From CSIROscope: Women In STEM-“Seafaring superstars: Six women shining on our national science ship”

CSIRO bloc

From CSIROscope

8 March 2019
Kate Cranney

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Toni Moate lead the construction of the massive research vessel, Investigator. Image: Chris McKay

This International Women’s Day, we’d like you to meet the talented women on board our research vessel Investigator.

Investigator travels from the tropical north to the Antarctic ice-edge, delivering up to 300 research days a year. And on each voyage you’ll find female scientists, ship’s crew and support staff answering big questions, whether they’re studying ancient microbes or they’re ensuring the health and well-being of the people on board.

The six women you’ll meet include an oceanographer, a doctor, a marine geophysicist, a voyage manager, a captain and—last boat not least!—a leader who oversaw the construction of the ship itself. Some of these women knew, when they were young, that science floated their boat. Others took a more sea-nic route. But one thing’s for shore: they’re all smart, adventurous, competent, courageous and hard-working.

So steady your sea legs, you bunch of landlubbers, and let’s meet the women on board!

Martina Doblin studies the first organisms on the planet
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Martina Doblin studies microscopic organisms called microbes – the first organisms on the planet. Image: Doug Thost

“When I was studying in Hobart I had the opportunity to volunteer on a voyage to Antarctica. I was really moved to see this pristine part of the planet. It changed me. I came back and the world looked different. I knew I’d chosen the right career path.”

Martina is a biological oceanographer. She looks at microscopic organisms called microbes—the first organisms on the planet. As she points out, “If there were no microbes on the planet there’d be no people!” It’s important science, especially in the face of a changing climate: Martina seeks to understand what climate change and a warmer ocean will mean for these microbes.

Martina has been on Investigator several times, including as the ship’s Chief Scientist. For Martina, “the Chief Scientist helps to make sure the scientists leave the ship with the data that they need to solve the big questions.”

But it’s not just about her science. “I’ve been able to train several female biological oceanographers, which has been really satisfying, partly because it’s still a pretty male-dominated profession,” she says. “For young female scientists, it’s a very empowering thing to be able to do experiments on a big ship, to work at sea and use the equipment. It can be life changing”. Learn more about tiny organisms and big voyages!

Fun fact: Martina’s identical twin also works in environmental science—she’s a plant biologist!

Sheri Newman is the Ship’s Doctor, dentist, physiotherapist, counsellor…
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Dr Sheri Newman was a ship doctor during a voyage to Antarctica, aboard RV Investigator.

“As the Ship’s Doctor, I have to be the doctor, the dentist, the physiotherapist, the mental health counsellor and of course all the science roles. It’s a huge responsibility and one that I cherish.”

When Sheri Newman was young, she knew she wanted to be a doctor and a surgeon. Jump ahead to 2016, and Sheri is a doctor and a surgeon. In Australia, women accounted for 50 per cent of all medical graduates, but women make up just 12 per cent of all surgeons—the smallest proportion of any medical speciality.

But Sheri was resolute. “Going through the training is particularly intense, brutal even! The hours you have to put in, the mental and physical fatigue, can be quite a difficult and challenging career.” Mid-way through her training, Sheri decided that she “hadn’t had enough adventure” in her life at that point, so she took a year off and went to Antarctica as medical officer. “The experience was incredible.”

The Antarctic experience got under skin. After her time on Investigator, she decided to become a wilderness doctor. She’s since been the Ship’s Doctor on many vessels in remote and exciting locations: she’s been to more than 17 countries, as a doctor, medical student and intrepid traveller.

“[Through my work] I get the opportunity to work in a place that’s so isolated and so untouched … And my role is so varied: I get to be around the science crew, to be involved in what they do. And there are fabulous vistas … and whales! It’s truly special.”

Tara Martin maps the deep, dark, mysterious seafloor
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Tara Martin’s work links her back to the explorers: she maps the deep dark seafloor, as a marine geophysicist aboard RV Investigator.

“I get immense satisfaction in my job. It’s not a normal job—I like that.”

Tara is a marine geophysicist. She maps the deep ravines, plateaus and peaks of our uncharted seafloor, up to 11 000m below the ocean’s surface.

“We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the sea floor … Australia has the third largest ocean zone in the word, and we’ve only mapped 25 per cent of it,” she explains. Each time Investigator goes to sea, Tara’s team maps more of this underwater world. Recently, Tara’s team revealed a diverse chain of volcanic seamounts located in deep water about 400km east of Tasmania. “Our job links us back to the explorers,” she remarks.

But Tara wasn’t always so keen on science. “It wasn’t until I was much older that I looked at changes of career [and studied marine geophysics]. I didn’t know what physics was before then … so I worked hard at university. I worked really, really hard!”

When she started working, life at sea wasn’t as female-friendly as it is now. “Over my 20 year career, I’ve certainly experienced moments where I’ve not been allowed to do work that my male colleagues were doing out on the back-deck, because I’m a woman. Things have changed.”

Working at sea isn’t for everyone: Tara talks of long shifts, seven days a week. But then, she says, she’ll get to work with cutting edge science, or someone will make an exciting new discovery. For Tara, “Those are the moments you go to sea for!”

