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By  Smriti Daniel 28 September 2023 5 min read

Key points

  • Chloe Mackallah was open about her transgender (trans) identity while navigating decisive moments in her career.
  • The late Dr Penny Whetton, a trans pioneer in climate science, inspired Chloe to be a strong and visible advocate.
  • Chloe's unique role as a Data Steward showcases her expertise in translating complex climate data.

It was 2018 and Chloe Mackallah was preparing to interview for the role of Climate Data Scientist at CSIRO. She was scared stiff.

The last year or so had been chaotic. She had completed her PhD and begun to transition. She had come out to her closest family and friends. However, at the time she applied for the job, she hadn't yet been out in public as a woman.

“I had bought women’s clothes, for the first time. I wore makeup for the first time in a professional setting. And I was just terrified," Chloe says.

Chloe's decision to be open about her gender affirmation journey was strengthened by her experiences at CSIRO.

“My biggest fear was just sitting down in the interview room and seeing everyone who was interviewing me being visibly uncomfortable in my presence and how awful that would be.”

Her fears proved unfounded.

"The interview went spectacularly. I was blown away by how it was a complete non-issue," Chloe says.

Then her first day came around. Again, she felt the flutter of nerves in her belly. How would her colleagues respond to her? But no one did a double take. Though she was new in the role, her managers even provided four weeks of extra leave for her transition. They ensured all her official documents were changed to her new name. All this before there was any policy requiring they do so. (CSIRO now has gender affirmation leave, thanks to our Diversity and Inclusion Strategy and the work of the Pride@CSIRO Network).

At the time, Chloe didn’t quite know what to make of it. Then, a few months into her job, she heard about Dr Penny Whetton.

A trans pioneer in climate science

Penny had enjoyed an incredible 25-year long career at CSIRO. During that time she was the lead author of three reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Celebrated as an outstanding climate scientist, Penny was a great advocate for the environment. She was actively involved in driving our national response to climate change. And she was also trans.

Penny had transitioned some 15 years prior while holding a senior position with us. Chloe often heard about how amazing Penny was – it seemed all her colleagues had something lovely to say.

Chloe herself met Penny on a few occasions. Chloe remembers it as being a time when she was still looking for role models. She was learning how to move through the world as a woman and as a trans person. Having Penny break ground was a gift that boosted Chloe’s confidence and gave her courage.

"A major reason that Penny is such a role model to me is her advocacy for queer rights and environmentalism, and the community work she did to support a healthy planet and community. She was an activist, and she made that known.

"It's had a huge impact on how I live out, and advocate for my values, and the work I do to change the power structures within science and society," Chloe says.

On a very personal level, Penny demonstrated that there was power in visibility. When Penny passed away in 2019, Chloe found she wanted to be just as open in honour of her friend and mentor.

“Penny’s visibility, and the way she made sure to leave her workplace more accepting of future trans employees, had a profound and positive impact on my science career. She helped me realise that the last thing I should do is hide myself away," Chloe says.

There is a power in holding space for yourself and letting others see that.”

Chloe's work in QueersInScience promotes 'Pride in STEMM'.

A trans-formative STEM journey

For Chloe, part of that visibility is being very open about the complexities of her journey and the evolution of her identity.

As a young person, she struggled with feelings she didn’t understand, and yearnings she couldn’t articulate. In her 20s, someone Chloe knew began to transition. She also began reading more about the experiences of trans people. Finally, she had found a mirror she could see herself in.

“My life suddenly came into focus after 30 years of being blurry to me,” Chloe says.

“There are a lot of stereotypical things that go along with transition, but in the end every person gets to pick and choose which parts of it are right for them. A transition is what you make of it.”

Chloe describes the last five years as a journey of understanding what it has meant to be authentically herself. Standing by her side has been her beloved wife, her partner since they were teenagers. Having that support made a world of difference.

Chloe is now an active member and leader of QueersInScience. The organisation builds community and improves support for LGBTQIA+ people in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). She’s also a member of Pride@CSIRO and presented at the Dr Penny Whetton Memorial Lecture in 2020.

“After spending 30 years pretending to be someone I wasn't, to now be living my life authentically as myself is a feeling of indescribable euphoria,” Chloe says.

"I have ups and downs, and plenty of anxiety, but I would never have dreamed it was even possible to feel this happy.”

Chloe's team played a critical role in ensuring she felt at ease at work.

Digesting climate science data

She is now a Data Steward in our Environment business unit. Her job description locates her somewhere between a digital strategist and a data custodian. It’s a unique role within Australia's national science agency, and she’s one of the first people to test it out in a strategic organisation-wide trial.

The world of climate data Chloe is immersed in is as vast as it is complex. Climate model data simulations run on supercomputers, generating petabytes of specialised spatial-temporal data. Chloe’s expertise is in making this wealth of information comprehensible and usable for diverse purposes.

She describes it as: “Understanding how to manage the data, format it, explain it and make the data usable for different purposes.”

As she delves deep into the intricacies of data stewardship, Chloe's pleasure in her work is obvious.

“I was fortunate because I stumbled into CSIRO not really knowing what I was getting myself into, and now I've found myself as an expert, a specialist in a niche but very important field," she says.

“It's exhilarating to work on the cutting-edge of science. I'm looking forward to wherever this wild CSIRO journey takes me next.”

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