Engineering and pharmacology university student Monika Burford has recently discovered the many opportunities for graduates in the dairy industry.
Combined with a love for an outdoor lifestyle, Monika realised during a summer internship at Fonterra, Darnum in West Gippsland, she was well suited for a professional career in a sector she had not previously considered.
Monika, 23, was among a team of four students hosted by Fonterra as part of the 12-week Monash Industry Team Initiative (MITI), sponsored by Gardiner Dairy Foundation.
The team stayed on a Mirboo farm while working between December and February on a specific project at Fonterra, Darnum, which produces milk powder and nutritional products such as infant formula.
"To ensure the quality of the product, processing equipment must be clean and dry," Monika said.
"Our team investigated potential improvements to the clean-in-place (CIP) system and operations, which were intended to prevent introduction and growth of contaminants."
Monika said their investigation and report to Fonterra on feasible improvements which could be added to the plant's existing preventative maintenance strategy was a chance to put theory into practice.
"It was great to finally be able to put what we learn at university into practice, and see its relevance within the dairy industry," Monika said.
"We spent the first few weeks getting to know how the plant operates and everyone's positions, then after Christmas we refined the scope of the project and started getting quotes from contractors for potential upgrades to the system."
At the end of summer, the MITI team presented its report to Fonterra executives at the corporate office in Richmond.
The students' recommendations focused on three main components of the system: the CIP spray nozzles, isolation valves and drainage lines.
They also introduced nozzle labelling systems to enable preventative maintenance and updated standard operating procedures (SOPs).
"We presented our solutions in the form of phased upgrades, which considered the effectiveness and cost of each aspect," Monika said.
"It was great to hear later that Fonterra is putting our recommendations into place.
"It showed they weren't just being encouraging or humoring us (as uni students), they genuinely valued what we did."
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Now in the final year of her double degree, Monika is focused on the remainder of her course work before choosing a work sector beyond graduation but the MITI internship has put the dairy industry on her radar.
"I didn't have much knowledge of the production process before, aside from understanding the individual components and equipment that make up these processes," Monika said.
"You learn about specifics in your studies, but at Fonterra I learnt about the production process in a holistic way."
Monika said another highlight of the industry placement was experiencing the industry's end-to-end culture of "inclusive, positive, supportive, constructive work environments and relationships".
"I like that it's a tight-knit industry all the way from the dairy farm to guaranteeing product quality for the consumer," she said.
"Professionally, the experience really opened my eyes to the diverse opportunities for my qualifications in the industry, for example product quality; and process control, design and safety."
During the placement Monika and her colleagues lived in a relaxed rural environment on the Mirboo farm, and were able to explore west Gippsland's natural attractions.
"I enjoyed jogging in the forests and reserves, and we also visited beautiful waterfalls," she said.
"It was a nice opportunity to stay on the farm and enjoy the area's nature.
"I've always liked the outdoors, so I really enjoyed the fresh air and space."
Monika said conversations with older friends had highlighted she was part of a generation of females more confident to pursue studies in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and she is glad this was a natural progression for her.
As the daughter of a science teacher, she was drawn to STEM in her outdoorsy childhood, but admits sometimes feeling intimated by more vocal males in secondary school physics classes.
"I guess that made me sometimes feel out of my depth, but I learnt not to be intimidated by challenges. I encourage teenagers to focus on their own achievements in class," she said.
As she knuckles down for the fifth year of her Engineering and Pharmaceutical Science degree, Monika is grateful for lessons and opportunities which have helped shape her future.
"The MITI program, with the support of Gardiner and Fonterra has given us invaluable insight into the dairy industry, kick-starting our careers and expanding our horizons," she said.
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