At 16, the new Chief Scientist of the Australian Antarctic Division, Dr Gwen Fenton, applied to study physiotherapy in Melbourne. But when she discovered she was too young to enrol she began a science degree at the University of Tasmania — initially just for a year.
Several decades on, Gwen has excelled in a career spanning marine research, marine environmental policy development, and the coordination and planning of the Australian Antarctic Science Program. All the while, she and her scientist husband raised two children as they pursued an uncertain and demanding profession.
“Life was quite complicated with a young family, but I worked half a day, every day until I could go full time, so that I would remain employable,” Gwen said.
“It was not an easy path, but it was very satisfying and I got to do a lot of different things that gave me the skills and experience I rely on today.”
Gwen had a head start as a scientist. Her mother majored in zoology at university and her father was a cosmic ray and aurora physicist with both the United States and Australian Antarctic programs during the 1950s.
“I was always interested in science and familiar with pictures and stories of the Antarctic, but it never occurred to me that I’d end up at the Australian Antarctic Division,” she said.
“I did do some physics, but it was a bit too close to home because my father and uncle both taught at the university. I always liked the sea, so I majored in botany and zoology.”
Gwen did her 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. She used stable isotopes (heavier and lighter forms of the same chemical element) to look at “who was eating who”. She extended this food web research during her PhD to mysid (shrimp-like) crustaceans in Tasmanian waters, and discovered three new genera and 12 new species.
“I did a lot of field work off Bruny Island, and getting qualified to SCUBA dive for my PhD was part of the fun,” she said.
“Some of my fieldwork involved 24 hour sampling with a small team, where we were diving every three hours to collect samples to study population dynamics and diet.”
Gwen graduated with her PhD at the age of 24 — two years earlier than most doctoral students — and went on to spend 11 years working in post-doctoral research. During this time she developed a technique to age fish that enabled her to show that the deep sea fish, orange roughy, could live for more than 100 years.
“I’d come across a radiometric method involving the radioactive decay of radium-226 to lead-210 [226Ra — 210Pb], which I thought I could apply to fish ageing questions in Australia. As a fish grows, it takes up radium in its otoliths (ear bones) which then decays at a known rate, providing a natural clock,” Gwen said.
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), they began to unearth some very interesting results.
“Other ageing methods at the time suggested that orange roughy lived for about 12 years, so people didn’t believe us. But we were able to prove, with good, careful measurements, that the oldest fish we had was over 100.”
The finding, when it was accepted, affected the way orange roughy was fished.
“Our work at that time showed that orange roughy don’t mature until they are between 20 and 25 years of age, so the existing catch limits were not sustainable for such a slow growing fish.”
In 1996 Gwen was offered a Tasmanian government position in marine environmental management and policy development. The work included helping to develop an environmental monitoring program for the salmon farming industry in Tasmania, policy development for marine pests and ballast water, and providing environmental advice for major marine infrastructure developments.
“I learnt a lot about how to negotiate major change with a range of parties and how to work with government,” Gwen said.
For seven years she honed the communication and negotiations skills that would support her next career move to the Australian Antarctic Division. Here she led the team running the science application process and the planning and coordination of each season’s science projects. She was also involved in long term science planning, and developing the Antarctic Science Strategic Plan.
“I particularly enjoyed having contact with the scientists from all the institutions participating in the program and helping them, where I could, to achieve their projects,” she said.
If a voyage or flight was disrupted, for example, it was Gwen’s role to explain the impact on current and future science projects within the season, and help minimise the impact so that projects could meet their objectives.
“Season planning each year is complex; working out which scientists are going to travel where, and when, and the logistics that are needed to make their projects work. It is a real team effort and it has been great working with science, operational and policy colleagues across the Antarctic Division to do this,” Gwen said.
Throughout it all Gwen has been rigorous about maintaining her independence, deliberately avoiding becoming involved in science projects, and making infrequent trips to Antarctica so that other scientists had opportunities. As a result, she has visited the continent only once by ship — travelling to Mawson, Casey and Macquarie Island in her former science planning and coordination role. More recently, she has had two flights to Wilkins Aerodrome while acting in the Chief Scientist role, and in February this year, as the newly appointed Chief Scientist, she spent a few days at Casey, meeting scientists and observing the science facilities on station.
It is this independence, as well as her deep knowledge of the complexities of the Australian Antarctic Science Program, that Gwen thinks will be valuable attributes in her new role. Her genuine care for people and desire to help them get the most from their projects is also apparent, but she’s not afraid to make tough decisions.
“As the delegate for scientific grants and projects I’ve probably said no to more people than anyone else,” she said.
This year Gwen’s focus will be on reviewing the science strategic plan and opening the next round of Australian Antarctic science applications. She’ll work to strengthen collaborations through the Antarctic Gateway — encouraging East Antarctic partners such as China, India, Japan and France to use Tasmania for aspects of their Antarctic operations. And she’ll work to ensure that the science program is ready for the additional capability that the new icebreaking ship will bring in four years’ time.
“The new ship will give us a capability beyond anything we’ve ever had and we need to plan for it,” she said.
“We’ll have new equipment for seafloor mapping and to deploy underwater vehicles, but that means we’ll have a whole lot more data to analyse, and we’ll need to attract more collaborators to help run and support the experiments.
“I see the Australian Antarctic Division playing a strong leadership role in helping scientists, nationally and internationally, to coordinate and run projects on the ship.”
It sounds like a challenge, but, as her career path attests, one that Gwen is eminently prepared for.
Australian Antarctic Division