Jess Melbourne-Thomas Profile
Jess Melbourne-Thomas (Tasmania & Linacre College, 2003) is currently an Ecological Modeller with the Australian Antarctic Division and a project leader at the Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre. She completed her PhD in Quantitative Marine Science in 2010 at the University of Tasmania’s Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies and studied zoology during her time at Oxford. Jess is also one of the leads for the Women in Polar Science network and Homeward Bound, a voyage to Antarctica for women in science and leadership. In her free time she enjoys working on her block in the foothills of Mt. Wellington (complete with goats!), SCUBA diving, and being with her family.
Rhodes Project: What prompted your interest in Antarctica and marine science?
Jess Melbourne-Thomas: I grew up in Tasmania and shared a love of the marine environment with my family. I learned to scuba dive with my dad and younger brother, and being in and under the water is always something I’ve enjoyed. It seemed natural to follow a career in marine science. I guess part of my interest in working somewhere like Antarctica is just the allure of it!
The scale of the processes in the Southern Ocean is just so huge, and I think marine life there is so fascinating. It plays a very important role in the global climate system and we still have so many unanswered questions there.
Rhodes Project: What was your time at Oxford like?
Jess Melbourne-Thomas: To be honest, I had a mixed experience at Oxford. It’s an incredible place and the Rhodes experience has opened so many doors. In some ways, though, I found it difficult to fit in.
I was away a lot doing fieldwork, as I was working on a coral reef project and was away in Indonesia every summer. That meant that I spent my winters in Oxford, which were cold and dark and a bit hard. I also found that I needed more guidance to support my project, and on reflection, it wasn’t a good fit to my interests.
Two years in, I was looking at it taking 5 years or more to complete my DPhil and I had to make a really difficult decision. Coming back to Tasmania to work on a different coral reef project (that was a much better fit to my interests) was the right decision, but I definitely don’t regret my time at Oxford. I met my husband in Indonesia while I was doing fieldwork, and my brother was a Rhodes scholar a few years later!
Rhodes Project: What do you think the next 10 years of your life might look like, professionally and personally?
Jess Melbourne-Thomas: Professionally, it’s a really exciting time to be engaged in Antarctic science. We have to think more about how to use limited budgets to address big questions and in a timely manner. There’s much more of an impetus to be engaging in that kind of research internationally, too. I’m really interested in delivering science into policy and management frameworks, and that’s definitely something I’d like to be working on more directly in the next 10 years.
Tasmania is also definitely in my blood, and I love the lifestyle here. My family was dispersed overseas for a while, but we’re finally all back in Tasmania now, and it’s really great being closer to everyone. I’m actually now working with my brother, which is really exciting. I’d love if the next 10 years meant some cousins who could hang out together.
Rhodes Project: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Jess Melbourne-Thomas: My first thought was the advice to try single-malt whisky – that was a great piece of advice! But on a serious note – my parents played a very significant role for my brother and me. They always encouraged us to make the most of opportunities and focus less on individual successes. It was very relevant to my Rhodes experience – taking opportunities as they come but also knowing what is important to you.
Rhodes Project: Do you have mentors or role models in the marine/polar science field who have been particularly meaningful for you?
Jess Melbourne-Thomas: Yes, I’ve been really lucky to have a series of fantastic mentors. Most of them are here in Tasmania, which makes them very accessible. I have two mentors – Professor Craig Johnson and Dr Beth Fulton – who were my PhD supervisors in the field of marine science and ecosystem modelling and I just hugely admire both of them. I still continue to go to them for career advice and support.
My current manager, Dr Andrew Constable, is also an important mentor and has really challenged me and opened a lot of doors, which is fantastic. I also have a mentor more in the policy space – Gill Slocum – and she and Andrew have really encouraged my interest in representations of women in science and leadership. They have also been very supportive in helping me think more about translating science to policy. Most recently I have started working with Fabian Dattner who is an incredible woman and an amazing mentor – she has challenged, stimulated and encouraged me, and it’s been wonderful!
Rhodes Project: What book(s) have been most transformative for you?
Jess Melbourne-Thomas: The book that really changed my view of the world was Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It’s a tome! The story is about addiction and questions why humans become addicted to things. I found it really eye-opening, particularly in an age where we’re addicted to fossil fuels and consumer lifestyles.
Rhodes Project: What is Australia’s political climate like for scientific research at the moment? Is there anything you would like to change?
Jess Melbourne-Thomas: It’s a very difficult environment for early career researchers at the moment, and that’s been in the media here recently. It’s very competitive for young researchers to transition from PhDs into postdocs and longer-term positions. This is where I think role models and champions are important, especially in ensuring that there are sufficient opportunities for really talented researchers in stay in Australia. I’m also concerned that there are additional challenges for women, and it can be harder for women to transition to science leadership positions.
In my line of research, we have to do more with less money and there’s a lot of emphasis on working and collaborating internationally. In the Southern Ocean it’s particularly expensive to do fieldwork and it’s forcing us to think a lot about coordinating our efforts.
Rhodes Project: What are your reflections on climate change, in light of the work and research you’ve done with marine ecosystems? What are the consequences for the ecosystems and environments you study?
Jess Melbourne-Thomas: That’s a great question. Southern Ocean ecosystem responses to climate change can tell us a lot about climate change on a global scale. We are trying to focus on the ‘essential variables’ since Antarctic research can be costly and difficult – that means identifying the variables that give us the clearest signal about the changes that are occurring, and what might be driving them, whether that’s climate change or other impacts. These variables could be at any level – everything from the base of the food web (microalgae) to the large predators in the system, like penguins and seals.
Marine ecosystems are very complex – there are lots of interacting components and sometimes the responses of these systems can be very unexpected. The impacts of environmental change can be very different depending on the part of the Southern Ocean we look at. For example, many species in Antarctica depend on the seasonal sea ice environment for their life cycles. We are seeing contrasting changes in the sea ice environment in different regions of Antarctica, and this manifests as complex responses for species like penguins that use sea ice habitats.
I have also considered climate change effects for tropical coral reef systems and for temperate reef systems as part of my research, in particular using ecosystem models.
Rhodes Project: What do you think are some of the best solutions to addressing systemic barriers for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics)?
Jess Melbourne-Thomas: I think this is a broad issue and is relevant to women in many fields. The primary issue is the leaky pipeline – the more senior positions in science have fewer women and this results in a lack of role models for women early in their careers.
I’m working on a really exciting project at the moment called Homeward Bound, which is a voyage to Antarctica for 40 women in science and leadership. I’ve been part of the core group of three women developing the idea, and the voyage is planned for early 2017. We’re planning to use it as the basis for a documentary film project, too.
The voyage has a few objectives: to offer a targeted leadership program, to educate women on Antarctic science and the impacts of climate change and to workshop strategies on changing the landscape for women in science. We’ve selected the participants already, out of 170 expressions of interest – which is fantastic. We have a wonderful group of women from Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Canada, the United States, France and Norway.
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