The Measure of Monro

UniSA’s new Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Tanya Monro, is a fast talker but a keen listener.

UniSA’s new Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Tanya Monro, is a fast talker but a keen listener. She captures attention and curiosity with sharp eye-contact above precise, easy conversation. Monro clips out what seems like hundreds of words a minute, spinning the types of fantasy stories that can only come from real-world physics research. Her voice trips only when wonderstruck, hushed as she recounts how an optical fibre – originally commissioned by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DTSO), adapted into the wine industry, and then transformed by an embryologist – is so sensitive and delicate, it can sit next to an embryo, or a cell in the human brain, and “listen” to the chemical phenomena around it. Monro’s passion, driven by an acute intelligence and insatiable quest for solutions to practical problems, is utterly captivating. From Sydney, to South Hampton (UK) and then to South Australia, Monro has forged a well-deserved reputation as a creative force in cross-disciplinary research. But a willingness to ask questions, to seek out mor knowledge and be impressed by innovation, means she is as quick to share the accomplishments of her colleagues – students and researchers alike – as she is to take credit for her own. Monro’s field of cutting-edge entrepreneurial science lends itself to example-giving: take an optical fibre temperature sensor, developed by one of her “most amazing” post-doctoral students. Originally designed for measuring endometrium within the womb, the tool is now used at the Port Pirie smelter as it was discovered to measure “higher temperatures than any other previous device”. Getting the measure of the world, from the emissions of the smallest cell to the heat of molten lead, is the guiding goal in all of Monro’s research. To achieve these breakthroughs, she has always been keen to search outside her own school of thought. “The problems you face in the real world don’t respect discipline boundaries,” Monro says with a quick grin. “You really need to harness and bring together teams with different expertise to tackle any of these real-world problems. Across the whole university, you’ve got this wonderful richness of capability that sometimes just really needs to be helped to come together.” Monro’s new position, as Deputy Vice- Chancellor of Research at UniSA, will extend her seasoned reach over research approaches and industry partnerships. She will continue to be research-active and keep ties with the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing (IPAS) and ARC Centre of Excellence in Nanoscale BioPhotonics at Adelaide Uni. Crowning this is Monro’s fervent enthusiasm to capture the creative minds of young scientists. It is no secret that Monro owes some of her science appetite to a fabulous high school physics teacher, and this experience has informed Monro’s attitude towards higher education. While a Professor at the University of Adelaide, Monro taught first-year physics, hoping to pass on her fascination to the fresh minds in her care. This passion for quality education guides her perspective on the oft-debated divide between researchers and teachers. Monro is adamant that researchers must not be “siloed off” and “protected” from teaching. “There has to be an intimate connection between research and teaching,” she says with vehemence. “I think we lose it at our peril. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve always seen there’s a very strong correlation between people who are on fire with their research and people who inspire kids. If you separate them out, it’s a disaster.” Monro concedes that the difficulty comes when balancing the need for niche research and micro-expertise against the practical value of teaching that material to students. However, she is resolute that a balance must be reached. “I don’t know one researcher, I don’t know a scientist, who hasn’t had at least one amazing teacher.” As many of these scientists meet their most inspiring teachers in high school, Monro hopes to harness this first enthusiasm to encourage more students to follow the scientific path. Monro is now Chair of the National Youth Science Forum board, and finds herself both heartened and saddened when she meets students coming to the annual two-week science residency. “What inspires me whenever I talk to these kids is just how bright our future looks, and how amazing and sharp they are,” she says. “But then what also saddens me is, when I talk to them, just how dominantly many of them say, ‘I’m going to ;do medicine’, ‘I’m going to do law’, ‘I’m going ;to be an architect’ – they’ve been selected on the basis of being the sharpest kids in science at their school, and, a lot of it, when you push, is down to the professional pathway, the route to a job, the route to a good income.” Monro sees the next great challenge as showing students the inventive and unfathomable careers that science training brings. It’s hard to communicate, she says, but many of the industries science students will work in are new fields yet to be discovered. It is harder, still, for students to communicate this to their parents, who often need more assurance that their child’s study will conclude with a job. To make this easier for students, their families and, indeed, the universities, Monro hopes to use her role as DVCR to look at the structural barriers that cause tension between teaching, research and industry. She feels that UniSA is uniquely placed to bring creative, research-rich solutions to local and international industry – and thus contribute to SA’s “knowledge economy”. “At the moment, there are a lot of drivers that encourage universities to get their staff to do research that is well cited by other researchers and that is capable of bringing in research grants,” Monro says, “and there’s really nothing in the system at the moment other than idealism or values that encourages researchers to link with things that could make a difference. “I think that’s somewhat broken; I see the whole sector shifting now towards saying, ‘How do we measure the impact of what we do?’ I think if we do that properly, we’ll have a really nice balance where we’ll be able to attract people on the basis of their capacity to seed new industries deliver solutions to industry and deliver graduates that industry wants to employ.” As science already struggles to entice students to join – and then to stay – proposed reform to higher education could have “terribly sad” consequences. “It’s a really critical time we’re at now,” Monro says, “with the whole future of our higher education landscape. Anything that disincentivises kids from getting the best quality education that they could, I think, is a huge negative. “I look back: neither of my parents finished school, so I was certainly the first of my family to go to university. Education was highly valued. But unless you have that personal understanding of how education enriches your life opportunities and your capacity to earn, you can see many people not going to university, and I think that would be just terribly sad. “I have serious issues with deregulation, in terms of increased barriers for people entering education. It’s going to be an interesting landscape to watch.” Tanya Monro will commence her role as DVC R at UniSA on Monday, November 10