Dr Gwen Fenton - Chief Scientist

Dr Gwen Fenton

Video transcript

Our understanding has grown to the point that actually know we must study Antarctica to understand the global climate system. It has been described as an air conditioner of the planet, and that’s probably a good way to think of it. It does drive a lot of the world’s climate, and is particularly important to Australia’s climate itself.

I studied marine biology at university and then 11 years of post-doctoral research. I went off to State Government and worked in a fisheries organisation for a while. And then saw a job at the Antarctic Division, I thought I’d give that a crack, and was lucky enough to get it.

It’s a fantastic opportunity to represent the really amazing science that’s done within the program. We cover a wide spectrum of things; so the climate science we do, in terms of understanding the ice sheet, how fast its melting, warming ocean, and studying the atmosphere and the sea ice and all of the factors that are playing into the way the climate system works.

We do science that really matters, around how to better protect the environment or how to protect species. Having effective and sustainable fisheries. But also understanding the gaps in scientific knowledge from things like the International Panel on Climate Change, on other areas of science that we know where the questions are that we really should be addressing.

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Dr Gwen Fenton: BSc (Hons), PhD

Research background

Between 2003 and my appointment as Chief Scientist in August 2015, I led the Australian Antarctic Division team that runs the science planning and coordination for all projects within the Australian Antarctic Science Program.

This work included helping to develop the Science Strategic Plan around which our scientific work is based, and season planning – working out which scientists are going to travel where, and when, and the logistics that are needed to make their projects work. This complex task was achieved with a wonderful team of science, operational and policy colleagues from across the Antarctic Division.

Prior to this I spent seven years with the Tasmanian Government, managing the state’s marine environmental policy issues within the Marine Resources Division of the Department of Primary Industries Water and the Environment. My work included developing an environmental monitoring program for the salmon farming industry in Tasmania, and policy development for marine pests, ballast water and major marine infrastructure developments.

I completed my Honours project on the krill species Nyctiphanes australis – one of the key food-web species in the coastal waters of south-eastern Australia and southern New Zealand. I used stable isotopes (heavier and lighter forms of the same chemical element) to look at who was eating who. I extended this food web research during my PhD on mysid (shrimp-like) crustaceans in Tasmanian waters, and discovered three new genera and 12 new species.

After my PhD I spent 11 years conducting post-doctoral marine research. Much of this work used innovative technologies to study issues of practical importance, such as stable isotope analysis of marine coastal food webs, and radiometric ageing of deep-sea fish such as orange roughy, blue grenadier, oreo dories and deep-sea sharks. Working closely with collaborators at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), and using more traditional methods at the Queenscliff Fish Ageing Laboratory (Victoria), we were able to show that orange roughy live to be over 100 years old. Previous ageing methods suggested that the fish lived for about 12 years. The research has ensured that such long-lived and slow-maturing fish are now fished sustainably.