When Jo White lived and worked in Sydney, taking her two sons to Questacon in Canberra was one of the highlights of school holidays.
“They loved the place,” she said.
Turn the clock forward a few years and now Ms White can claim a title that most mothers only dream about – her teenage/young adult sons reckon she’s “cool”.
Ms White said she was delighted her sons Jeremy, 18, and Angus, 21, along with her husband, Stuart, were so proud of her as the new director of the award-winning science and technology centre.
“Questacon was a real focus of our early lives,” she said. “They’re like me, we all love science.”
Ms White was appointed director of Questacon last month, following the retirement of Professor Graham Durant AM, who held the position for almost 20 years.
She comes to the job with a strong science background that also includes conservation, environmental management and more than 25 years’ experience at the senior level of the public sector. She holds a Bachelor of Applied Science majoring in biology, a postgraduate diploma in business and is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
“Science has always been a passion for me,” Ms White said. “I always felt connected to nature, so at school I was particularly interested in biology.”
Growing up on a farm in Victoria, Ms White was the first female scientific officer in the Ballarat region with the then Victorian Department of Conservation, Forest and Lands.
After moving to Sydney in the 1990s, she held a number of positions across the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service, contributing to creating more than a million hectares of new national parks. She also led the way in cutting-edge science in collaboration with the CSIRO on the status of biodiversity in NSW.
Since 2018, she was Director of Science, Education and Conservation at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, heading up the National Herbarium of NSW, the Australian PlantBank and the Education and Engagement Centre at the Australian Institute of Botanical Science, looking after more than 100 staff, 400 volunteers and $330 million worth of collection assets. She also led the digitisation of the herbarium collection and relocation of staff and collection from the Sydney Botanic Gardens to the new state-of-the-art facility at Mount Annan in western Sydney.
On day one of her new job in Canberra, Ms White said she wore a Questacon uniform, “because I wanted everyone to know from the start that I am part of the team”.
“I had the privilege of joining our Science Time event on that day, which is for nought to five-year-olds where they learn about the human body,” she said.
“I loved it. It was wonderful to talk to the grandparents and parents there with their children. For me, these early years are so important in the learning process.”
Ms White said she recognised early on that one of Questacon’s greatest assets was its staff and particularly, their passion.
“They are a massive asset,” she said. “So I am very keen to talk to everyone, listen to staff, to stakeholders and visitors too, as we look towards framing our future.
“Questacon has always been about making science fun. But it is so much more than that.”
She highlighted the launch last week of Questacon’s Cyber Castle Challenge for primary school children, which is designed to help them understand the importance of cybersecurity in these increasingly challenging online days.
“Just by using things they’d understand, like with chickens and then you had the fox, which was the hacker, it helps children understand and makes them aware of the cyber changes with us today and about who you should trust.
“Our job is to make issues like this relevant to children, give them the best opportunities to understand.”
Ms White said she had also spent her first weeks in the job talking to staff and volunteers, inviting their comments about what Questacon was doing well and where there were areas for change. She described the culture as “fabulous” with so many “creative” people.
“What many of them told me was that the reason they were so passionate about working here was because it didn’t matter what level they were, what job they were in, they felt they could contribute their ideas to people who could make a difference, make them happen.”