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Hello, welcome to the program.
I'm Jane Hutcheon. My guest is marine ecologist
Professor Emma Johnston. Professor Johnston
has an incredible workplace under the waters of Sydney Harbour. She conducts research and tours,
looking at the impact of humans and pollution on marine life. She's passionate about encouraging
young women to choose a career in science and she's also
a co-presenter of the TV series Coast Australia.

Emma Johnston, it's lovely
to see you on One Plus One. It's great to be here. Tell me, what drew you to the ocean? I can't quite recall when it was
that I first fell in love with the ocean. I do know that I'm completely
addicted now. I can't live away from the ocean - when I travel inland,
I get really edgy. So, I think it might have been when I grew up next to the sea,
we grew up 200 metres or so from the beach in Williamstown,
which is a part of Melbourne. And we were swimming
from the age that we walked. That whole environment
was enticing to me. It's a place that gives me
a lot of solace. When I look at the ocean,
I feel very comfortable, I'm glad that no-one can build
on it, it's just a peaceful place. And you grew up around scientists? I did, yes, so, my father
was an applied mathematician and has always worked in
universities and my mother was a chemist
by training and she actually had to give up work
when she had the third child, because they wouldn't let her
work part-time. This was the '70s
and things were not as they are now. Things were not as flexible
and that was a real shame for her, but she kind of took it on,
you know, in her stride - brought us up, retrained as an
educator and also as a painter. So, when you were at school,
what were the kinds of messages you were given about
the kind of careers that might be suitable for you? They were mixed messages
and I'm really proud of the fact that when I was going through
high school, in particular, I can distinctly remember programs
that were trying to encourage more girls into maths. It was "Girls love maths", I remember the slogan
and I really wish... I wish I'd had that. I'm really pleased that was
happening, because at the same time there are
a whole lot of unconscious messages and sometimes conscious messages
from people that are moving you away from science. I know that both my grandmothers
were not at all pleased that I was... ..I was going in that direction. One grandmother in fact, said,
"You've done enough degrees now" when I'd done my first degree and she wasn't too keen
on me doing a PhD. So, you do get mixed messages
from cultures and that's something
we need to move away from, because science
is such an amazing career. It's incredibly rewarding and it's something that women should
be able to access as easily as men. So, what was the point when you
actually chose science as your career? It's very difficult
to pinpoint that moment, because I wanted to be
so many different things growing up. I wanted to be a teacher, I wanted
to be a doctor, a psychiatrist, a psychologist,
I wanted to be a journalist. And I think in the end,
I fell into science. I find the scientific process
really, really fantastic - how I can observe, I can test and I can come back
with a set of data, that's one of the most amazing
things that you can do, for me. And so, when I went into
undergraduate, I did physics, maths and chemistry and biology. And I just found myself falling
that way, falling into science. And not many people say that,
when you ask a marine biologist, "When did you become
a marine biologist?" Most of them say, "Well, I saw
a dolphin when I was six" and, you know. But, I can't say that's how
it worked for me, I just really enjoyed the process. So, Flipper wasn't
one of your favourite TV shows? No, no! But, you know, I loved
the ocean and I loved science and putting them together was just
a natural thing. In terms of your upbringing,
your dad was a scientist who had sabbaticals in
different parts of the world. What did you glean
from working in science and the coast from those travels? I got to see a huge range
of different marine environments. And I think that's really
important as a scientist, especially as a natural scientist, that you don't assume everything's
working in the same way as you see in your own backyard. And just being exposed
to Japanese coasts and French coasts
and those sorts of systems. All the other travel that we did, I think really opened my mind to
variability in natural systems. But probably more importantly, being thrown into different
environments and cultures and school systems, I think it meant that
I learned how to communicate. I learned how to listen,
because I was the alien, I was the one who couldn't speak, I was the one that people
had to be kind with. Because you were speaking earlier
about how different cultures in this country view science. What about different cultures
like in Japan? I mean, do whole nations view what they do in the
field of science differently? We've got a really great
set of tools in science, but they're applied differently
in different places. One of the exciting things about
being in Japanese primary school, was whilst I could not understand
a single word when I first began, and in fact, history lessons were
dreadful, I would watch the clock, the second hand on the clock
tick round, so one minute has never
taken so long. But when I got into science classes,
I was there, I was with everybody and we were
doing the most advanced experiments and we were doing the most
advanced mathematics. Three or four years ahead of anything that was
going on in Australia. So, I think we might need
to take up the challenge and do a bit more science and a bit
more maths in Australian schools. You see, I have to ask this question,
it's putting myself in a little bit, but I grew up in fear of science,
I was shocking at maths, didn't understand my physics
and chemistry, quite enjoyed biology. And I was waiting for someone
to help me turn on a light bulb, because I could see
that other people enjoyed it. And I'm sure I can't be the only one who went through
that experience at school. Never felt that those worlds,
in a sense, were opened up to them. I mean, what is that about? Is that just because there was
something specific to help me unlock my interest or is that just,
you know, I'm an arty type or I like history
or what do you think that is? I think that's about the way
that we teach science a lot of the time. I think we need to transform
the way that we teach science. I don't think it's about you. Every child has an innate curiosity for how the world works. They ask questions. How does this work, Mum?
