The secret of 42-year-old Tanya Monro’s meteoric rise is a high octane mix of intellectual fire with what she calls a “massively practical streak”.
By Wilson da Silva
BACH OR BOHR? Schubert or Schrödinger? For a 10-year-old, this was a tough choice. Tanya Feletto argued it out with her mother. Living in the backblocks of Bankstown, the gifted young musician wanted to audition to attend Conservatorium High. The turreted sandstone building next to Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens was the mecca for the city’s musical prodigies.
Like her mother (who taught secretarial skills), Tanya was adept at the cello. Like her Italian immigrant father (a painter and decorator), she had an abiding interest in science. But when her mother looked at the school’s curriculum, she was unhappy to discover that it did not teach science. “You’re too young to restrict your options,” she told her daughter.
The tale appears guaranteed to turn a child away from science. “It’s funny the way the world turns,” says Monro (her married name). She’s in a meeting room in the sleek new $100 million Braggs building at the University of Adelaide that houses the trans-disciplinary Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing that she founded.
A few years after that childhood quarrel, Monro won a music scholarship to attend Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar. There she met Hugh McCallum, a Year 9 physics teacher with a pronounced Scottish brogue. Within weeks she was smitten by physics.
“He showed me the utter simplicity, the beauty of the world … that same beauty that I feel when I listen to a Bach prelude or fugue: that beautiful clarity of how everything links together,” she recalls.
Barely 42, Tanya Monro is renowned in her field, having published more than 500 scientific papers. Her discoveries aren’t only academic. She has 17 patents to her name and is part-owner of Red Chip Photonics, a company that is commercialising a novel laser technology that emerged from her work with colleague David Lancaster. The achievements have been recognised with awards including being named the Prime Minister’s Physical Scientist of the Year in 2008, South Australian of the Year in 2011, receiving the Australian Academy of Science’s Pawsey Medal in 2012 and the 2014 Beattie Steel Medal of the Optical Society of Australia.
Monro cuts a conspicuously youthful figure amidst the greying elites at the Australian Academy of Science and the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. She also advises federal and state governments as a member of the Prime Minister’s Commonwealth Science Council and South Australia’s Economic Development Board. Just this March, she was made a Fellow of the Optical Society of America. All this within 16 years of getting her PhD.
An avid science fiction fan and fascinated by astronomy, Monro first tried her hand at astrophysics but ultimately decided to focus on the physics of light. In contrast to astrophysics, optics allows you to “test what you predict,” she explains.
Her big breakthrough came in the field of photonics – a thoroughly modern addition to optics. The term was first used in the 1960s to describe how light was being harnessed as a telecommunications tool using lasers and optical fibres – it is the technology that ultimately provided us with the internet.
When Monro entered the field in 1998, photonics was focused on the poorly understood problem of photosensitivity: certain wavelengths of light passing through the fibre interact with the glass to alter its density, making it more or less refractive. This made it harder to control and direct the light.
Physicists got around this problem using filters known as Bragg gratings, based on formulations developed by the Australian father-and-son team of Nobel prizewinners, Sir William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg. But the gratings had to be manufactured into the glass, adding complexity to the process.
For her PhD thesis Monro came up with a theory of how photosensitivity might be exploited. It described in mathematical terms how light could change the density of the glass and guide its own path of travel. Or as she put it, “write its own wave guide”.
But Monro was not content with a theoretical paper. “I really want to know that there’s not some show-stopper,” she recalls. She sought out experimentalists for help and within a few years had herself done the experiments that “proved that light indeed can self-write a wave guide in a material. I used the theory to predict subtle aspects of the experiments, which turned out right as well … What a high!” It was astounding work for a 24-year-old, and won her the 1998 Bragg Gold Medal for the best PhD thesis by a student from an Australian university.
It also locked Monro into a way of working that was to become her signature: involvement at all levels of research and development, from drawing board to laboratory testing and back. “There’s creativity inherent in being able to predict things in science, and then test them in experiments – I just love that,” she says.
Within weeks of her experimental breakthrough she was presenting it at a scientific conference in the United States. At that moment, she was the world’s undisputed expert on self-written waveguides in photonics. By the end of the talk she had three job offers.
Monro chose the University of Southampton. Created a decade earlier, the university’s Optoelectronics Research Centre had a reputation for creative, unorthodox ideas. It was also one of the few centres with the fabrication facilities to test them.
For Monro it was a marriage made in heaven. “I have this massively practical streak,” she admits. “But what I got from being there was to see the power of fabrication – not just being able to predict something and do an experiment, but be able to predict something and make it.”
At the time, the world of optical fibres was all about silica glass, the quartz that makes up most sand. “But there’s a whole zoo of different glasses out there that have a rich panoply of properties you’d love to be able to use,” says Monro. Few had been explored, and that’s what Southampton was pioneering.
To make good optical fibre, you need a core material and a seamlessly bonded cladding to contain the light within the fibre. The two materials need to be chemically, thermally and optically compatible. And when bonded, they also need to create the right refractive index and a low signal loss. Many of the problems had been solved for silica in the 1970s but when it came to exploring the possibilities of other promising glasses such as germanate, tellurite or fluoride, they were held back by the compatibility issue.
Monro, once again, came up with a game-changer. “I thought, ‘Ha! We can completely get rid of the cladding by using air as the second material”, she recalls. “Suddenly, we’d got rid of all compatibility issues.”
