Safe house

Why the future of Australia’s defence is in safe hands.

Tanya Monro

Australia’s first female Chief Defence Scientist Professor Tanya Monro, is a brilliant physicist in her own right.

But it’s her track record of “creating research cultures that are vibrant and outward facing” that is truly impressive.

As the inaugural Director of both the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing, and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics at the University of Adelaide, Tanya is proud of going “from nothing, from scratch, to have what is a world renowned institute of more than 200 people.”

“I worked very hard to build that team where I could create a culture that was positive, outward facing and nurturing. I worked to build alliances and a shared vision that became the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing,” she said.

“While I can give you scientific highlights – and you can’t stop me once I get started – the thing I am most proud of is just how the teams and leaders within those teams are flourishing.”

Up until her appointment as Chief Defence Scientist at Defence, Science and Technology (DST) earlier this year, Tanya was Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation at the University of South Australia.

Tanya was also the University of Adelaide’s first female physics professor and has a trail of accolades to her name including the Prime Minister's Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, South Australian Scientist of the Year and the Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research, to name a few.

As the first female Chief Defence Scientist, Tanya is a strong supporter of programs and research to improve gender equality in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the higher education and research sectors, including the Science in Australia Gender Equity Initiative.

“At the moment it's clear there's a very leaky pipeline for women, both in STEM and in senior roles in academia.

“We still don't have enough girls or boys doing high-level maths, but it's still starkly more male than female,” she said.

Tanya says that if you look at the data, it’s personality attributes, personal choices and the environment that women find themselves in that causes them to ‘opt out’.

“Essentially what happens in the Australian university context, particularly in STEM, is that women who stay to become professors, and then go into senior roles, are disproportionally those who are resilient, stubborn and tenacious.

“We need to use data and evidence to really hold ourselves accountable to what we do, to make sure that the ability to contribute and talent are what dictates whether people are in senior roles,” she said.

“I think we’re making progress, but ultimately 'you can’t be what you can’t see' is a very powerful statement.”

Producing science around impact and creating new knowledge that can be translated to solutions, Tanya says, is a real “hallmark of her career.”

“What I’ve put forward is the view that if you put in the effort to deeply understand problems other people face, whether that be in policy, in government, whatever the problem area, the questions you ask in your research become fundamentally different,” she said.

“So it's not just a matter of saying, ‘leave me in my tower and I’ll do worthy things and others can figure out how to apply them’, it's about saying, ‘let's have the questions, that curiosity and creativity, but shaped by a deep understanding of what's needed’.”

While DST has the pre-eminent role of developing scientific and technology research solutions to safeguard Australia’s interests, Tanya says her vision going forward is that “it will only do this in partnership.”

“For me, it’s a case of being able to reach out across Australia, reach out to our universities, to our industries, and try to co-create the thought leadership, and the clarity of direction required to make sure Australia has what it needs to be strong.”

The University of Adelaide is a long-term partner of DST, with collaborations ranging from human aspects of cyber security to advanced defence communications.

Tanya Monro
“What excites me about physics, or about science in general, is that it's about pushing forward the boundary of knowledge, being an explorer in a way you could say.” Tanya Monro

For Tanya, before there was science there was, and still is, music.

Her husband and all three of their children are ‘musicians on the side’, and as a family they enjoy attending concerts regularly and play an impressive number of instruments including piano, cello, viola, trumpet, oboe, cor anglais and harp. Tanya also sings.

“In fact, if it hadn’t been for music, I wouldn’t be a physicist,” Tanya said.

“I started learning the piano at age four and  a half and started playing cello at age six.

“I just loved music and found it really absorbing. There's nothing else you can think about when you're trying to master and climb the mountain of something challenging and really push yourself.”

As a child,Tanya won a music scholarship to a top private school in Sydney. After arriving at the school, any ambitions to become a professional musician changed quickly when she discovered a new way to be creative, thanks to an amazing physics teacher.

“I went from thinking I wanted to be a cellist in the symphony orchestra to realising that actually science was a deeply creative endeavour,” said Tanya.

“What excites me about physics, or about science in general, is that it's about pushing forward the boundary of knowledge, being an explorer in a way you could say.

“But you can also do that in a way that solves really significant problems and creates new solutions – for me, it’s an intoxicating mix of creation and solution.”

Story by Kelly Brown
Photos by Meaghan Coles

Tagged in lumen, lumen Summer 2019