How does that work, Dad? And I think that's science,
you know? That's really the underpinning
of science and somehow rather, we managed
to put some children off during primary school
and high school. There's also cultures in science
today, which are predominantly
male cultures, which may also mean that
you don't feel like you can identify as a scientist. And that's something that we need
to move and change as well because ultimately, there are lots
of different ways of doing science but we only project a couple of them and that projection
is not very attractive. So sometimes, we might see
the scientist as an isolated individual male
working by themselves and that's the familiar projection and to many people,
that's not an attractive job. But in fact,
science is not like that. It's lots of people of all
different ages working together and we very rarely wear lab coats!
(LAUGHS) You were once included in a series
called Ace Day Jobs. I think it was an ABC series and you describe the
great bits of your job as "the diversity of activities - "diving, teaching, writing
and experimenting." And then you described the sucky
part, which was marking essays. Hm. Yes, marking still
sucks the life out of me! It's not one of my favourite things. And in fact, part of the way
in which I've redesigned some of the courses
that I teach at university are precisely to avoid marking.

But they're backed by good
pedagogy about learning and they're essentially
that people learn through many different processes and just essay writing
is not the only way to learn and certainly not the best way
to assess people's capacity in particular areas. So, I like to redesign things
to lower my marking load.

Apart from your work as a professor
at the University of New South Wales, you head the
Sydney Harbour Research Centre at the
Sydney Institute of Marine Science. When did you start to focus
on the harbour in Sydney and the harbour environment? I've always been interested in
human impacts on marine ecosystems. So in fact, what I ended up focusing
on were mostly environmental issues, particularly contaminant impacts
and we look at metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons -
so they're diesels and oils - micro plastics, those sorts
of contaminants and they are concentrated in places
where humans are concentrated and in places where industry
and trade are concentrated, which are the harbours of our world. So, the harbours of our world
are very highly stressed by a number of different activities. Sydney Harbour is
an incredible example of resilience. It's had a long history
of industrial activity, it's got 5 million people
living around it and we've lost many of our habitats
and we've had terrible water quality and yet, the place is still alive. We still have seagrass
and mangroves and salt marsh and we still have 580 or more
species of fish living in the harbour. That's incredible.