Tegan Sime keeps the voyage science on course
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Tegan Sime is a Voyage Manager aboard RV Investigator. She keeps the crew and scientists singing from the same sea-shanty songbook.

“I’ve never really followed the same path as everybody else. Being a late bloomer isn’t necessarily a bad thing … I’ve just taken my time to really figure out what I want to do. And I’m there now. I’ve got a great job, a great career, and I love it.”

When Tegan finished Year 12, she didn’t know what she wanted to do, so she volunteered at a sailing school. She loved the adrenaline and excitement of sailing, so volunteered on Young Endeavour. It was her first taste of tall ship sailing. “Being out on the middle of the ocean, in the quiet, on a creaky ship that was designed hundreds of years ago—there’s a romance to it. And it was so much fun! I just loved it.”

At 23, Tegan was eager to study marine biology at university, but she hadn’t done so well the first time around at school. Determined, she did Year 12 again, got her high school certificate, started university, and did her honours aboard our former research vessel, Southern Surveyor.

Years on, Tegan is a Voyage Manager on Investigator. She is the key liaison between the crew of the ship and the scientists—she brings their work together. She also plays a key role in the mood of the people aboard the ship: “I guess I’m a bit of an amateur counsellor and I try to help people get through the tougher times when we’re out there.”

There’s no typical day at sea. She tells a story about her recent birthday. “We were down near the ice-edge in the Antarctic. I woke up at 3am, it was pitch black, but when I peeked through my curtains I could see the Aurora lighting up the sky! I raced up the bridge and there were a couple of people taking photos and footage, and they all started singing happy birthday to me under the Aurora. It was a really special experience.”

Madeleine Habib is the captain of our ship (aye, aye!)
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Madeleine Habib is a Ship’s Captain. She is part of a very small group of women seafarers in Australia: less than 1% of the workforce.

“I am drawn to working on ships that have a purpose—I want my work to have purpose. Being a captain…it’s not always easy. There are times when you are literally making decisions that affect the survival of the people on board the vessel.”

Madeleine is a Ship’s Captain. She began her seafaring career at 22: “I was enchanted—suddenly I’d found this mix between a physical and mental challenge and I felt really confident that that’s what I wanted to pursue.” But she had to break down some entrenched gender biases. “Everybody just assumed I was a cook, and I really resented that—just because I was a young woman on a boat, that shouldn’t be the only role open to me. So when I returned to Australia, I went for my first Captain’s licence. I wanted to be taken seriously in the maritime industry.”

Women currently represent less than 1 per cent of the total number of seafarers in Australia. Madeleine is part of this pioneering group. “To young women I’d like to say that a life at sea is a viable career. It’s so important to believe in your own potential, and only be limited by your own imagination.”

Toni Moate oversaw the building of our world-class research vessel Investigator
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Toni Moate stands proud in front of Investigator. She oversaw the creation of this $120 million state-of-the-art research vessel.

“Like many women, when I was first offered the opportunity to lead the project, I didn’t think I had the skill set. Now, when I see the Investigator, I feel incredible pride.”

Not many people can say they were responsible for building Australia’s biggest state-of-the-art research vessel.

In 2009, Toni was chosen to lead the build of Investigator. She spent the next five years propelling the creation of the $120 million ship. It took 3 million (wo)man hours, and some tense discussions in a male-dominated industry to build the ship. Toni is so familiar with Investigator that it “feels like I’m walking around my house!”

Toni left school at 15, at the end of Year 10. At that stage, she’d never left Tasmania. She went into the public service, and hoped to be a secretary one day.

Through her leadership role with the ship-build project, she’s shown her young daughters “that women can do a lot more than they think they can do.” As Toni says, “My daughters took away a lot of life lessons—I think they learned that hard work pays off; that you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone. They feel as proud of that ship as I do.”

And we couldn’t be prouder of Toni. In 2017, she was awarded the Tasmanian Telstra Business Woman of the Year. She is now our Director, National Collections & Marine Infrastructure. Her ambit includes RV Investigator, so she can still step on board and walk around her second home!

Women and science—why do we need to rock the boat?

If we’re going to build a healthy, prosperous Australia, we need all of the talented women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) to be part of the team.

But women in STEMM face a number of barriers in their careers, some obvious, some covert. In STEMM fields, only 18 per cent of leadership positions are held by women. Since the 1980s, more than half of all students graduating with a Bachelor of Science or a life science PhD are women, but women make up less than 20 per cent of lead researchers at senior levels in universities and research institutes.

So what are we doing to get more women on board … and on boards?

So what are we doing to address gender equity?

We’re part of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot and the Male Champions of Change (MCC) initiative.

We were one of the first cohort members of Australia’s SAGE Athena Swan pilot program, and were recently awarded an Institutional Bronze Award. And we’re continuing to roll out our SAGE Action Plan, designed to drive systemic, long-term change towards gender equity within our organisation. You can read it here.

And it’s not just an internal mission. We’re also addressing gender inequality in the research and projects that we deliver in developing nations.
Happy International Women’s Day, everyone!

See the full article here .


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CSIRO campus

CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.