Inspiring Women of CAP: Dr Tanya Ogilvie-White

07 March 2018

To mark International Women's Day this year we are celebrating some of the professional and academic staff who make our College a world-leading insitution for research and teaching on Asia and the Pacific.

In this piece, we chat to nuclear disarmament expert and Research Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Dr Tanya Ogilvie-White.


What inspired you to get into your field of study and why?

‘I study nuclear weapons-related issues’ isn’t something people are expecting to hear when they ask a stranger what they do, so I’m often asked how and why I chose my career. I became interested in nuclear deterrence, arms control and disarmament when I was studying for my master’s degree in international studies at Warwick University, where an inspirational professor asked me if I felt lucky to have survived the Cold War. The date was 1993, Russia and the United States had just signed a major nuclear arms reduction treaty, and the world was brimming with optimism for a more peaceful future. Yes, I did feel lucky, but his class had taught me that thousands of nuclear weapons remained on high alert, and that a second wave of nuclear proliferation was on the cards. Later that year, I decided to study nuclear proliferation dynamics in greater depth, including the conditions under which strategic stability might falter.

Who is a woman in your field who you look up to?

I have huge respect for so many women who have chosen a career in defence and security, whether in the armed forces, police, government or academia. The challenges involved in working in an area that is so male-dominated are obvious. To excel despite these challenges, and to do so while constantly questioning established wisdom, requires courage, grit and determination. One person who particularly stands out for me in this regard is Dr Patricia Lewis, Research Director of the international security programme at Chatham House, London. She has dedicated her life to exposing the risks inherent in nuclear deterrence, and her deep knowledge, research rigour, project management, network-building, and international outreach activities have always impressed me.

What is a teaching/research project you are currently working on that motivates you?

I’ve recently embarked on a project I’ve been building up to for years, which is both extremely motivating and slightly intimidating. After 20 years of working for universities and thinktanks, and mostly writing for an audience of academic experts, I’m working on a manuscript that I hope will be read by a much broader section of the population. It’s a book about nuclear weapons, based on interviews with people who have been at the sharp end of nuclear decision-making. My aim is to bring an otherwise esoteric subject to life by drawing together the experiences, reflections, hopes and fears of those who have wrestled with decisions involving existential threats.

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud that many of my students have launched successful careers in defence and security, and some have even chosen to devote their lives to the field of arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, in government, international organisations, and academia. Although it’s not part of my current role, I’ve always viewed effective teaching as the most important part of an academic’s work. Nothing is more rewarding to me than knowing I’ve inspired a life-long thirst for knowledge and understanding. Research-wise, I’m most proud of my book on the correspondence of Sir Michael Quinlan, which explores nuclear deterrence and disarmament debates through the eyes of some of the most influential strategic thinkers of the late 20th Century.

What’s your advice to your younger self about choosing the right path and juggling life’s different demands?

I’d have an awful lot to say to my younger self on that subject, but I think my most important point would be to build relationships with mentors working in my field, and to regularly seek their help and advice, especially on whether to pursue new jobs and roles or take career breaks. Life’s demands are different for each person: for me, the biggest challenges have been around pacing myself - deciding which opportunities to take on, and when to say no. This is when mentors who have an in-depth knowledge of the people and organisations that comprise each field can be especially helpful.

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team