Yeah. So, it's a message of hope really,
that a lot of these systems, while they have been
terribly neglected, can, if paid a little bit of attention, and if the environmental
management improves, if we understand them better,
can really recover and can become places
of great environmental value as well as all of those trade
and social values that they already have. I remember once many years ago,
I was doing a story about the harbour in Hong Kong
and we went with this dredger and they picked up what was
some of the soil from the seabed in the harbour and it came up and it was black,
it was stinking and it horrified me what was
on the bed of Hong Kong harbour. If we were to do that here,
would it be different? I'd like to say yes,
it would be different but it wouldn't in some parts
of the harbour. So, we still have
an incredible amount of contaminants coming in through stormwater
into Sydney Harbour. We have sewer overflows, which are either deliberate
or accidental, depending on the storm situation. So, tell me how that works because
I've always wondered, you know, how does uncontrolled sewage
get into the harbour. We have a very aged sewerage system
and a very aged stormwater system and occasionally when we get
those very heavy downpours, the capacity is overrun and so,
the sewer system overflows into the stormwater system, otherwise it would back up
into people's houses. And so, it is deliberately
let out into the harbour. There are about 1,000 releases
of sewerage into the harbour still and yet there are parts of the
harbour that are pristine and clean. So, Sydney Harbour's an ancient
drowned river valley and it's got this massive opening
3km wide at the heads, so it's flushed every day
with clean water. That's saved a lot of
the biodiversity of Sydney Harbour. Secondarily, we've put a lot
of our sewerage now offshore. So in the 1990s and in the year 2000
as well, we had substantial works done
to move the sewage offshore and it's having far less impact
out there than it would be having
in the harbour. How interested do you think people
are in what happens under the sea?

I think people have a fascination
with the ocean but they don't necessarily
keep it front of mind. So, it's occasionally an interest but really, we should be
thinking of it every day. 86% or more
of the Australian population live within 50km of the coast and most of us much, much closer
than that - so within a couple of kilometres
of the coast. And we rely on that
ocean environment, we rely on the waterways that
flow into that ocean environment every day for resources, for trade
and for ecosystem services. So we should be thinking about it
every day but in fact, we kind of
only think about it when that documentary comes on
and the whale pops up. The interesting thing
is that new technologies are opening up marine environments, not just for scientists
but also for the general public. So underwater cameras, everyone
can have an underwater camera, everyone's got a GoPro attached
to the end of their surfboard. And so, I think we are increasingly
connected with ocean systems, or at least I'm hoping we're increasingly connected
with those systems. It's interesting that recently
Mick Fanning, when he got attacked by a shark
at that surfing competition, people actually caught that incident
on camera whereas I guess in the past,
we wouldn't have had such close access
to something like that. I wonder, is that kind of increased
visibility, I suppose - you were talking about technology
and GoPros and catching these incidents
on camera, does that somehow make people
more afraid of the ocean? Access to digital media
has really opened marine ecosystems to scientists. We're using them a lot,
we're using GoPros everywhere we can and that's opening up worlds
of marine animal behaviour that we've never known about
before as well, and that's a positive thing. But selective reporting of events
in the ocean has made people a lot more scared than they need
to be of these ecosystems. It's incredibly unlikely that
you would ever encounter a shark. When I have seen sharks
when I'm diving, I feel privileged and I have
never felt afraid of them. I have felt afraid of other animals
but not of sharks! And I think... Privileged because
they're just sort of such majestic, incredible creatures? Incredible, and also quite rare. You know, these are top predators
in the system. So, we have a hierarchical system and there's not many top predators
and there's lots of other animals. So, when you see them, you feel
like you're seeing a lion, you know. It's a very special
spine-tingling experience. Now, that's not to say that they don't attack or bite,
at least. Not necessarily attack
but they bite humans. And there's four species
that are known to do that. That's out of 100 species of shark
that are described. So even just the focus
on these very, very few animals who are the top predators
in the system distorts our understanding
of marine ecosystems, and it makes us think that
we need to get rid of all sharks in order to be safe. It's not true and, in fact, sharks are part of a
really healthy marine ecosystem. If you don't have the top predators, the whole trophic cascade
is what we call it, where one animal eats
another animal, eats another animal, eats another animal,
eventually eating a plant - that system gets disrupted
and we have unhealthy and unproductive ecosystems. You're involved in preparing
a report on the state of the entire coastline
of this country, no small task! What have you found in terms
of the obstacles in preparing that kind of information
for the government? Australia has a vast coastline
and much of it is very isolated. So, in one sense, we have the
obstacle of isolation and distance, which means that we haven't observed
many of the marine environments - what's in them,
what's the native biodiversity. We haven't described
the species that are there. We don't have good baselines. But having said that, it's not really an excuse
for what I'm finding. When I look around
the entire coast of Australia, I find that in fact we don't
