Professor Caroline McMillen: Chief Scientist for South Australia

Caroline McMillen is the Chief Scientist for South Australia. Though loving English and History, in her senior years it was Biology and understanding how the human body works that caught her interest.

Professor Caroline McMillen recently received an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for her “distinguished service to medical science, and to tertiary education, to the community of South Australia, and to social equity."

See Caroline's story below, and download the accompanying display brochure here.

Life for women scientists

Caroline read Marie Curie in the 1970’s during her first experience as a researcher when she was doing her Doctor of Philosophy at Oxford University. As she read it she became aware that life for women scientists in the past - even for double Nobel Prize winners - had been extremely difficult, not because of their talent but because of their gender. At that time Caroline was absolutely clear the future would be different from the past – but she keeps this book as a reminder of what still has to be done in 2020 to support young women researchers achieve their potential and to ensure science benefits from a rich diversity of talent.

Marie Curie

Book: Marie Curie


Family life is central for Caroline and her husband, who is a doctor. At one stage they had three children under five years, and she says that patience is needed if parents are to find a rhythm and a balance in life that works in their family. She remembers writing research papers with a baby in her arms and juggling attending conferences overseas while her husband was the sole parent back at home with three under fives, and that for their family this worked. She says, however that all families are different and it doesn’t matter what solutions work for others – you always know when things are in or out of balance for your own family.  

Caroline laughs when she says what works also keeps changing - when her children grew older they would be quite clear about their expectations of their mother. They were happy to call it and say "Yeah, mum, get back to the family conversation" when she would drift off into thinking through solutions to her current research problem.

three men and a young women in a cafe setting

Caroline McMillen's sons, daughter and husband


Caroline’s father was a teacher, getting his degree as a returned serviceman after WW2 and her parents wanted their three daughters to also have an education. Her elder sister became a remarkable teacher. Her younger sister went through Law and became a Judge. At the time she wasn't aware of how few people from her background were able to take up the opportunity of a good education and she has worked through her career to support equity of access to education for people of all backgrounds.

A young man

Caroline McMillen's father

Treasured items

This Academic scarf is in the colours of Queens University, Belfast and belonged to Caroline’s father, representing his graduation from that University as a returned serviceman. A treasured item, she held it on her lap when her portrait was painted in 2018, as the retiring Vice Chancellor at the University of Newcastle in NSW.

A scarf with black, green, purple and red stripes

Caroline's father's academic scarf

Taking time out

During her first year of Medicine at Cambridge, when she was a busy intern working 30 hour shifts at Cambridge, Caroline still found opportunities to take time out, in true 80’s style. 

A younf woman with curly hair ready to go out

Caroline McMillen during her first year as a Doctor at Cambridge in the 1980s

Doctor of Philosophy

Caroline finished her Doctor of Philosophy (D. Phil) thesis at Oxford in 1979. It focused on how babies grow before birth and what determines the timing of birth. She wanted to understand how a baby responds to changes in its environment before birth. Her desire to understand the unknown began at Oxford and her passion to add value in the global field of research about development and the early origins of our later health continues to drive her research.

A Doctor of Philosophy thesis, opened to a page of images

Caroline McMillen's Doctor of Philosophy thesis

Key to the City

In 2011, Caroline accepted the role of Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University in NSW. The remarkable Newcastle Port reminded her of how as a child she loved looking at the view of Belfast Harbour and the legacy of Newcastle’s steel making industry brought back memories of growing up as a young adult in an English steel making town. Being there she felt that Newcastle was a 'complete fit' for her. She particularly enjoyed the people of Newcastle - “I felt immediately after I arrived that Novocastrians were people whose values of hard work, honesty and pride in their City are values I know from my own childhood. This is me.”  

The University had a focus on equity and excellence, educating students from different backgrounds to fulfil their potential. The University has a long successful history of educating indigenous student in all professions – Engineering, Law, Medicine, Education, Nursing etc. Caroline acknowledges that as Vice-Chancellor she was privileged to work alongside generous indigenous leaders.

At the end of her seven years as Vice Chancellor, Caroline was awarded the Key to the City of Newcastle by the Lord Mayor of Newcastle for her leadership and contribution to the economic and social transformation of the City.

Ket to the city of Newcastle in a wooden box on a background of red fabric

Caroline McMillen's Key to the City of Newcastle

Advice for young women

“If you have a ‘quiet’ ambition to do something that can make a real difference to the world you live in but you worry whether you are the right person to even aim for that ambition because you are not sure of the path to achieve it or whether it could be achievable for you... I would say trust your inner voice, test that ambition; the journey may not be straightforward but never lose faith in yourself and keep moving through. There is everything to be gained from trusting that your future is in good hands – your own.”

Professor McMillen's story will be followed by:

  • Colonel (Ret’d) Pamela Melroy, Former NASA Astronaut and Director, Space Technology and Policy at Nova Systems, 20 August - 15 November 2020

  • Dr Rachael King, Senior Research Scientist at the South Australian Museum, 19 November 2020 - 7 February 2021

You can also hear Ms Emily Hack's story about her journey towards becoming a Graduate Engineer at SA Water, which has been on display since 11 February 2020.

This series is made possible with support from the Hon. Dr Diana Laidlaw AM.

Production Partner: Randy Larcombe Film + Stills

Series Partner: The University of Adelaide

Coming up next


Hear another science story