Flexibility & passion key to managing big careers and small kids: Professor Tanya Monro

Professor Tanya Monro has managed remote teams while caring for small kids at home, the now Chief Defence Scientist says flexibility & passion are key

"Re-prioritize on the fly and only worry about what you can control."

A little over a year ago, laser physicist Professor Tanya Monro became the first female Chief Defence Scientist for Australia.

The appointment followed an incredibly successful career. She obtained a PhD at the age of just 26, already had numerous patents to her name, had written hundreds of scientific papers and won numerous awards in physics. She was and still is world-renowned for her work in photonics.

So when she offered some career advice during her address at the National Press Club on Wednesday, we had to share it. Especially when that advice included how she’s worked flexibly, part time and remotely — all while managing massive responsibilities and an unstoppable passion for science.

Monro covered a huge range of topics during her speech and spoke of how science brings people together and harnesses ideas to solve society’s greatest challenges.

She said STEM skills are the skills we most need to encourage in the next generation.

“If we have a future where our decision-makers and our leaders of industry have been trained in STEM skills, we will be able to make better decisions,” she said.

And she shared that challenges facing the university sector are currently keeping her up at night, especially shortfalls in funding for research.

On COVID-19, she said her scientists and experts have been contributing to the whole of government effort on modeling the pandemic. She believes we will inevitably see a second of third wave outbreak due to the difficult decisions that need to be made on easing restrictions, but added that one of the best response techniques will be a “pulse” one — the taps turn on, and then they turn off where needed.

“The challenge for us is to understand that might happen and that doesn’t mean disaster or that we’ve failed,” she said. “That comes back to why we need to have more people with an understanding of data and evidence.”

She also spoke about the value of shared goals and collaboration.

“What I’ve learnt throughout my whole career is that if you know the problem you’re trying to solve, everyone can be energised.”

Professor Monro originally had aspirations to be a musician as a child — and she still speaks about the value of music and says her three children are avid musicians — but a physics teacher opened her eyes up to the options in science.

“Suddenly I could see my love of creating, composing, building things, was something I could do through science.

“I could see that maths was the language of the universe and that physics was the way of asking questions about that universe, and creativity was alive in science.”

Press Club moderator and ABC presented Sabra Lane pulled from a quote Professor Monro shared in Cosmos a number of years back to help explain to the audience the juggle the now Chief Defence Scientist has managed at home.

“If I can manage a team of 30 people remotely, dealing with multiple industry requests and grants and post-docs and students, have a two-year-old at home, be expressing milk for two premature twins and dealing with acute reflux (throwing up half of what they ate for 11 months), and the sleep deprivation, and the fact you get one twin to sleep the other one wakes up, that you’ve then got 20 emails to answer, and the minister wants to speak to you. If you can do that, you can do anything.”

Asked what her best advice would be to bosses who are trying to support women juggling big careers with small kids, Professor Monro said they should recognise what women can do and be flexible around how they do it.

She added that the current COVID-19 working arrangements are pushing us as a society to recognise the importance of delivery and outcomes over being physically present.

And she shared her experiences working four days a week after returning from maternity leave, when a manager agreed to call it “full time.”

“It wasn’t really about money it was about recognition, the recognition that you can deliver in a flexible way. Having that recognised gave me so much energy and made me want to give back.

“It’s about flexibility,” she said, when pressed for more advice. “It’s about recognizing the delivery, regardless of how it’s delivered, and also it’s about as an individual not being too hard on yourself. Re-prioritize on the fly and only worry about what you can control.”

Asked about her best advice to her twenty year old self, Professor Munro said she’d remind herself that passion for the subject will support your confidence, and also that it’s ok to be vulnerable and ask questions.

“[I would tell her to] not let the idea that science is hard, to put you off,” she said.

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