Super problem solver
Among the sun-drenched picnics, barbecues, concerts, and waterfront festivities that mark our national day, Australia Day is also the day we honour outstanding achievement and merit of the highest-degree in service to Australia or humanity at large.
This year, New South Wales (NSW) Chief Scientist and Engineer, Professor Mary O’Kane AC was awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia in recognition of her contributions as one of Australia’s leading scientific experts and consultants.
It is certainly an honour that is representative of her lifelong passion, and exceptional career.
Professor O’Kane’s love of science and mathematics sprouted from the family dinner table while growing up in country Queensland. With her father a chemistry and maths teacher, and her mother an accountant, maths was often the accompaniment to the evening meal.
“At dinner, we would sit around the table doing maths problems,” says Professor O’Kane.
During her PhD studies in the 1970s, Professor O’Kane was a pioneer in automatic speech recognition. In the early 1980s she was responsible for the design and establishment of a spoken Australian English database to provide a basis for recognising certain classes of sounds as they occur in naturally spoken continuous speech.
From 1996 to 2001, Professor O’Kane was Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Adelaide – the first female Vice-Chancellor in the University’s 125-year history. She has also been the Chair of the Australian Centre for Renewable Energy from 2010 to 2012, and is a former Member of the Australian Research Council and the Co-operative Research Centres Committee. She has also previously been on the board of FH Faulding & Co Ltd and the board of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
Today Professor O’Kane is NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, consulting widely with academia, industry and government to ensure scientific knowledge and research can be adapted and used to benefit NSW. She is also a company director and Executive Chairman of Mary O’Kane & Associates Pty Ltd, a Sydney-based consulting practice specialising in innovation and major policy reviews.
“Some of the best things I have achieved have been in policy work,” says Professor O’Kane.
She is Chair of the NSW Medical Devices Fund, Chair of the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies Board for the University of Tasmania, Chair of the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information Board, and Chair of the Cooperative Research Centre for Space Environment Management Board. From 2013 – 2014, at the request of former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell, Professor O’Kane conducted an independent review of Coal Seam Gas activities in NSW, and presented her final recommendations to the government in September 2014.
Professor O’Kane is also Director of the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research and Innovation, an advisory role established to advance the understanding of medicinal cannabis, as well as monitor NSW funded clinical trials, and educate the community and stakeholders in regulatory processes and support innovation.
Professor O’Kane believes universities can be the super-problem-solvers to crack some of the hard problems and drive innovative contributions to society.
Researchers have the core capabilities for problem-solving. By their very nature, researchers embrace debate and challenge ideas and in fact, thrive on solving big, complex issues. Likewise, industry and government can be “intelligent posers of problems and intelligent absorbers of the results,” says Professor O’Kane.
It is on this premise that Professor O’Kane believes collaboration between university expertise, government, and industry is the critical way forward.
“Universities, because of their research expertise, are good at posing and refining problems and working together with industry and government to ask and articulate what the issue is. And universities are great connectors with a strong international reach. Ask an academic to solve a hard problem and if they don’t know how, they know who will,” says Professor O’Kane.
Nurturing our next generation of super-problem-solvers is therefore just as critical. Professor O’Kane is without doubt a shining role model for young scientists and a strong advocate for women in science.
“We are working very hard to get more women in science and particularly in engineering, making sure they get to senior roles and increasing the numbers in the industry,” says Professor O’Kane.
And it starts from the ground up, inspiring students in NSW schools to discover the wonderful world of science and maths.
“The vision I have is that every school child will love maths, and we will have lots more people go on to do science and engineering, so Australia will be an even better innovation player,” says Professor O’Kane.