Balancing act: Raising boys and being an ecologist
23 September 2021
The football landed with a thud not far from where I was adjusting the rope on the rainout shelter. It was 2007, and while the banksia woodland had more obstacles than a footy pitch, our sons, then five and eight years old, were content kicking the ball. It was not unusual for their parents to stop the car to look at plants, so why not use the time to play ball? In retrospect, this year was the most challenging of my career, being a wife, mum, and a research ecologist. I found it even more challenging than finishing a PhD while being a wife and mum. I loved field experiments but one that required me to exclude half the rainfall for one year was a bit extreme! I was often bone-tired, probably due in part to an undiagnosed iron deficiency, but paradoxically, I was also energized by my research and life at home.
During my undergraduate studies, most of my university lecturers had been male but there was one important exception. Barbara York Main OAM (1929−2019) blazed a trail for younger female scientists, with her mild but determined manner, coupled with a passion for trapdoor spiders and their imperilled wheatbelt landscape. She wrote her first two books while at home with her three young children. Professor Main showed me that it was possible to be a successful academic and mother, in her case with limited financial and institutional support (Mason & Kennedy 2020). She also highlighted to me the critical influence of female role models for women in science. Seeing her in action helped me to imagine myself doing the same and with similar qualities.
While ecology today is more gender balanced than say soil science or geology, some of the applied research that I do is largely male dominated. Here, it is difficult to separate my experience as a female from my experiences as an individual. I do tend to gravitate towards the quieter individuals, male or female, and enjoy working with these people in teams. Indeed, my skills in collaboration, communication and supervision have been critical to my success as an academic. In contrast, I have had to work much harder to develop the stereotypical skills of an academic such as being competitive and possessing technical competencies! Being aware of both our strengths and weaknesses can help both sexes but is especially critical to engaging the next generation of girls in science (González-Pérez et al. 2020).
By 2015, I had accumulated enough pearls of wisdom to make it work. A female mentor and friend suggested I get used to a bit more mess at home. This was a game-changer for me and saved me $50 a week on a cleaner. I learned to trust my ability and especially that the frequent bumps in the road would be offset by eventual wins. In my research career, bumper years where I have published a ‘good amount’ of articles have followed lean years. Similarly, I resolved that being ‘micro-ambitious’ (Minchin 2013) had served me well because I had a track record of being paid to do what I love. As a parent, I had missed lots of school excursions but engaged with my sons’ lives in other meaningful ways. For example, I recently gave critical feedback to my eldest son on his honours research proposal. Our boys didn’t enjoy after school care but did enjoy the overseas adventures we could afford as a two-income family.
I write this article having made it through the challenging times. These days I get enough sleep and have the time and energy for hobbies. My sons are pursuing university degrees and I’m very proud of them. I have lived experiences to share with my female PhD students, some with children like me. And today, with some help from lockdown, data I was too busy to publish as a mum of young boys has been accepted for publication. It is a great feeling!
Published in the September issue of The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of Australia.
González-Pérez S, Mateos de Cabo R, Sáinz M 2020. Girls in STEM: Is it a female role-model thing? Frontiers in Psychology 11: 2204.
Mason LD, Kennedy PL 2020. Tribute to Dr Barbara York Main OAM: arachnologist and nature writer (27 January 1929 to 14 May 2019). Pacific Conservation Biology 26, iii–vi.
Minchin T 2013. Nine life lessons—Tim Minchin address to graduates, academia and guests at The University of Western Australia, October 8 2013.
25 April 2021
It’s my third lecture of the semester and the theatre is reassuringly full and noisy with chatter. I ease the familiar queasy feeling in my stomach by focusing on my breath and spreading my toes to plant my feet firmly into the carpet behind the lectern. I look up into a sea of fresh expectant faces and begin speaking.
“Welcome to today’s lecture on animal behaviour”. I start with a story about the effects of climate change on Antarctica’s penguins. “It’s not all bad news I emphasise! One species, the gentoo penguin, has expanded its range under climate change by changing its behaviour!” There are a few looks of surprise.
My audience is actively listening. Active listening is a key component of learning—considered beneficial to student academic achievement and enjoyment of learning. A major criticism of the lecture format is that it encourages passive listening, but this need not be the case (Faust & Paulson 1998).
Spurred on, I present some key concepts before launching into stories of my first experiments at Rottnest Island on the homing behaviour of intertidal limpets and the evolution of nuptial gifts in local bush crickets. Research on teaching and learning styles suggests the use of local examples will resonate with students and sharing stories about myself as a young student will help me to fulfil my goal of being an authentic teacher (Johnson & LaBelle 2017).
