Gwen Fenton's 'fantasic opportunity'

Australian Antarctic Division chief scientist Gwen Fenton's 'fantasic opportunity'


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COOL RUNNINGS: Australian Antarctic Division chief scientist Gwen Fenton at Casey research station. Photo: Marcel van der Schoot

COOL RUNNINGS: Australian Antarctic Division chief scientist Gwen Fenton at Casey research station. Photo: Marcel van der Schoot

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So what exactly do you do? Meet the woman breaking the ice at the Australian Antarctic Division.

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GWEN Fenton has one of the coolest jobs in the world – quite literally.

"People are still surprised when I tell them what I do," says the 57-year-old marine biologist.

In 2015 Dr Fenton became the Australian Antarctic Division's first female chief scientist, which she describes as a "fantastic opportunity".

"The fact I'm a woman shouldn't matter, or be the main story," she said. "But it is a good thing. In any team you need diversity and the more views there are at the table, the better the outcome."

Hobart-based Dr Fenton has worked at the AAD since 2003, planning and coordinating science projects. She's also known for research which led to the discovery that orange roughy fish live to 100 years old. 

'THE SCIENCE MATTERS': Dr Fenton in the atmospheric research hut at Casey research station. Photo: Marcel van der Schoot

'THE SCIENCE MATTERS': Dr Fenton in the atmospheric research hut at Casey research station. Photo: Marcel van der Schoot

And in March, Dr Fenton took part in a panel discussion on the impact changes in the Antarctic have for the planet at the World Science Festival in Brisbane alongside the likes of NASA astronauts, environmentalist Tim Flannery and Dr Karl Kruszelnicki.

Now she's gearing up for a massive 2020, with the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research expo – which will see more than 100 Antarctic scientists from around the world meet in Hobart – and the arrival of AAD's new state-of-the-art icebreaker RSV Nuyina

Designed to be a world-class research and resupply vessel, Nuyina will be one of the most sophisticated icebreakers in the world at 160 metres long. "We will be able to do science we've never been able to do," Dr Fenton said. 

The ship is 65 metres longer than current icebreaker, Aurora Australis, which she first sailed on in 2005.

"That was an incredible experience," Dr Fenton said of the 14-day journey from Hobart to Mawson Station.

"In the ADD offices we are surrounded by amazing images of the Antarctic, so I thought I might not be as impressed. But I was – more than I thought I could be.

"But the sheer scale of it – with ice as far as the eye can see and just the level of isolation you have out there – that was what hit me. Going there is an absolute privilege, and the best thing is it's for work!"

It's no surprise Dr Fenton ended up working in the Antarctic. She had a head start as a scientist. Her mum majored in zoology and her father was a cosmic ray and aurora physicist with both the US and Australian Antarctic programs in the 1950s.

I grew up with all my father's mess around, dressing up in his Antarctic clothes. But it never occurred to me I’d end up at the Australian Antarctic Division.

​It's not a responsibility she takes lightly, especially when you look at climate change and the future of our planet

"The signals are there – we know that. Our oceans are warming.

"The story is a concern. You couldn't see these projections without being concerned. It's about understanding the important role the Southern Ocean and Antarctica play; they are basically the two air-conditioners of the planet."

Dr Fenton says her role is to "make sure the best possible science is there for decision makers". 

"The science that we do, it really matters. As scientists we are working gathering data from Antarctica and unpicking information."

But, she adds, you don't need to be a scientist to make a difference. 

"It's never too late to be interested in Antarctica; you can even visit as a tourist. It's also about encouraging grandchildren to be interested in science, to ask questions and keep up their curiosity."

Read more: Virtual reality transports stay-at-homes to Antarctica

Read more: See Antarctica with Dr Karl

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