of Waikato. With a natural affinity for science, she enjoyed the deep dive into chemistry, especially in the smaller sized classes at Waikato.
“In my final year at Waikato Uni, we had less than 15 people in a class. That gave me one-on-one time with lecturers and supervisors, which made all the difference. When I looked at the bigger universities, some still had classes of 200 people by the end of the degree! That’s when I realised, ‘I’m really enjoying this’.”
Olivia’s first touchpoint with Hill Laboratories came in year three. With reduced papers in her third year, she was able to take on 20 hours a week in the Hills Urgent Waters team. Then, once completion of her studies meant Olivia’s time was freed up, she accepted a full-time position at Hills.
No going back
While at university, Olivia had mapped out a possible career path: finish her degree, get some industry experience, go back to university to do a Masters, then return to the workforce with additional expertise. Those plans changed when she joined Hill Laboratories.
“Once I got a taste of working at Hills, I realised that the learning I was doing here was invaluable. Every day I was upskilling with exceptional people rather than having my head in a book. I never looked back.”
The commercial world
For the first nine months, Olivia worked as a technician in the Meth team. It was there that her science knowledge was applied and eyes opened to the variety of commercial industries that Hills spans, from food and water to agriculture and the environment, with more beyond these.
“The work at uni is very technical and theoretical; we were learning the building blocks underpinning chemistry. At Hills, I was applying that chemistry to the commercial world. That brought science to life for me.”
Steep learning curves
The nature of the work in Meth is cradle-to-grave – covering all aspects of testing, from registrations and sample processing to the final stages of analysis. After settling in and gaining a broad knowledge, Olivia was offered her first progression opportunity: to become Team Leader of the Residues Instruments Team.
Each lab team has its own operational and technical idiosyncrasies, which can be challenging to learn. In becoming the leader of Residues, Olivia needed to absorb these idiosyncrasies while acquiring the soft skills needed to manage its people. There was a third element that made the learning curve even steeper. Olivia explains.
“The Residues team gets super-busy for about four months during the kiwifruit season. I became Team Leader at the start of that crazy period! It was the first time I’d been involved in leadership, so keeping up with everything put me in the deepest end of the pool.
“What got me through were the support systems at Hills. There are Section Managers to turn to, technicians within my team, the Ops support crew, the commercial team, IT… you name it! Everyone was brilliant. As steep as that learning curve was, it set me up for other movements within Hills.”
After leading Residues, Olivia moved to Organics Instruments and temporarily directed the division as cover for the previous Team Leader. Four months later she was back in Residues for an 18-month term before moving into her third Team Leader role in Trace Elements Waters.
It’s all about people
The common thread across Olivia’s movements is her ability to lead people. An extrovert with high levels of empathy, her instinct is to connect with others which, as Olivia discovered, involves a series of highly transferrable soft skills.
“Moving to different teams showed me that the skills I acquired in my first leadership role are useful wherever I’m placed within Hills. I enjoy the intellectual rigours of lab work, but as an extrovert, I gravitate towards the relational side of science.”
In 2020, Olivia took her next step up into the role of Section Manager. The Section Managers sit across Hills’ six regional laboratories, each overseeing multiple departments and Team Leaders. It’s a big job. So big, Olivia felt the learning curve was as steep, if not steeper, than the first six months leading Residues.
“Section Manager encompasses so many new facets, I’m constantly challenged. But that’s how you learn. I’m often encouraging others that if they want to develop, they should move around the various teams at Hills. There’s a pathway to make it happen.”
For hungry minds
For young people wanting intellectual challenge in their careers, the world of science offers exciting opportunities. It’s an industry that is constantly evolving, and as Olivia points out, Hill Laboratories often feels the downstream effect of those developments.
“The cutting-edge work happening in research and development sets the foundations for what we do here at Hills. It opens up operational avenues and allows us to experiment with new tests.
“If you’re a young person with an agile mind and a desire to progress, Hill Laboratories is one of the best places to start. It was for me.”