Woman O'Kane, Mary Josephine (1954 - )

Mount Morgan, Queensland, Australia
Company director, Engineer, Scientist and University vice-chancellor

Written by Sharon M. Harrison, The University of Melbourne

Mary O'Kane has been a senior figure for many years in research policy and higher education in Australia. She was a pioneer in the field of automatic speech recognition, starting in the mid-1970s and is currently a company director, Executive Chairman of Mary O'Kane & Associates Pty Ltd, a Sydney-based consulting practice, and the NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer.

O'Kane was born in 1954 in the small central Queensland mining town of Mount Morgan and spent the first half of her childhood in various towns in the area. Her family later moved to Toowoomba. O'Kane's father, who held degrees in arts and science, taught mathematics and chemistry and was a high school and technical college principal. Her mother was an accountant. Both parents encouraged her interest in science and mathematics from a young age. O'Kane completed her secondary schooling at Downlands College in Toowoomba. Her physics teacher, Father John Tyler MSC, and chemistry teacher, Father Albert Chan MSC, both inspired her decision to study the physical sciences at university. O'Kane was offered a medical fellowship at university, but turned it down instead accepting a place in science at the University of Queensland.

O'Kane was awarded a Bachelor of Science from the University of Queensland, majoring in physics and mathematics. At the end of her fourth year, she was a vacation student in engineering physics at the Australian National University (ANU) where she was offered a PhD scholarship, working under the supervision of Steven Kaneff and Iain Macleod. During her PhD studies, O'Kane was the recipient of an Italian government scholarship that allowed her to work under Professor Renato De Mori at the University of Turin, one of Europe's leading centres for automatic speech recognition. O'Kane's doctoral research focused on automatic speech recognition with particular reference to certain classes of sounds, looking at ways of recognising these sounds as they occurred in naturally spoken continuous speech. Gathering the first internationally collected run of a large amount of data on the plosive consonants in Italian and Australian English, O'Kane showed how these consonants vary in a systematic fashion with the sounds that come before and after them: the so-called phenomenon of coarticulation. Her thesis became the basis for several other theses at the Lincoln Laboratories at Massachusetts Institute of Technology that extended her doctoral work (Profiles: Australian Women Scientists, 1999, 136-137). O'Kane was awarded her PhD in 1982.

O'Kane was one of the pioneers in the design, collection and establishment of a database of spoken Australian English. At the time there were practically no formal international collections of speech data. O'Kane worked with a colleague from the ANU, Dr Bruce Millar, collecting a lot of data over the years and also worked with colleagues overseas (Tjeerd de Graaf in the Netherlands, Tony Bladon at Oxford) to try to get standards established. By the late 1980's the National Bureau of Standards was leading the collection of data in the United States. O'Kane was one a small number of researchers internationally who sought to introduce the 'notion of expert systems into speech recognition, where one approached the problem by trying to make the machine act like an expert' (Profiles: Australian Women Scientists, 1999, 137). Her research group built some special purpose programming languages that allowed experts to put their expertise into the system, work that continues to be used in linguistics departments today. The group also became the main speech recognition group for Wang Laboratories. Although the group was achieving good results, in 1988 a research group at Carnegie-Mellon had a major breakthrough, achieving results close to 98 per cent recognition of continuous speech. O'Kane's laboratory in Adelaide later focused on the structure of spoken language. With the research problem that fired her research career solved, O'Kane's career took a new course and she became more involved in university administration and has held high level government appointments.

After completing her PhD O'Kane had taken up a position at the NSW Institute of Technology in Sydney, returning to Canberra a year later when she was appointed to a Lectureship in Artificial Intelligence and Theory of Computation at the Canberra College of Advanced Education. Her appointment at a college of advanced education or technological institute (these later became universities) provided a great opportunity to advance her research. She was Dean of the Faculty of Information Sciences and Engineering at the University of Canberra 1989-1993 - the Canberra College of Advanced Education became the University of Canberra in 1990. In 1994 O'Kane was appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) and Professor of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Adelaide.

In 1996 O'Kane was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide, a position she held until 2001. At the time of her appointment she was the first woman to be appointed to the post in the university's 125-year history and one of the youngest vice-chancellors appointed to an Australian university. She was active in Australia-wide higher education activities and was the inaugural chair of the Group of Eight universities. From the early 1990s O'Kane was increasingly appointed to government committees, particularly in relation to research policy in Australia. She sat on the Australia Prize Committee from 1992-96 and was also a member of the ARC (Australian Research Council) Engineering, Earth and Applied Sciences Panel from 1991-93. She went on to become a member of the Council and Chair the ARC Research Grants Committee from 1994-96, the main federal body recommending funding for research. O'Kane led several reforms including the push for funding grants to be assessed against the applicant's opportunities as well as achievements. She also invented the term 'early career researcher', now a firm part of the research lexicon around the world.

After leaving the University of Adelaide, O'Kane established Mary O'Kane & Associates Pty Ltd, a consulting practice that advises governments, universities and the private sector on innovation, education and research and development. The company is probably best known for major reviews (e.g. chairing the Review of the CRC Program in 2008 and the Review of the Bureau of Meteorology in 2007) but much of its work is less public and involves being called in by organisations to solve difficult and urgent management problems. In 2008 O'Kane was appointed by the NSW Premier as the inaugural NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer (a part-time role). In this role she is responsible for providing the Government with advice on policy matters requiring research, science and engineering input. O'Kane also brokers partnerships and strengthens connections within and between the public and private sectors to expand the State's research capabilities and networks.

In her role as an influential figure in research and education policy as well as in her capacity as NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer, O'Kane gives a large number of speeches. She delivered 1999 A W Jones Oration Education Adelaide, the Harold Wyndham Lecture (2012) entitled The Good Enough Education System - Does Australia have the education system it needs for a vibrant economic future? and the Diana Temple Memorial Lecture (2009) entitled The Advancement of the Role of Women in Science. O'Kane is Chair of the Development Gateway (headquartered in Washington) and the Development Gateway International (in Brussels), Chair of the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Spatial Information, and Chair of the NSW Medical Devices Fund. She is a director of Kuth Energy Ltd, of National ICT Australia (NICTA), of the Capital Markets Cooperative Research Centre, and of the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute. O'Kane served on the Board of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) (1997-2002), the Cooperative Research Centres Committee (1997-98), the Tax Concession Committee (2004-2011), the NSW Innovation and Productivity Council (2008-2012) and FH Faulding & Co Ltd (1997-2001). She has also been active in energy matters and chaired the Australian Centre for Renewable Energy (ACRE) Board throughout its existence from 2010-2012.

O'Kane is a Fellow and former Vice-President of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and an Honorary Fellow of Engineers Australia.

Published Resources


  • Bhathal, Ragbir, Profiles: Australian Women Scientists, National Library of Australia (NLA), Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1999. Details

Online Resources

See also