Profile: Scientia Professor Trevor McDougall

Scientia Professor Trevor McDougall
Thursday, 19 April, 2018
Trevor McDougall

Scientia Professor Trevor McDougall, who was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia this year, shares his personal journey that led to this most recent recognition.

Early Influences

I began the path that has led to the AC with some advantages and a single large disadvantage. I grew up in Adelaide where my family’s home was located directly opposite CSIRO’s Division of Mathematics and Statistics and this may have planted the seed of, one day, becoming a research scientist.

I attended Unley High school and benefitted greatly from a string of committed, inspiring teachers and a friendly, positively competitive environment.

Like many undergraduates of the early 1970s, an era when only 12 per cent of the student-age population undertook tertiary education, I was the first person in my extended family to go to university. Since I knew a couple of engineers and my abilities lay in this direction, I enrolled in a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Adelaide, where Dr Gary L. Brown supervised my Honours thesis and was a key inspirational influence.

Until near the end of my undergraduate days I had one large disadvantage, namely that I had been brought up in a closed religious sect (the Exclusive Brethren) that forbade marrying, having friends, eating or drinking with anyone that did not belong to this reclusive sect.

This sect also forbade listening to the radio or watching TV, while using a computer was soon to be outlawed. Slowly at first, and then growing into an absolute conviction, I decided that this strange religious sect made no sense and that I couldn’t imagine spending my life in it.

So, in the last term of my fourth year at Adelaide university, I faced my parents and told them that I could not remain in the sect that had directed their whole lives. I knew the consequences that would inevitably follow from this decision, namely that I was never to see my parents, siblings or friends again (apart from a few periods of 10 minutes each).

Such a life-changing decision was incredibly difficult to make but, having made it, I felt empowered and a whole world of opportunities suddenly became possible. I started a new life at age 21.

I did my PhD in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge, under the guidance of Professors Stewart Turner and Paul Linden, doing mostly laboratory-based studies on turbulent mixing processes in the ocean.

Being a physical oceanographer

My career as a physical oceanographer has taken me to ANU, CSIRO, and for the past six years, UNSW Sydney. Since very early in my career it was obvious that we humans were changing the climate of our planet through our release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

At about the same time (mid 1980s) the El Niño / La Niña phenomenon was discovered, and in the past 30 years the ocean’s roles in both climate variability and climate change have been the main reasons for undertaking research in physical oceanography, since the ocean, with its huge mass, is the dominant thermal flywheel of the climate system.

Countries around the world need answers to climate questions such as “will the rainfall and the growing conditions in specific regions improve or deteriorate as the planet continues to experience global warming?” To find answers to these and a host of other climate-related questions computer models are needed of (a) the global atmosphere, (b) the global ocean, (c) the sea ice and glaciers in the polar regions, and (d) the ways in which the atmosphere, ocean and ice interact.

Constructing these computer models so that they behave realistically is a massive global challenge and, in the case of ocean models, is undertaken by many hundreds of scientists around the world, including myself.

My research has concentrated on understanding turbulent mixing processes in the ocean and the ways in which these processes are incorporated into computer models of the ocean and of climate. I have discovered four new ocean mixing processes and my work has led to improvements in climate models and in the ways that oceanographic observations and model output data are analysed and interpreted, thereby increasing our confidence in models of the coupled atmosphere-ocean-ice climate system.

How to be original?

To really achieve something significant in your chosen area of work, you need to be passionate about what you do. And not all of us find the niche that is truly “us” immediately after we graduate from high school or university. We need to keep searching until we find the area in which we can make a difference – only then will we be achieving our full potential, only then will work be fun.

It’s not easy to put my finger on what it takes to be original in science. Firstly, you need to know enough of the background knowledge in your field that the cutting edges and the unsolved issues can be identified. Secondly, you need to ask the hard questions - not simply follow the crowd. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, you cannot allow yourself to be too busy.

That is, it’s easy to be so busy achieving the things that you know how to do that there is little time left to explore the difficult or off-beat things that lie beside the main highway. Some of these are gems that will reward close attention, but only if you make the time to examine them.

Things I’ve learnt along the journey

It was a bit of a rude surprise when, early in my career, I began to have manuscripts rejected by journals. I was to discover that original ideas are often met with resistance; my best five papers were all initially rejected by leading journals. My advice to young scientists is not to be discouraged when reviewers don’t understand your work and when the editor rejects your manuscript.

Rather, take this rejection as a badge of honour; perhaps your rejected manuscript is a great piece of work that is too original for the reviewers to grasp on first reading. I say that if you haven’t had a paper rejected by a good journal then you’re probably not aiming high enough!

Along the way there will be setbacks. The key is to move on past them, to accept the things that you can’t change and work on the things you can change. Adopt a positive attitude: a positive attitude can inspire others to be the best they can be, whereas a negative attitude doesn’t, and can’t.

Support along the way

Another huge advantage that I’ve had throughout my whole career is an incredibly supportive wife and children. My wife, Brita, put her career on hold for 11 years to be a full-time mother, doing the lion’s share of bringing up our three children, and was very willing to go on five extended sabbaticals overseas with the family.

In this way my career has been boosted compared with the careers of those female contemporaries who have shouldered more than half the responsibility of raising their children. As a country, as a community of academics, we can and we must do better.

One of the most satisfying things about a career in research is seeing young talent maturing and succeeding in research. I have been incredibly fortunate to have worked with some outstanding early career researchers, and recognition such as the AC is also testament to their achievements.

It has been an enormous privilege to be able to spend my whole career to date pursuing topics that I find fascinating, all the while knowing that the increased understanding of how the ocean affects the climate of the planet has immediate and lasting benefits for humanity.

To achieve a scientific breakthrough is a wonderful thrill; to do so jointly with colleagues is even better, making bonds of friendship for life. To be recognised for one’s achievements by scientific organisations is a bonus. To be recognised by one’s country with the civil honour that is the AC is a different type of recognition and is quite humbling and unexpected.

I trust that the increasing recognition of scientific achievements in Australia will help swing the political will in this country towards evidence-based government policy, and towards more meaningful action on reducing Australia’s carbon footprint. We humans have inhabited this earth for thousands of generations, and yet we are now on a trajectory to deliver a seriously degraded planet to our children and grandchildren, with the damage having been done in just six generations.

Are we really going to knowingly do this? This is the biggest question that we, as a species, face. We now know the magnitude of the challenge and we have many of the tools at our disposal to address the challenge. What we are currently missing, especially in Australia, is the political will.

Trevor McDougall AC is Scientia Professor of Ocean Physics and ARC Laureate Fellow in the School of Mathematics and Statistics, UNSW. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy Sciences, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and is currently Vice-President of the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Oceans (IAPSO,

Originally published in Inside UNSW.