Solving Naval Submarine Corrosion Problems and Championing Women in STEM and Defence

Solving Naval Submarine Corrosion Problems and Championing Women in STEM and Defence

When Jen Wood, a past PhD student of La Trobe University set out to broaden her understanding of microbial communities, little did she know it would lead her on a journey – and a career – within the exciting world of defence science.

Jen’s entry into the world of defence science was unconventional. Far removed from the laboratory, her higher education began with a passion for painting. She plunged into attaining a degree in visual arts, but quickly realised she was not cut out to promote her art to sell. “It’s hard to do the sales pitch, or be open to critique about work that can be very personal,” she says.

After dabbling in hospitality and management for a brief period, Jen realised she needed a more complex problem to solve, and returned to university with the aim of becoming a vet. It was not long before she was introduced to the idea of research as a career – research not just on mice and cells but on plants, soil and microorganisms, something that had always fascinated her. “From there it was a series of finding the courage to ask people questions, and finding doors that seem shut can be opened just by showing an interest,” Jen says. A fortuitous meeting with La Trobe University’s accomplished Professor Ashley Franks, led to a PhD project in his laboratory, and thus began Jen’s foray into the world of defence.

The support that Jen received from a Defence Science Institute (DSI) grant for her PhD research studying the role of microorganisms in heavy metal bioremediation propelled her research. Her thesis was awarded for being among the top 5% of PhD theses at La Trobe, an achievement that paved the way for her entry into defence science. Through her newly forged defence network, Jen was offered a position on a pilot project investigating Microbiologically Influenced Corrosion (MIC) in Royal Australian Navy submarines - funded by the government’s Department of Defence Science and Technology (DST). The success of this collaboration led to the offer of a post-doctoral position at Swinburne University of Technology to work on another DST funded project.

Having just given birth to her first child, the DSI grant was critical in giving Jen the opportunity to step back into an active research role following her maternity leave. “I found the defence sector to be very empathetic and supportive of women in research. My return to work was flexible and ramped up in stages to allow me to transition in my own time. The folks at Swinburne were very conscious of my situation and helped me navigate a two-day work week. This support was key, because when you start a new job part time, and only know how to be full-time, you really do put pressure on yourself to be as productive, if not more productive than you have been in the past – which is just not feasible.”

“Further, my work on defence projects has revealed to me the potential for applying ecological knowledge I have from my PhD in more applied fields,” Jen adds.

Currently, Dr Wood has come full circle. She is co-lab head of the Applied and Environmental Microbiology Group at La Trobe University where she spends four days of the week leading the environmental research steam, devoting the rest of her time to her young daughter. “I really want to have quality time with her while she is little, and I’m in a fortunate position where I can do that, so I will,” she says. Through her work she is paving the way for future women in STEM and defence, mentoring a female Early Career Researcher investigating microbes in MIC.

Looking ahead, Dr Wood is currently pioneering the development of a trait-based way of observing microbial communities, research with broad application to farmers, nutritionists and ship engineers, furthering her involvement in defence. “It’s not a small challenge,” she says with her signature smile, “but I’m giving it a red hot go!”




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