STEMM PROFILE: Dr Sue Barrell, FTSE | Deputy Director, Observations and Infrastructure | Bureau of Meteorology | Australian Government | Melbourne | VIC

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“…a PhD is more about how you do research than what research you do. The skills I learnt – asking questions, understanding principles, gathering and analysing evidence, developing and testing theories, writing well and persuasively, thinking outside the box, have proved invaluable throughout my career…”

Dr Sue Barrell is passionate about the application of science to delivering highly valued outcomes for Australians. She has had a long career in the Bureau of Meteorology, Australia’s national weather, climate and water agency. Her experience spans roles right across the Bureau, from forecasting to research to science and climate change policy to Senior Executive. Since 2017, Sue has brought many of her passions together in her role as the Bureau’s Chief Scientist, and Group Executive, Science and Innovation.  Her portfolio of responsibilities includes Science to Services, Enterprise Innovation, Global and National Science Relationships and Diversity, Inclusion and STEM.

Sue spent an extended period with responsibility for the sustained operation of Australia’s highly distributed meteorological infrastructure and capability, delivering comprehensive observations of the earth system essential to underpin the Bureau’s climate and weather forecasting services. As Chief Information Officer, Sue implemented a major organisational change initiative. Her research credentials include publications in satellite meteorology, cold front dynamics and cloud band climatology.

Sue has been actively involved in international efforts in relation to climate policy and the coordination and integration of earth observations, including through the Global Climate Observing System, the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Sue was Australia’s Principal Representative to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and a member of WMO Executive Council during 2016-17, and served as Vice President, WMO Commission for Basic Systems from 2008 to 2016. She contributes to and leads several high-level WMO initiatives and serves on several boards and advisory committees.

Sue gained a PhD in Astronomy from ANU, a BSc (Hons) in Physics from the University of Canterbury (NZ) and a Graduate Diploma in Meteorology. Sue was recognised as a Fellow of the Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) in 2013, and is a Graduate member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. She has a BSc (Hons) in Physics and a PhD in Astronomy.

Sue is a member of the Superstars of STEM program with Science and Technology Australia and is a committed advocate for empowering girls and women to take up science careers.

What is one thing you would change to improve the gender balance in senior ranks of scientists?

Start earlier! We have to set the scene for future science leaders while still at school, with role models demonstrating the possibilities of science as a career choice, encouraging girls’ passion for science and, most importantly, building their confidence, resilience and belief in what they can achieve.

What support structures did/do you have in place that have facilitated your success?

I am lucky to have a really supportive partner, but even so, I could not have maintained a strong commitment to my career without a seriously trustworthy and reliable child carer for our two children. It was a private, commercial arrangement and so there was no guilt about relying on family!

Do you have a mentor? What is the most important advice they have given you?

The mentor who influenced me most didn’t so much advise me, but instilled in me total trust and confidence that I could achieve whatever I set my mind on. He encouraged me to seek challenging opportunities and left no doubt that I would do anything else but succeed.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to women just starting their careers in science?

We are not all motivated by a research career and for many of us, publishing papers just isn’t enough. Many talented scientists feel achievement from applying their scientific skills in more practical ways, in industry and government, from weather forecasting to science communication to science policy to executive leadership.

If you have done multiple types of roles (e.g. in industry, academia, education, business, government), what skills from your PhD could be applied to all?

My PhD supervisor insisted (rightly) that a PhD is more about how you do research than what research you do. The skills I learnt – asking questions, understanding principles, gathering and analysing evidence, developing and testing theories, writing well and persuasively, thinking outside the box, have proved invaluable throughout my career.

Twitter: @sue_barrell

LinkedIn: Sue Barrell


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