Musician reaches the high notes with energy and chemical operations study

26 May 2021

High up on a ladder checking machinery in a North Island agricultural manufacturing plant, you might not expect to find a high achieving musician who trained for a decade with the world’s best at a famous European music academy.

At Ballance Agri-Nutrients’ Kapuni plant in Taranaki, that’s where you will find Mylie Thwaites, a plant operator on Kapuni’s ’C’ Shift.

After 10 years studying piano and piano accordion at the prestigious Ukrainian National Tchaikovsky Academy of Music, Mylie returned home to Taranaki to take a laboratory role at Ballance. The role lead her to the job she now loves, and to studying Energy and Chemical Operations with the Primary ITO.

While Mylie says the connection between the two roles of music and engineering in her life might not seem obvious, there are strong similarities with the skill sets required. “They both require detail-orientated work and trying hard to get things right.”

“Being a musician requires attention to detail and persistence. I am quite a detail-orientated person and I like to know how things work. I don’t like to wing it.”

Persistence transfers to new direction

That persistence was ever present when a 20-year-old Mylie arrived in Russian-speaking classical music centre Kiev, to study music but unable to speak or read the language. After six months of language lessons, life became easier.

She studied two music degrees under the famous Professor Vladimir Besfamilinov, often practising music for six hours a day. “It was hard in the beginning but by the end I didn’t want to leave.”

Mylie moved home to Taranaki at the age of 30, and with few music opportunities presenting took her first job in the lab at Ballance Kapuni, a plant which uses natural gas to produce the nitrogen fertiliser urea. When some operator roles came up, she decided to apply.

Mylie says the skill set of operator role fitted with her interest in science. Mylie had studied chemistry at Victoria University - Te Herenga Waka - for two years before leaving New Zealand for Kiev.

Job brings study opportunity

Once in her new role Mylie enrolled in the Primary ITO New Zealand Certificate in Energy and Chemical Process Operations programme and has since achieved her Level 3 qualification.

Mylie says the study upskilled her in a range of areas, including assisting with problem solving and health and safety practices and complimented her on-the-job training at Ballance. “It gave me that extra bit of detail and knowledge I might otherwise miss.”

She is most thankful to her tutor John Ormand for the dedicated support to help her achieve her unit standards. “The support was incredible. If you want to learn he is there and provides any resources you need. It really encourages you to do more. I hope he never retires!”.

As well as the science and detail side of her role, Mylie loves the physical challenge it brings, climbing about the plant to check meters and valves. “I’ve always been quite sporty so I really enjoy that. You don’t need to sign up for a gym membership with this job.”

Mylie says she’s keen to continue her study. “Hopefully I will do more of the higher levels in operations and there are some pretty cool steam and control room qualifications.”

“With the support of the Primary ITO and my employer there is no limit to what you can study.”

Keeping music in her life

While Aotearoa does not present the same opportunities of European cities, where classical music is a big part of the culture, Mylie finds ways to keep in touch with her other passion.

In 2020 just before Covid-19 struck, she attended and performed at a concert in Innsbruck, taking her partner to Austria.

Music remains an interest but for now Mylie is enjoying continuing to develop her process operations career in New Zealand, and the opportunities that on-the-job study are giving her to progress.

Mylie says she is also excited for the future at the Kapuni plant, where a joint-venture project to produce ‘green’ hydrogen to fuel heavy transport using renewable energy is underway.

Learn more about our Energy and Chemical Operations here.