From science to film festivals: life as a public servant in Antarctica

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday August 14, 2020

Adult Weddell seal in front of ship RSV Aurora Australis, Mawson Station, Antarctica. Adobe

Taking up a diverse role outside of Canberra can be a rewarding and “fascinating” experience for Australian Public Service employees, according to Matt Williams, station leader at Mawson Station in Antarctica.

Appearing on the first episode of the Chief Operating Officers Committee’s Connecting Us  podcast, Williams provided insight into the work of public servants in Antarctica, how his career led him to become station leader, and why it’s important to value diversity and inclusion even in the most isolated place in the world.

Williams works for the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s Australian Antarctic Division, which runs Australia’s Antarctic program and manages the assets, infrastructure and personnel on the continent and in the Southern Ocean, and oversees the scientific activities in cooperation with other countries.

The division also helps oversee national and strategic interests on the Australian Antarctic Territory with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Leading a team of 19 people, Williams has many of the same responsibilities as his Canberra colleagues, such as strategic leadership and championing the community. His job also involves many unique tasks, including operations in aviation and shipping, and testing for nuclear particles in the atmosphere at the ARPANSA facility.

Recent activities have included drilling sea ice to map a path out to an emperor penguin rookery, and directing a short film.

“We have the Antarctic Film Festival airing this week. I did that in the last few days,” he said.

“So there are 25 stations, other countries as well … And the film festival happens once a year. It’s called a 48 hour film festival. That’s really fun. They give you five items and then you have 48 hours to make and edit the film.”

He’s also the local postmaster and policeman.

Williams noted that Australia played a key role in leading the creation of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, and as a result continues to have “ambitious” objectives on the continent. He said public servants have an “opportunity to craft something new” there.

“While obviously maintaining our leadership role here as being one of the few countries initially that crafted the agreements and the framework that we operate in, obviously we have to maintain our footprint and stay at the cutting edge of technology and all those types of things,” he said.

“But the most interesting stuff is the working together, the cooperation and science, understanding the environment and climate and all those types of things.

“That said, you’re going to be a bit of a realist. You’ve probably seen in the papers and in the news that, you know, the global power struggle and the shifts in the dynamics in the world are touching the polar regions now. So there is a little, there is a sense of, it’s not competition really, but there’s a sense of revitalised urgency to our role in making sure that we maintain our leadership down here in partnership with our friends.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused people all over the world to rethink the way they work and live, not much has changed in Antarctica, Williams said. Stations have been working to keep the virus out, however, which has meant restrictions on intracontinental flights, and changes to scientific activities.

“All Antarctic programmes across the globe are doing the same thing to protect the people on the continent more than anything. So they’re trying to reduce the number of touch points and increase the number of barriers to that sort of transmission,” he said.

“There’s a lot of science that’s done remotely and can be done on station by the people that are already there. So we’ll still be doing science. We’ll just have a little bit of a different look this year.”

The benefits of a diverse career

Prior to being posted to Antarctica, Williams worked in Africa, Solomon Islands, and Iraq, and led Australia’s aid programme to Africa. His diverse experience with the APS also involves pandemic preparedness work, Williams noted.

“And then after a short stint back in Canberra, that’s when I went over to Afghanistan and joined up with NATO International Security Assistance Force there. That was meant to only be for a year, but I ended up staying for three, which is a pretty interesting time and really got to understand people and what motivates them in those really difficult environments,” he said.

“I then went back to DFAT in Canberra for a bit for the Innovation Exchange and then went to the Department of Health, and led their international area. And interestingly enough, we worked on things which are pretty pertinent at the moment. We worked on pandemic preparedness and health security, global health security, which was fascinating.

“Interestingly enough, before I came here, when I was recruited as station leader, they asked me to come down to Hobart for a brief period, and I did six months there as the general manager for transformation, leading the Antarctic Division’s major transformation efforts to modernise and reform as an APS organisation … Now I’m here looking out over a frozen ocean in front of me and behind me, a kilometre thick ice plateau. Pretty incredible.”

He encouraged everyone in the APS to consider taking up a role in Antarctica, or in another diverse role outside of Canberra.

“There’s some fascinating things you can do, some really incredible places. And I’ve had the chance to see sort of the last layer of the onion, so to speak, of everyone to the core of them working in these really remote and interesting and sort of intense environments,” he said.

Some of Williams’ most amazing experiences in Antarctica have included being followed by penguins, and watching the aurora nearly every night.

“You know, we cut a hole in the sea ice the other week to have a midwinter swim … Because we’d done that, because the whole ocean is frozen, you know, we had a little seal come and visit us and pop his head up through a little hole and decide to make that his own, which is great,” he said.

“But the most surprising thing, the most surprising thing overall is the colour. It’s just incredible here. I thought when I’d get here that I’d be really sort of muted and white and grey and blue … But you get to see the most fascinating things and colours I’ve never seen; fluorescent and neons and pastels, it’s just incredible.”

Fostering diversity and inclusion in Antarctica

Williams reflected on the importance of fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion — even in Antarctica.

“There are lots of problems here you need to deal with and the likelihood of success increases exponentially with diverse views and perspectives. So diversity doesn’t only bring about new ideas and new people into a space, but diversity is really valuable because it actually liberates us from our cultures and moulds and expectations too, to unleash diversity of our own views and thoughts,” he said.

“I think the Australian APS understands that. You know, me as an immigrant and a man that happens to be fortunate enough to be loved by and love the same person for over 25 years. That diversity is really, really being felt by me.”

He noted that diversity has been key to the “tiny little town” that is his current workplace and home, because the town can only survive with a range of skill sets.

“And everybody here has a role that’s critical to not only living, but thriving. So everyone’s valued, you know. So we’ve got a chef here. We’ve got a field training officer. They’ve normally got some sort of outdoors training, education and experience, we’ve got a station leader, we’ve got communications specialists, I.T. people. We’ve got electricians trades. And in a normal year, we’d have scientists as well,” he said.

“So the diversity there and the value that everyone places in everyone else’s work really helps the cohesion… It’s a really fun place to be and to see how that diversity works and how people really accept it immediately. And you wouldn’t really come here if you didn’t have that sort of open mind anyway.”


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