STEM superstar on the juggle, the struggle and the joy

By Jess Melbourne-Thomas
Thursday, 06 September, 2018

STEM superstar on the juggle, the struggle and the joy

Marine ecologist and ecosystem modeller Dr Jess Melbourne-Thomas is one of two Tasmanians who were named as Science and Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM* in 2017/18. Here she reflects on her passion for marine science and recommends people to apply to the Superstars of STEM program.

I’m a Research Scientist with the Australian Antarctic Division and a Project Leader with the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre. My online profile says I’m a dreadlocked maths nerd… but I recently cut off 14 years’ worth of dreads and now my brain can work faster without all that weight.

I’ve been fortunate to work in a variety of cool and exciting places in my career so far but Antarctica is by far the coolest place I’ve worked (both literally and figuratively).

My passion for marine science developed in childhood — exploring rock pools on the Tasmanian coastline and learning to scuba dive in incredible temperate kelp forests. I cut my teeth on coral reef research, working in Indonesia, the Philippines and Mexico, and during my PhD I developed mathematical models to support coral reef management. Then finally in 2011, I found a pathway into Antarctic ecosystems research, which had been a long-term career goal. I’m incredibly lucky to be leading an amazing team at the Antarctic Division and the ACE CRC, and to be able to work at the interface of science and policy.

My research with the Australian Antarctic Division focuses on developing mathematical models of marine ecosystems that can be used as virtual laboratories to test ideas on how marine ecosystems work and how they are responding to change. These models can be used to get a handle on the current state of Southern Ocean ecosystems and also consider what these systems might look like in the future. This work is important because it is the only way that we can design and test how different management approaches are likely to fare in the face of climate-induced change (like a flight simulator for ecosystems). This gives us our best chance of safeguarding the important ‘ecosystem services’ — like seafood and carbon uptake — that the Southern Ocean supports.

I applied for the Superstars of STEM program because, I think, marine research is so important to Australia and to the world, and, I believe, we need much greater diversity in environmental science leadership.

My superstars of STEM experience has been fantastic but challenging. It has been fantastic because of the amazing network of ‘superstars’ that support and promote each other; wonderful media opportunities and increased visibility; and the incredible team that has envisaged, created, adapted and executed the program. My experience has been challenging because I was juggling maternity leave (with a new baby and a 2-year-old) for half of the program, and it was hard work staying engaged with the various components. I think it’s fundamentally important that we support people with caring responsibilities to be able to stay engaged and visible in science. Ultimately, this depends on having a system which supports flexible working arrangements.

In my field, I’m often one of the few women in teams, on projects or in meetings. I am the youngest and the only female project leader with the ACE CRC. All of this is now changing. We are seeing a wave of initiatives to build diversity in science leadership, to support women in STEM and to encourage girls to pursue careers in science and maths. The superstars of STEM program is a critical part of this — I highly recommend it and encourage others to apply.

*Science & Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM program provides a diverse group of passionate and articulate women in all areas of STEM — and at all career stages — with opportunities to become visible public role models and help change the public stereotype of scientists. STA is now seeking 60 additional Superstars of STEM to participate in the program over two years. Applications close at midnight on 23 September 2018. Successful candidates will be named in December and will commence as Superstars of STEM in January 2019.

Image caption: Dr Jess Melbourne-Thomas with an Adélie penguin, Aurora Australis in background. © Peter Kimball/Australian Antarctic Division.

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