have good biodiversity backgrounds for any of the coast, even when we're in
the most densely populated areas. So, in one sense,
the lack of technology and the lack of resources put
towards monitoring marine ecosystems has really caused
a major problem for us. Because now, we realise
they're so valuable but we don't know what's there,
in what condition it is and what's the trajectory
of those systems. We don't have
a national system of reporting on the ecosystem health
of marine environments and that is really a bad position
for an island state to be in. So, this is all a question
of funding and allocation and what's more important
than something else. As a scientist, do you find that
supremely frustrating? Yes, I think one of the great
downsides of scientific research is that just when you find
that you've worked something out, you've worked many, many years,
you've made lots of observations, you can't necessarily
follow through on it and get to that next level
of understanding. But secondarily, it might take many years before
what you have learnt is taken up in terms of environmental
management and planning. And that's something
that I really like to try and bridge that gap between
the scientist, the policy person, the government decision-maker
and the general public. If we can get more communication,
more evidence-based management, I think we'll be
in a lot better shape. So, I want to take you
to two different places where I know you've dived. I know you've been
under the water at the Barrier Reef and you've been
under the ice in Antarctica. Forgetting the fact that one
is freezing and one is warm, what is the difference
in the two snapshots, if you can use words to describe it? That's a really good question and it's one that we work on
quite a lot in my group. We look at latitudinal differences
in processes and it's incredibly
important right now because climate change is happening. And in marine ecosystems, particularly along
the east coast of Australia, it's happening really quickly. That's because the East Australian
current is pumping down more and more hot water
all the time. So, the tropical systems
are coming south. We call it tropicalisation and we're seeing in Sydney Harbour
tropical species arriving, overwintering, we're seeing
rapid changes in those systems. So I've been interested
for quite some time in these latitudinal gradients and to answer your question
about the tropics versus the poles, the thing that
immediately comes to mind is the rate of
activity of processes. So in the tropics,
everything is growing fast, it's recruiting fast,
it's reproducing quickly. And things are being eaten quickly,
everything's happening fast. And then you head down south
down to Antarctica and you dive under the ice and you can see sponges
that might be 200 years old. You... Yeah, it's incredible! So you'll turn up and there will be an anemone
the size of a fruit basket. Things are growing slowly, they're not being eaten
very quickly, everything is just
taking its quiet time. What does it do to your body,
to be under freezing ice and water? Well, if we jumped in
without any of our gear... You wouldn't survive.
No, we'd have a couple of minutes and then we would
lose limb function. So, literally not be able
to coordinate our limbs, that's how cold it is. So it's colder than zero,
it's -1.5 degrees. Because the water is salty,
it doesn't freeze at zero, it freezes a little bit colder. What we have are
incredible bits of kit. They're called dry suits,
which fully encapsulate you, including a mask around our face
and a voice communication, so that we in fact
don't touch the water, ideally, if they don't leak. Occasionally we get a bit damp! So that allows us to dive for
an hour at a time quite comfortably. One of your colleagues said recently in relation to women
in Australian science, that an ecosystem is nothing
without its diversity and the same could be
applied to science. What do you think has been the
bottleneck to more Australian women becoming professional scientists
and being science leaders? There are a number of problems
along the way and they all cumulate in there being a very,
very low proportion of women in senior roles in science. Some of it's to do with
at primary school and high school, that issue of attracting women
into those subjects, teaching them better, you know, making sure that women
feel confident in those areas. But 50% of science PhDs and early career graduates
are women, so... Yeah and so some of it
comes later down the track. So if you're in maths or physics,
engineering, the issues are really
in the high school period. If you're in biological sciences,
medical sciences, biotech, the issues come much later. So 50% of my PhD students,
at least, are women. 50% of my postdocs,
at least, are women. And it's really
at the recruitment of tenured staff and the recruitment of senior staff
into those roles, just at the point in time
where they're wanting to go and have children,
that we've really let women down. And I think we need some serious
restructuring of scientific careers in order to get women back
into the system. So what, if I can just unpack
what you're saying, does that mean that those women
are not being giving senior jobs or women are pulling out
from those jobs once they know they're having children? When you're
in the university system, the issue is they're not being given
tenured positions, which are continuing positions. They are given... So they're like casual positions,
perhaps? Rolling contracts, yeah. And this is an issue
for science in general, is that we're relying too much
on these rolling contracts and these short-term grants. But particularly for women,
because the point at which they would be asked
to apply for a permanent position, they would have been expected to do six or seven years
of rolling contracts, on top of six years
of higher education. So you're talking
right in the peak period of wanting to have children. And it's often at that stage
that they've said, "I've had enough. "Can't keep moving on.
