Rachel Lee had never set foot on a dairy farm, nor knew anything about the industry, when she started her six-year double degree in pharmaceutical science and chemical engineering at Monash University.

“I actually wanted to go into make-up and cosmetics, but as I progressed through my degree, I realised that maybe that wasn’t where I wanted to go,” she said.

With one semester of her studies remaining, Rachel has her sights on the dairy industry thanks to two internships through the Monash Industry Team Initiative (MITI) Dairy Program, sponsored by Gardiner Dairy Foundation.

The university-industry collaboration places multi-disciplinary student teams in a dairy manufacturing business to develop a solution to a real-world business challenge, over an intensive 12-week period. It is an opportunity for students to experience living and working in regional Victoria.

“In 2018 I applied for MITI and worked at Warrnambool Cheese and Butter for a project around engineering and a water tracking project,” Rachel said.

“I had such a great experience I decided to apply again for the 2019-20 summer period at Lactalis, where we looked at optimising milk movements between farm and manufacturing plant.

“When I completed my internship at Lactalis, I was offered a casual job.”

At Warrnambool, Rachel and her three peers (mechanical engineering, pharmaceutical science and chemical engineering, and international business students) created an automatically generated water drainage report for one of the site’s seven plants. The report is accessed online by key stakeholders, such as operators, engineers and general managers.

“If there are large amounts of water that shouldn’t be going down the drain, they can see exactly why extra water is being sent to drain,” Rachel said. “It was really great to produce something that was useful and that they could implement and carry on after we had left.”

Rachel said she was drawn to the Warrnambool Cheese and Butter project because it seemed “really relevant” to her degree.

“I had never worked in a manufacturing plant before and it seemed like a really great opportunity. I learnt just how many different kinds of people it takes to run a plant like that, and how they have to work together to make sure the operation runs smoothly.”

After the engineering focus, Rachel was keen to “see the dairy industry from another perspective” and applied for a second MITI internship, a logistics and analysis project with Lactalis Australia.

This time Rachel researched the effectiveness of the Excel model Lactalis was using, with another pharmaceutical science and chemical engineering student and two IT students.

“We contacted third-party solution providers who deal with supply chain modelling because we found the Excel model Lactalis had built was not powerful enough for what they were wanting to move on with in the future,” Rachel said.

By the end of the students’ internship, Lactalis was in the process of organising the implementation of software from its preferred provider.

Lactalis Australia National Inbound Logistics Manager, Andrew Sutton also offered Rachel one-day-a-week employment, which she fits around her university studies.

Despite COVID-19 resulting in this work occurring remotely instead of at the company’s Scoresby office, Andrew continues to be impressed by Rachel’s skillset and value-adding to the organisation. Her current project is transforming a number of Excel models and reports into more user-friendly formats.

“Rachel picks things up very quickly. I’ll give her a project and she knows automatically what the second and third stage is going to be,” Andrew said. “She goes away and does what I’ve asked, then comes back and says, ‘This is what I expected you’d want me to do next, so I’ve already done it.’”

Andrew commended the “dual benefits” of the MITI program. “Essentially, we treat the students as part of the team for that period of time,” he said. “We take them to farms and the farmers really like showing them what they have done. When farmers see exceptionally talented young people interested in what they are doing, they get interested and spend the time with them.

“At the very least, it opens the students’ to a potential vocation in the dairy industry.”

Andrew said Lactalis, which has been involved with three MITI projects since 2017, looked forward to continued participation in the program.

“We are trying to be good ambassadors for the dairy industry. At the same time the students produce some really good work for us,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rachel is glad she has discovered the industry’s career opportunities.

“Being able to do MITI has made me see there is definitely space for me within the dairy industry,” she said. “I love interacting with the wide range of people that contribute to the dairy industry; dairy is such a big part of Australia and the economy.”