Dr. Jess Melbourne-Thomas: Calling Women to Antarctica
Tasmania’s Jess Melbourne-Thomas is blazing the trail for women in science worldwide from her base in the Apple Island.
A doctor and a Tasmanian mum. A child wrangler and an internationally hailed research scientist. A Rhodes Scholar and a dreadlocked mountain wanderer. Meet Dr. Jess Melbourne-Thomas.
Dr. Melbourne-Thomas is as casual as they come. With a little one on her knee and an impatient spaniel begging to be let in to her mountain-side home, Jess apologises for the mayhem. In her next breath she speaks of complex mathematical ecosystem modelling and taking 78 science-driven women on a leadership journey to Antarctica. This passionate Tasmanian scientist is all about action.
Jess’ love of science stems from her childhood. Taught to scuba dive by her father, Jess and her brother (also a Rhodes Scholar) spent their youth exploring Tasmania’s coastline and wilderness.
“On Bruny Island recently, playing in rock pools with the kids we were reflecting on what I’d grown up doing,” says Jess. “It was fairly inevitable my brother and I would end up working in science. He’s a marine biologist and we often work together. It was completely unplanned – it’s just where science took us.”
Jess is a research scientist with the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) and a project leader with the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC). She gained a PhD in Quantitative Marine Science from the University of Tasmania then spent two years at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
“I have always wanted to do Antarctic research,” explains Dr Melbourne-Thomas. “Fortunately I got a postdoc position in 2010. The ACE CRC is a partnership between the University of Tasmania, CSIRO and Australian Antarctic Division. I work in ecosystem modelling which basically means using mathematical models to understand how they might respond to climate change.”
In 2015 Jess was named Tasmania’s Young Tall Poppy of the Year for her research, science communication and policy engagement. In 2017 she was named one of Science and Technology Australia’s 30 STEM superstars and was a finalist in the Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards. In addition Jess has engaged nearly 24 000 students through online open learning presentations on marine and Antarctic science.
Jess also co-founded the Women in Polar Science (WiPS) network, with over 2 500 members worldwide. And her portrait has featured in a ceiling constellation in New York’s Grand Central Station – Jess was one of 12 women scientists globally to have this honour as part of General Electric’s 2017 Balance the Equation campaign.
Jess is also passionate about ensuring that women are well represented in science, particularly in senior roles. She co-founded Homeward Bound a groundbreaking leadership initiative for women, set against the backdrop of Antarctica. Her aim is to heighten the influence and impact of women with a science background in order to influence policy and decision making as it shapes our planet. Her call to women the world over is that mother nature needs her daughters, a call that has seen Homeward Bound featured on BBC, CNN and in the New York Times.
With about 40 per cent of Australia’s marine and Antarctic scientists based in Hobart, Tasmania is a prime locale for the work Jess does. “The AAD is a big employer with a diverse range of occupations from doctors and scientists to tradespeople and chefs that support our presence in Antarctica and our science programs,” added Jess.
Jess rugged up and enjoyed a two month voyage to Antarctica back in 2012 to study sea ice. The crew lodged themselves in the ice and got off at different stations to study Antarctica’s role in the global climate. Most of the time, though, she’s based in Hobart.
“Being able to live in the middle of the bush and be 20 minutes out of town is fantastic,” she says. “I’m a marine person and my husband grew up by the beach but it hasn’t been hard living in the bush because the beach is so close. This mountain and ocean intersection is a real part of who we are. We have our goats Gizmo and Zoe here, we brew beer, we go mountain biking. We’re so fortunate.”
Are you interested in making a move? Make it Tasmania.
Read our story for information on living in Tasmania and working in Antarctica.