The winding road to Yale

Emma Shortis is the first University of Melbourne student to receive the prestigious Yale Fox International Fellowship, which she credits to media engagement

During my masters in International Relations and European Studies at Monash University, we often had ambassadors come and talk to us about policy and diplomacy. I got to meet the Belgian Ambassador who told me an amazing story about how Jacques Cousteau, the French explorer, had single-handedly saved Antarctica from mining. He said nobody knew about this and somebody should do a PhD on it - I decided it was something to pursue. I had an amazing lecturer in my undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne, Associate Professor Barbara Keys. Luckily enough she was willing to take me on as a student.

Emma Shortis from the University of Melbourne (front centre) is one of the 2017-18 Fox International Fellows at Yale University. Picture: Yale University

I quickly realised that Jacques Cousteau didn’t single handedly save Antarctica from mining. In the 80s, the countries that govern Antarctica under an international treaty, including Australia, France and the US, had essentially agreed to allow mining in Antarctica. Not long after this agreement, Bob Hawke and the French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, turned around and basically said, “hang on, we’re not okay with this,” and within a couple of years the mining agreement was overturned in favour of a comprehensive ban.

Today, mining is not allowed in Antarctica unless the treaty parties change their mind, which doesn’t seem likely, and nobody really understands how that happened. It’s kind of amazing because it’s an environmental agreement that’s actually pre-emptive. Usually environmental agreements come after something’s already wrecked or polluted or destroyed.

Dr Barbara Keys is an amazing teacher and lecturer of American History who gave me the opportunity to tutor in her American History subject, ‘USA and the World’. I tutored in that subject a couple of times and then she went on leave, creating an opportunity to take the whole subject, doing both lectures and tutorials. Luckily for me I got that sessional job which is unusual for someone who doesn’t have a PhD. The School put a lot of trust in me to do that. I had a little girl two and a bit years into my PhD, she’s nearly two now. I took about six months maternity leave from my PhD, came back and taught.

In the midst and aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential Election I was teaching modern American history. I got the opportunity to write articles for Election Watch and Pursuit and it just snowballed from there. It’s amazing how a little thing in your life can change everything. I never anticipated what media training would bring. It’s really exciting and so much fun. Doing media, you feel like you’re really having an impact.

Then amongst all that, my supervisor got an email about an opportunity at Yale and said, “Emma, you should apply for this,” and I thought, “pffft, alright I’ll apply for it, it seems ridiculous but okay”. Because of my media work, I could make a strong argument to Yale about my ability to communicate academic research to a broad audience, which is one of the main aims of the Fox International Fellowship.

I think that media experience is why I got the Fellowship, because I could communicate outside a university. The fellowship focuses on teaching young academics how to communicate their research effectively, to try and solve some of the world’s most difficult problems. Obviously, climate change is one of those, so I made an argument about saving Antarctica from mining in the 80s and how nobody really understands how or why that happened.

Heading to Yale is a big deal for my husband, Nick. He’s taking a year out but he’s already found a coffee place, he’s found a wine bar and New York City is about an hour and a half away. And he’s a winemaker, you can imagine he’s pretty pumped about it. He’s taking time out from his job and his business to be a full-time dad while I am at Yale finishing my PhD. So, they will be living it up in New Haven, eating all the pizza and all the fried chicken and milkshakes they can get their hands on!

- As told to Louise Bennet

Banner image: Thomas Autumn/Flickr