Kate Sommerville: Blast that got things started

Published: 18/04/2013


By Emily Roberts, HighGrade

SINCE she first flicked the initiation switch to set off a shaft blast, Kate Sommerville has been hooked on mining engineering. Now a principal mining engineer with BHP Billiton, Kate Sommerville wants to “make a difference” in the industry, starting with helping to modernise its image.

To this end Sommerville joined the board of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM) 18 months ago. She admits it’s not easy juggling her demanding role in BHP Billiton’s Perth office with the AusIMM commitments, but she is relishing the challenge.

“I am really enjoying being on my first board and the type of thinking that it requires,” Sommerville told HighGrade. “It takes a fair bit to do that and be a principal mining engineer but I am happy balancing the two roles. Sommerville said one of her aims with the AusIMM, where she is one of two women directors (the two youngest board members), was to try to improve membership numbers in the 20-35 year age bracket. “Students are really very active in AusIMM because they get a lot of benefits and the AusIMM is a direct link to the industry for them,” she said. “After graduation, most students transition to more remote lifestyles on mine sites and find it difficult to maintain the same level of commitment and activity with the institute. I am working with AusIMM to explore innovative communication technologies like podcasts, for example, to reach our more remote members through electronic media,” she said.

“When I was manager of a mine planning network at BHP Billiton we had to work with people in three different continents across three different time zones. These communication technologies can really assist to bridge the gap.”

Sommerville, who began her mining career in 1993 at Broken Hill in New South Wales after completing a Bachelor of Geological Engineering at RMIT in Melbourne, Victoria, has worked all over Australia for Byrnecut Mining, WMC Resources, Pasminco and now BHP Billiton, which she joined in 2001. She has also managed to complete a post graduate diploma in mining and an MBA. In her current role as principal mining engineer resource planning iron ore, Sommerville looks after a mining hub including a number of mines, mainly around Newman, and the strategic direction and planning of those assets.

“It’s boom time, so we are always expanding and there are always different ways of looking at things, she said. “The environment is always changing a lot so keeping the information flowing through to people who need to make the decisions is always a challenge. In our team in iron ore we mentor each other; there are experienced engineers and a few younger ones as well so there are a few of us who take a leadership role, bring them up to speed and encourage them and that’s working well for us.” Sommerville said there were definitely more women coming in at the graduate level, but still not enough in the senior roles.

“It is a combination of things: women tend to have low self confidence and there is a long history [of male dominance] in the mining industry. The culture change is about breaking down the image of what a manager looks like, giving equal opportunity to everyone, and breaking down barriers to women participating fully and flexibly. We [women] are in a good place because we have a shortage of people and the industry is keen to have anyone, so everyone is getting a shot, so there are lots of opportunities. But, saying that, they have to change because they need more people.”

Sommerville remembers back to her first job at Broken Hill where 10 years prior women had to leave their job once they got married. “I have definitely seen things change for the better, and as you get more women into the industry the culture will change anyway,” she said.

“Becoming an engineer was in my make-up”, says Sommerville, who discovered in high school that she was good at chemistry. “I did a project in Year 12 called Minerals to Metals. It was something I found I was good at. I received a scholarship in metallurgy but in the end it was mining that clicked with me.”

Although no-one in her family had a mining career, Sommerville has since enticed her dad to take a job in the industry.

“When I was at uni, I had a cadetship through the Board of Works in Melbourne, and through that I was doing a fair bit of work on dams and tunnelling etc and one day they were blasting a shaft and they asked me if I wanted to press the explosive button. Since that day, I have never looked back,” she said. “Really, I just wanted to get out of Melbourne, I wanted to have an adventure and get out and see Australia and the world and so mining was always good for that. I also wanted to do something that was useful for society, and for me mining does something really great. At school our motto was – Usefulness in Service, so perhaps the school was part of my decision to choose mining as a career, but I think wanting to be an engineer is an innate thing: you want to build something and do something useful.”

Sommerville does not name any one particular mentor who has helped her career advance, but says she has numerous industry colleagues whose opinions she seeks. “There have been a few managers who have said some interesting things to me, but I guess the people I respect are the ones I seek out for career directions and advice,” she said.

“On the board of the AusIMM there are a lot of senior directors so they are always asking after me and taking an interest in my career so it’s always good to be able to bounce ideas off those guys as well.

I guess for now, the first 13 years of my career I spent underground and then I did a corporate role for a few years, so moving into open cut was a different thing for me. In the future I will either take a more strategic role in iron ore or I might look to do more full-time directorships.”

A busy career does not leave Sommerville with too much extra time on her hands. However, she says on her days off she enjoys slow cooking and drinking wine with her geologist husband. A keen sportsperson, she is currently training for Perth’s City to Surf event (Sommerville will contest the 21.1km half marathon) held at the end of the month. “I am into my running so I do a few marathons; my injection is every Saturday morning I go up to the Perth Hills and have a run in the bush and that really grounds me.”

This article was reproduced from HighGrade www.highgrade.net