The simple, profound advance landed her a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, a prestigious British scheme for outstanding young and mid-career scientists who have the potential to become leaders in their field. The grant was fully funded for 10 years, and Monro – still only 27 – was the youngest person ever to win it. That year, the University of Southampton offered her a permanent position.
A meteoric rise to be sure. Yet by 2003 Monro seriously considered abandoning science. Married since the age of 21, she heard the tick of the biological clock and gave birth to her first child at 30 while at Southampton. She took six months of maternity leave then returned to work three days a week. “I remember thinking: ‘I want to be able to take him for swimming lessons, meet with other mums, I want to enjoy my baby’.” But the balancing act of career and motherhood proved tricky. “I was just sliding further and further behind: I had about six PhD students, I was running three or four grants, and I could only just tread water.”
She went up to four days but felt guilty about not putting in a full week. Sir David Payne, a photonics pioneer and director of her institute, sensed something was up, and called her into his office. “I explained that I wasn’t quite ready to give up that one day off a week, what with a one-year-old,” she recalls.
Monro will never forget what he said – and how it guaranteed she would stay in science. “He said to me, ‘You deliver in four days what most people do in five, so we’ll give you a full salary, and you just keep doing your four days’,” she smiles.
“I think he saw a great return on investment, because I just felt so empowered, so supported. It changed my whole psychology – massively. I went from feeling guilty that I wasn’t putting in enough, wasn’t coping and wasn’t delivering, to feeling … affirmation … Fairly soon, I was putting in for more grants, publishing more papers, getting more students. I built a big team – 25 people – and I was bringing in a lot of industry funding.”
She notes that study after study of career paths in science show the same pattern. It’s known as the ‘gender scissors’. Although more than half of student populations are female, the number of men and women in higher positions goes in opposite directions as time passes, resulting in women being underrepresented at the top echelons. In Europe, every female professor is matched by nine males – a pattern common in the developed world.
Monro is keenly aware of the effect – having almost succumbed herself. She believes it can be overcome with workplace flexibility and by affirming the value of women in science.
“I think we have women out there on the edge of the precipice who are juggling their science jobs with raising children or caring responsibilities, who feel enormously guilty about not delivering,” she says. “We pay them part-time salaries, but they’re probably delivering more because they’re always thinking about what they do, they’re emailing in the evenings and working on papers. We need to say to them, ‘We value what you’re doing’. You give them affirmation like that, you’d see it turned around. It did for me.”
In 2005, aged 31, she was lured back to Australia to set up the Centre of Expertise in Photonics at the University of Adelaide in collaboration with Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Organisation and the South Australian State Government. In 2009, she founded the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing and then in 2014, the Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP), to deploy the wizardry of photonics at the cellular level and below.
It may sound exhausting but Monro had already tested her mettle with a far tougher challenge: the birth of her twin boys six weeks premature in 2006. She went into labour while attending back-to-back meetings in Canberra in the afternoon, but insisted on flying back to Adelaide. What followed the births was, she recalls, “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. They couldn’t feed, couldn’t suckle, needed tube feeding, respirators and advanced medical care. I couldn’t bring them home for a whole month and had to essentially live between the hospital and a two-year-old at home.”
She also had to run the centre and her students. And it didn’t get any easier when the twins came home. But she learnt something about her ability to cope. “If I can manage a team of 30 people remotely, dealing with multiple industry requests and grants and post-docs and students, have a two-year-old at home, be expressing milk for two premature twins and dealing with acute reflux (throwing up half of what they ate for 11 months), and the sleep deprivation, and the fact you get one twin to sleep the other one wakes up, that you’ve then got 20 emails to answer, and the minister wants to speak to you. If you can do that, you can do anything.
“All my greatest career successes have happened since then, because I know how far I can push myself and what I can do. I know what reserves I’ve got to draw on,” she says.
Being a scientist who happens to be a woman, and talking about the challenges of giving birth to twins in the same breath as her achievements in science, doesn’t faze Monro. It’s an unspoken rule in science that women should not draw attention to their gender, she says – which she considers hogwash.
“I reject that utterly. I’ll never forget, I was wearing jewellery once and another female [physics] student commented, ‘How can you do that? You’re drawing attention to the fact you’re female’,” Monro laughs. “I just am who I am. I love clothes and jewellery and shoes. I’m happy to be an ambassador for femininity, for women being themselves and feeling they do not have to conform to some other model to succeed.” Her bespoke high heels are a testament to Monro’s powerful fusion of inventiveness, practicality and femininity.
“But I’m also very acutely aware that I’m usually introduced as the mother of three boys, or the wearer of good shoes, or some other physical trait. It’s just not quite fair, is it?”
What really matters to her, all these years later, is music. She’s president of the Burnside Symphony Orchestra, a community ensemble where she rehearses cello once a week, and performs four times a year. Her three boys all play instruments – trumpet, cello, piano, viola and oboe. And she freelances as a piano accompanist.
In August 2014, she was appointed deputy vice chancellor of research and innovation at the University of South Australia. She’s now passed on her leadership of the two centres she founded at the University of Adelaide, but continues her research work there as a fellow, as well as leading or collaborating on projects as an adjunct professor. Having just turned 42, she is now clearly headed for the top of the academic ladder, destined, no doubt, to lead one of Australia’s major universities or institutes somewhere, someday.
“I’ll always keep my hand in research,” she promises over her car’s hands-free telephone speaker, as she drives between musical engagements one weekend afternoon. “But I feel I can make a bigger difference at this level.”
Australian science better fasten its seat belt.
WILSON da SILVA is a science journalist in Sydney, and the founding editor of COSMOS.