As a lecturer and researcher on our past environment and climate, this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) theme is especially significant for me: “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”. My research in palaeontology uses an interdisciplinary approach, combining sedimentary geology and fossil plants, with the aim to understand changes in floral ecosystems through time and relationships between plants and past environments and climates.
I graduated with a BSc (Honours) in Geology/Palaeontology from the School of Earth Sciences, followed by a PhD in Palaeobotany in the School of Botany at the University of Melbourne, in 2001. After that, I moved to the UK for three years for my postdoctoral fellowship with the University of Leeds and the British Antarctic Survey at Cambridge in the UK.
My research included travel to Antarctica to look for the best-preserved fossil leaves in the east Antarctic Peninsula. We focused on the late Paleocene epoch, a time following the end of the Cretaceous era 66 million years ago and the infamous extinction of the dinosaurs.
These Antarctic fossil leaves are evidence of a once-vegetated landmass. They are like thermometers, diligently recording through time changes in Earth’s climate at Southern high latitudes.
Once I returned to Australia, I had a research hiatus when I took quite a bit of maternity leave and had three daughters, who are all now in high school. During these years with a young family, I completed a Diploma of Education in 2004 and held a casual lecturing position in the Department of Environmental Geosciences at Latrobe University, from 2006 to 2009.
Since 2010, I have come full circle and am now a lecturer and subject coordinator within the new School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Melbourne.
Teaching and lecturing are a really rewarding part of my teaching-focused job. I enjoy building rapport with students over their first year, particularly when I take them on field trips, so I was honoured to receive the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2019.
After having a break to start a family of three children, a career in academia appeared to be out of reach. Studies have shown that becoming a mother is the greatest factor contributing to the underrepresentation of women in academic science.
Wonderful women role models, like Professor Dame Jane Francis and Dr Barbara Wagstaff, were inspirational to me in their dedication to research while also juggling their married and family life, so I am grateful to the supportive women and men who encouraged me to return to research.
But writing about these incredible Antarctic fossils still required a level of concentration and energy that I found hard to muster while meeting the demands of a family.
I work part-time to try to balance teaching with a bit of research and family life, but it see-saws, and one aspect is often more demanding. At times, I have taught classes until after 7.00 pm, which I found was a real challenge with young children, and I couldn’t have managed without the invaluable support of my family.
I think that International Women’s Day highlights the positive side of changing societal attitudes to working women that have seen a shift to support women with families in academia and created proactive change to increase opportunities for women.
My research in palaeobotany has enabled me, as one of a fortunate few, to work in the fragile and intense environment of Antarctica. This is a continent of remarkable beauty with immense and dramatic landscapes of mountains, glaciers, ice sheets and extreme climates.
A little-known part of the Antarctic continent is the rocks that protrude above the ice and harbour fossils within their layers – revealing secrets of past worlds. We collected fossil plants from the field on Seymour Island, which sits in the Weddell Sea, off the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.
These fossils were used to interpret past forest ecosystems and associated climates and to decipher biodiversity responses to climate change during one of the most rapid warming events of the Cenozoic (past 66 million years), known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).
The PETM was such a crucial time in Earth’s history and it now enables us to study a dramatic and rapid increase in temperature (around eight degrees of warming), which occurred in a very short geological time span.
If we can fully understand the way the Earth’s natural systems interact it can help us mitigate future rapid warming events. Our research team studies the history of life, climates and environments and is led by Associate Professor Malcolm Wallace, together with Associate Professor Stephen Gallagher and Dr Ashleigh Hood, who is another of several recent female employees in our school.
Dr Vera Korasidis has joined our research group in the School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC in the US. Her work will focus on the PETM and past climates by using palynology (fossil spores and pollen) to elucidate drivers of climate change.
She has been awarded the Elizabeth and Vernon Puzey Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Faculty of Science.
Geosciences has traditionally been a male-dominated field, so an increase in women in teaching and research roles has helped to address this issue. We now have gender parity in our new merged department and I am excited about the future to see more women move into higher levels, particularly in geosciences.
- as told to Dr Nerissa Hannink
Banner: Getty Images