How ocean currents helped Dr Adele Morrison find her path

30 Nov 2022

Oceanographer Dr Adele Morrison is working on the frontline of the climate crisis. Her research is crucial to our understanding of how climate change is impacting global sea levels.

This passion for solving some of the world's biggest scientific problems recently saw her awarded one of the top prizes in Australian science, but despite all her success, she didn't always see a place for herself in the scientific community.

Morrison took a few detours via quantum physics and teaching before finding her way to climate science.

Now she's passionate about encouraging more women to find their own path to a career in STEM.

"I always really liked science. But early on in my career I had very few women role models at all. You'd see all these male professors working 50- or 60-hour weeks, and that seemed like it would be very hard for me to balance with wanting to have a family and take time off to be with my kids-something I knew I wanted to do," Morrison says.

"I've worked part-time for the past seven years, taking 12 months of parental leave when each of my kids was born. Luckily science has gone well for me alongside that. I think it's important for younger women coming through to know that it's possible to have good work-life balance and still do great science."

Working in climate science can be confronting, but Morrison has a few tricks up her sleeve to make sure she isn't overwhelmed by the gravity of the situation.

"It can be difficult- we're essentially trying to figure out how bad it's going to be. There's been years of inaction and if you think about that constantly it's depressing," Morrison says.

"I tend to focus on the really interesting science problems in front of me. Why is the ocean around Antarctica warming? How does the chaotic nature of the ocean currents affect how they will respond to changing winds? I like being able to really get down in to the details.

"It's motivating to know your science might be able to help find a solution or bring more attention to the problem."

She's also keen for her children to understand the challenges that lie ahead in dealing with the climate crisis.

"We talk a lot about science and maths, I've taken my kids to climate strikes quite often, they're very aware of climate change and how we might possibly be able to solve it."

Morrison is globally recognised for her innovative approach to looking at how changing ocean conditions impact sea level and climate.

A key part of this work is using high resolution ocean models to understand how Antarctica - the largest ice sheet on the planet- is affected by what's happening in the surrounding ocean.

In 2018 she was part of research team that found Antarctica is not as isolated from the rest of Earth as first thought, with foreign kelp drifting 20,000 kilometres before ending up on Antarctica's icy shores.

It was the longest biological rafting event ever recorded and helped scientists revaluate the science of ocean drift, used to track plastics, debris and other floating material.

Her research is also hugely significant to Australia, where 85 per cent of our population live in areas that may be affected by rising sea levels during the next century.

Morrison says being awarded the McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year as part of the 2022 Prime Minister's Prizes for Science is motivation to keep going.

"In science it can be easy to compare yourself to all the amazing people out there doing amazing science. Like many others I've suffered from imposter syndrome, so it's nice to be recognised like this."

Asked what she loves most about her work, Morrison is quick to name two things - problem solving and teamwork.

"I love figuring out how things work, but I also love the teamwork.  

"People might think of science as a solitary endeavour- someone stuck in a lab on their own late at night. But that's not how science works at lot of the time. Most of my research is done in teams; working with a diverse group of people we're able to solve problems more efficiently- and it's a lot more fun!

"I hope my work can inspire the next generation of scientists to unravel new discoveries to limit the impacts of climate change and transition us to a zero-emission world."