Chief scientist Caroline McMillen taking SA research to the world

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By Melissa Keogh

Six months into her three-year tenure as South Australia’s Chief Scientist and Professor Caroline McMillen is working towards her aim of taking the state’s health and science capabilities to the world.

Lured back to SA in 2018 after spending seven years in NSW, biomedical expert Prof McMillen is confident SA’s health research outcomes and infrastructure are “well above world-class” and our transforming industries capable of attracting international interest.

“I know from the work I do and access to detailed analyses that exist, that SA’s research is well above world standard,” she says. “The translation of that research delivers value to the state, it’s what brings people into SA, it builds new opportunities for business and industry and it’s what builds a global footprint to put SA on the map.”

“World-class, high-quality research, when it includes collaboration and engagement with industry and government, drives and delivers real impact for our economy, our health and our environment.”

Prof McMillen draws attention to the work required to attract over $100 million in funding for a co-operative research centre focused on SA satellites, an example of how great research, collaboration and investment can build a new space industry sector right here in the state.

Succeeding former Chief Scientist Leanna Read, Prof McMillen gives independent advice to the State Government, education institutions and industry on matters of science, research, technology and innovation.

SA’s chief scientist Caroline McMillen returned to SA after seven years as vice chancellor at the University of Newcastle. She is pictured at SAHMRI. Photo by JKTP.

Prof McMillen’s own research is internationally recognised, in particular, her research into the impact of the nutritional environment in early development on cardiovascular health and metabolic disease later in life.

Born in Northern Ireland and growing up in England, Prof McMillen went on to attend Oxford University, where she completed a BA (Honours) and a Doctor of Philosophy. She also completed her medical training, graduating with a MB, BChir from the University of Cambridge.

Moving to Australia in the early 1990s, Prof McMillen launched a career at Victoria’s Monash University in academic leadership roles before a call came for her to head to SA to lead the University of Adelaide’s Department of Physiology.

Prof McMillen’s family has been based in SA ever since, with her three children raised here and her husband still working as a doctor in a busy general practice at Christie’s Beach.

In 2011, she left SA to become the University of Newcastle’s vice chancellor and was instrumental in driving collaboration between industry, researchers, start-ups and investors, leading the institution towards its ranking in the top 1% of universities worldwide.

During her time in Newcastle, Prof McMillen travelled regularly back to SA to be with family. However, it wasn’t until she made the move back permanently last year that she was able to appreciate the full extent of Adelaide’s rejuvenation, both from a lifestyle perspective – small bars, laneways, and affordable living – and from an industry and economic perspective.

“There is a literature on ‘magnet cities’, cities that have gone through a period of decline and then transition to blossom,” Prof McMillen says.

“At the heart of that transition are creative, young professionals. Whether it’s Pittsburg or Barcelona, across the world you can chart journeys of these cities from decline to success. I think the creative industries in Adelaide and the strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) base provides the city with a real buzz and sets Adelaide on a clear upward trajectory.”

Settling into her role as Chief Scientist, Prof McMillen is engaging with businesses, government departments and key industry stakeholders in a range of STEM fields and is currently working on The State of Science Plan with government agencies to determine future priorities and strategies to build SA as ‘The State of Science’.

She also meets with start-ups, university students and faculty members, as well as school students to discuss pathways into STEM careers and engage with the next generation of researchers.

SA chief scientist Professor Caroline McMillen is a champion for science education and gender equality in STEM. Photo by JKTP.

Prof McMillen is a champion for gender equality in STEM and highlighting issues that are still prevalent in the sector, including the gender pay gap.

A study conducted by Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel showed in 2011 that only 16% of people with a STEM qualification were female.

“When I became a scientist many years ago at Oxford I was pretty sure that we’d have any gender issues sorted in a few years, but it turns out I was wrong,” Prof McMillen says. “I’ll be more than 100 years old before 50% of our professors in science are women and frankly I don’t think we should have to wait that long!”

As part of her role, she continues to champion women at all stages of their careers in STEM and is determined that SA can lead the change towards gender equity in science careers.

“I’m keen to be able to do that and make sure we’re having the outcomes that will set the stage for success for girls and women in STEM,” Prof McMillen says.

“SA has reached many gender equality milestones, we were the first in the world to run for parliament, so if there’s any state that can do it, it’s us.”

Prof Caroline McMillen is Brand South Australia’s latest I Choose SA ambassador for the health industry.

Industry in focus: Health

Throughout the month of April, the state’s health industry will be explored as part of I Choose SA.

South Australia’s health sector is among the best in the world, renowned for developing new and advanced technologies and research outcomes. Our health industry infrastructure is world-class, providing new pathways and job opportunities, as well as a growing potential for health tourism.

Read more health stories here.

Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.

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