I need to get a job." Now, they don't necessarily
move out of science, a lot of them move into research
or science application or science teaching. So these are science roles, but
they're not science research roles and they're not at a high-profile
university or institutional roles. So it is actually a problem
with the system. I think so. I think there's a number
of problems here. We also have differential
grant success rates, we have people being judged
differently and a lot of unconscious bias
which is not recognised. The interesting thing
about scientists, we think we're very clever,
you know? Renowned for thinking of ourselves
as boffins, but we're very clever at science
and we're often not very trained when it comes to social science,
when it comes to politics, psychology, sociology. And we're not very good at turning
the lens back on ourselves and reflecting on the way
that we do science and the way that we act and work. So there are a lot of very
politically naive scientists around, who aren't recognising
that there are structural issues and that there are biases
within the system. Until we recognise that,
we can't really move forward. And I have a lot of colleagues
who say, "There's no problem here. "We're all gender-neutral,
We're all gender-friendly." But the reality is, when they're
making decisions on a panel, and I've sat on a lot of panels,
recruiting people, you can see the gendered nature of
the decisions that they're making. And the gendered nature
of the definition of merit and it does not account
for a lot of activities or...

..extracurricular things
that women scientists are doing that the men might not be doing. So I wonder, how are you regarded? Are you regarded
as an outsider who made it or did you somehow buck the system? I'm not sure. I am sure that one of the things
that allowed me to get through was that I was recruited into a very low-level
academic position, but a permanent one,
directly outside of my PhD, so straight from the PhD. I didn't have to go through
that series of short-term contracts. And from that point, I struggled
and fought and taught and did lots of research
with lots of people and built my career from there. But without that permanent position,
I'm sure I would have had a similar fate to many of
my other female science colleagues. How are people
in the science hierarchy attempting to change that situation
at the moment? 'Cause I also read
that science has got one of the biggest gender pay gaps. It's something like 26% pay gap. There are a lot of initiatives
at the moment, really exciting initiatives, to try and stem the loss of women
from science at each of these stages
of what we call the pipeline. And that's exciting,
but I don't think many of them go far enough. So a lot of them are about making
science more accessible to women, making sure that we can remove
unconscious bias in recruitment policies, making sure places
are family-friendly, but the reality is,
we may need to have targets. We may need to say,
"Enough is enough. "Things aren't changing
quickly enough. "In fact, they're going backwards
in some departments. "So let's have some targets. "Let's set some KPIs
for the heads of school "for recruiting women
into these systems." Because there's an argument that
says until the environment changes, the conscious and unconscious biases
don't go away. It's very hard for them to go away
when the system is so biased towards one particular group. And this is not just the case
for women. This is the case for diversity
in general in scientific fields. We are very male, Anglo,
middle-class culture and it's hard to break
those cultures down. I want to finish by just asking you,
you know, given that you have
so many different skills, if you were going to choose
a completely different profession later in your life,
do you know what that would be? (LAUGHS)
That's a really good question.

So science is extremely satisfying,
but occasionally you have a dream. (GIGGLES) Unfortunately, I think
I would be very bad at most of the other things
that I'd like to do. But the other day,
I was sitting at the piano, playing the piano and I was like,
"I would love to be a pianist!" And then the other day,
I was just drawing a drawing and I was thinking,
"I'd love to be a drawer." Unfortunately, I would fail
dreadfully at all of those. So I'm very glad
I chose to be a scientist. Emma Johnston,
it's been a great pleasure. So great to speak with you
on One Plus One. Thank you. One Plus One is available on iview. You can browse the archive
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to your company next time. From me, goodbye. Captions by Ericsson Access Services

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