Why did you choose to become a scientist?
I have always been interested in science, particularly biology. I started a Biological Science degree at La Trobe University with the intention of either pursuing marine biology or veterinary science. During my 2nd year, I enrolled in an archaeology subject as an elective and was hooked. I then transferred into a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science so I could study both biology and archaeology. I then did a fourth year honours research project in both areas, before a Ph.D. in vertebrate palaeontology on Early Carboniferous fossil fish taphonomy. I then returned to Australian Indigenous archaeology and have been there ever since.
How did you choose your field of study?
I didn’t even know zooarchaeology existed as a discipline until I took a second-year subject called the ‘Archaeology of animals’. Needless to say, I adored it. At that stage in the 1990s, Australia didn’t really have any specially trained zooarchaeologists (most were in North America and Europe). I decided it was something that I wanted to try and follow as a career.
Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
My main focus is the role of native Australia animals in Indigenous archaeology. I am interested in what kinds of animal’s people liked to hunt, and how they butchered and cooked them. Since animal bones are relatively rare in Australian sites I have turned my research focus to studying modern economic utility (how much meat, fat, marrow different body parts provide) and their nutritional quality (how healthy they are for you to eat). This provides a model to predict the likelihood that a particular prey species was likely to have been targeted by people, and which specific body part may have been selected. I chose this specific topic as it allowed me to combine my interests in zoology, ecology, physiology, and archaeology.
This is the first time that economic utility and nutritional analyses have been quantified for Australian marsupials. Previously, these sorts of studies occurred on the placental (mainly ungulates – hooved mammals) of North America and Africa. This was not particularly helpful when studying Australia’s unique fauna. This current research is building up the biggest database of its kind anywhere. So Australia has gone from having a poorly studied fauna in this regard to having the most comprehensive dataset anywhere!
I hope that this research will build a good foundation for Australian zooarchaeology. I also hope it will help influence the potential role of native animals in the everyday Australian diet – ultimately we should be incorporating more native animals into our modern diets as they are good for the environment, sustainable, free-range and organic. Far better for the Australian environment than the introduced hooved animals such as cattle and sheep that we currently farm.
What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?
Being able to have children and continue my research career has definitely been my biggest two achievements – and in that order. I enjoy both immensely. However, it can be hard to juggle the responsibilities of both sometimes.
I don’t think I have any ‘major’ failures. Yes, I have missed out on grants and jobs – but this is all part of academia.
What is a typical day like for you?
My average day is variable. Often I’m up early, dropping kids off at daycare, at the bus stop, and/or school before driving into work. I will be at work from about 9 am till 4.30 before leaving to pick kids up from after school care and daycare. Then home to prepare dinner, lunches for the next day, washing, tidying etc. Then depending on work deadlines I can be up working on my computer till very late.
On my ‘official’ days at home (I am currently only employed at 50%) I juggle looking after my 2-year-old daughter while answering emails, sometimes skyping into work meetings, writing papers etc. I would say that I work at least 3 to 4 hours on my days off and over the weekend (sometimes this is much more).
On the weeks I am away on fieldwork (either actually in the field surveying or excavating) or in the lab, I work from about 8 am until about 6 pm at night, 7 days a week. This is usually followed by several hours in the evening.
What are the hardest parts related to this work?
The hardest part about my work is being away from my family. This is difficult as of course, I miss them all, but it also puts a huge strain on my partner who is essentially a single parent and has to juggle everything himself while trying to work full time.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
I, like most people, suffer at times from ‘imposter syndrome’. When I do I try to focus on all the positive things and just keep looking ahead.
In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?
I would like to have a permanent teaching and research position- at present, I am employed on an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellowship. I also hope to still be researching the role of animals in Australian archaeology.
During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?
I have been very lucky to have had two great mentors. My Ph.D. supervisor Emeritus Professor Anne Warren (a female vertebrate palaeontologist) and my postdoc supervisor Associate Professor Richard Cosgrove (a male archaeologist). Coincidentally, these two academics were also my co-supervisors during my honours year and also both taught me during my undergraduate degree. They have both been very encouraging and supportive, and I’m happy to say that they both are still close friends of mine.
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
For my modern butchery experiments, I regularly collect road-kill (with the required permits). I have had numerous funny experiences including a mini-bus of tourists pulling up as I was taking brain samples from a dead wallaby to opening the driver’s door of my car to retrieve a dead possum on our local bridge during peak hour traffic (while I was stopped on the bridge).
Do you come from an academic family?
I am the first person in my immediate family to go to uni. However, both of my parents were professionals. Subsequently, my brother and sister also attended University (MA and honours respectively). I was always encouraged and supported by my family to keep studying, although I doubt they thought that I would keep studying for 12 years when I started my initial 3-year degree!
How does your family regard your career choice?
They are very supportive and happy that I am doing something that I am so passionate about.
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
Playing with my kids, gardening, reading and watching movies.
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
I am a mother to two small children: 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. It is a constant juggle, especially since my job involves being away from home a lot on fieldwork. However, I am lucky to have a very supportive partner, parents, parents-in-law, and network of friends who help with the kids when I’m away.
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
Believe in yourself, and don’t be afraid to take chances.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?
I’ve never felt that being female was a disadvantage. However, I can now see more clearly the large gap career wise between myself and my male peers – especially those who finished their PhDs at the same time as me. I am still at a junior level, I earn less as I work part time, and I am accumulating far less superannuation. I feel a huge amount of pressure to keep up with my male peers but I can’t as I have to put my family first. Two lots of maternity leave (12 months for each child) plus working part time to ensure that I am also there for my children, means that I am physically unable to work at the same pace as my male colleagues.
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
I’m lucky that I have been very supported throughout the majority of my career. Unfortunately, like many women, there have been times when there has been some prejudices made against me due to my gender. However, I am fairly certain that these were unintentional.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?
Better childcare, empathy for working mothers, research support for women while they are on maternity leave, and support for mothers to be able to take their children on fieldwork and/or to conferences or extra support while they are away.