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The Canberra Times
The Canberra Times
Hannah Neale

'We need to get more girls and women into science': First female Chief Defence Scientist honoured

Chief Defence Scientist Professor Tanya Monro is being honoured in the Queen's Birthday honours for her service to science and technological innovation. Picture: James Croucher

More than 100 years of history line the walls of Professor Tanya Monro's office. Portraits of every Chief Defence Scientist Australia has ever had are crammed into the room.

Professor Monro's portrait stands out - she is the only woman.

Australia's first female Chief Defence Scientist is determined she won't be the only one.

"It's really important that we have women in senior roles visible as role models to girls and women making choices about what they want to do," Professor Monro said.

"I want to create an environment where people can contribute, no matter what diversity characteristic they bring. It's not just gender, it can be neurological diversity, it can be cultural diversity, and even age diversity. And until we're at a point where only your will and capacity to contribute determines whether you come and whether you stay, we've got some way to go.

"I hope people who want to make a difference, want to change the world, realise they can do that through science, particularly girls and women, because we need to get more girls and women into science."

Professor Monro has been appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia for her service to science and technological innovation.

With 2022 marking 115 years since the establishment of Defence Science Technology Group, Professor Monro reflected on the history of the department she now leads.

"The people in the organisation have been the ones that have come up with crazy, creative solutions that have kept our men and women safe, and protected our interests," she said.

"We have, in our defence forces, really committed, smart men and women who are facing challenging environments now as they operate. But more importantly, because of the changes in technology happening at such a fast pace across the world, we know that in 5-10 years they're going to need to be prepared differently.

"My role in defence is in leading our nation's innovation, science and technology, and making sure that protects Australia's national interests."

The professor and her team are working towards a variety of projects, from the development of large autonomous underwater vehicles to artificial intelligence and technology to keep Australia on the front foot.

In her early teens Professor Monro wanted to be a cellist, and while her passion for music remains, her high school physics teacher sparked a lifelong love of science.

She was the first female professor of physics at the University of Adelaide and has dedicated much of her career to the study of photonics.

"What drives me is creating knowledge and having that applied to important problems," she said.

"So much of that is a team sport and creating really high performing teams and creating an environment, a culture, where people can thrive.

"A defence scientist is quite distinct from the broader conception of a scientist. In defence, one thing that makes us really different is that we're responding to a need, to a requirement. So defence scientists have a really, really important and interesting role.

"Our missions come from strategy, our missions come from the needs of the nation and I think what that gives us is a really strong sense of purpose."

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