I pause after telling the class about research to determine impacts of street light pollution on sleeping behaviour of black swans. I see nods of recognition. I finish by encouraging students to research reasons for animal behaviours they have observed in nature. I lock eyes with one student, just briefly, but I know he’s thinking deeply. I know that he is interested in what I am saying. It is a rare but meaningful exchange that will help us both on our learning and teaching pathways.
In 2020, a global pandemic necessitated replacement of face-to-face lectures with online lectures and learning activities. While stressful, the situation offered the opportunity for academics to develop new skills and to experiment with new ways of engaging students. On reflection, some changes, such as use of instructional videos and increased availability of recorded lectures, were generally positive. They contributed to student learning and met the flexibility needs of the modern student.
The move to online lectures, however, was in many cases negative. The face-to-face lecture provides the opportunity for two-way interactions that are critical to teaching and learning. This opportunity is particularly important for units like mine where the content is regularly updated as new research is published. Additionally, by coming to campus, students are more likely to interact with their peers and to benefit from peer-assisted learning (Rapanta et al. 2020).
Moreover, and perhaps the greatest lesson, was recognition that a lecture series prompts students to regularly visit campus, and in doing so, promotes a diverse and vibrant campus life. Moving forward, I hope this value is not lost as universities evolve to meet to the changing demands of the higher education sector.
Faust JL, Paulson DR 1998. Active learning in the college classroom. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 9: 3–24.
Johnson ZD, LaBelle S 2017. An examination of teacher authenticity in the college classroom. Communication Education 66: 423–439.
Rapanta C, Botturi L, Goodyear P, Guardia L Koole M 2020. Online university teaching during and after the covid-19 crisis: refocusing teacher presence and learning activity. Postdigital Science and Education 2: 923–945.
Run happy: my journey to Boston
29 December 2019
I wasn’t athletic at school. Like many introverts, I didn’t thrive in the competitive team-sports environment. But where I faltered through school, I found some confidence and enjoyment in sports in my 20s and 30s, to the extent that it became an essential part of my life’s routine.
I started running in my 40s. At first to distract me from a painful divorce. Then it became more about me; I felt strong, I enjoyed the relaxed chatter of social runs, trees on trails, long solo runs. I especially liked that my mind, trained for persistence in research, was as important as my body to maintaining pace.
My running stepped up a notch when I joined an awesome social running group having run solo for a couple of years. I enjoyed the camaraderie among the group and learned much about the sport from the more experienced members. I started running regular tempo and threshold training sessions twice a week. These sessions are designed to increase pace and to improve endurance. I joined Strava, a social fitness network used to track and map runs. The Strava community of runners were supportive and encouraging. My tempo pace improved.
I ran my first marathon at Rottnest Island in 2017. It was a tough first marathon. The race was four laps of an undulating course; the section between the island’s pink salt lakes was beautiful but the lack of vegetation made it especially hot in the early morning sun. My friend Lee and son Tasman were great support crew, plying me with gels, drinks and much-needed encouragement at every lap. The heat and effort eventually got to me and I became unstuck on the fourth lap. I walked through drink stations, downing as many cups of water and electrolytes that my gel-filled tummy could handle. While I was hot and desperate to stop running altogether, I was also determined to finish. I ran the race in a time of 4 hours 37 minutes and 34 seconds. I enjoyed the hugs from Tasman and Lee, the weight of a marathon medal about my neck, and most of all, the sensation of having delved deep to achieve a significant goal. As I hobbled bare-foot into the ocean after the race, I knew my first marathon would not be my last.
I picked a flat course for my second marathon. I followed a training schedule I had found on the internet, running five times a week with two recovery days. I ran a 32 km event one month before the marathon, my longest training run, even managing to pick up the pace in the last few kilometers. My legs were shaky with the effort as I crossed the finish line but I felt strong. I ran the 2018 Perth Marathon in under four hours (3:51:38). Buoyed by my slow but steady improvement between marathons, and curious about what my body might do if pushed, I enlisted Coach Andrea to help me get to Boston.
I was 2 years old when women were invited to compete in the Boston Marathon for the first time in history. Until then, the world’s oldest annual marathon events had been open only to men. So, it seemed like a worthy aspirational goal for me as a female runner, some 40 years later, to compete in this event.
2019 was a big year for me. I ran a personal-best time at half-marathon race in May. I came 4th among females in the Mother’s Day Classic, an 8 km flat run near to the Swan River. Unusually, I did not dissect either race, I was happy that I had stuck to a plan in both. I was especially pleased I had finally trained myself not to stop for water, but to gulp it on the go. The personal-best (sub 1:40) qualified me to join Perth’s elite runners for hard training once a week. I felt like an impostor but knew the experience would improve my running.
I averaged 60 to 70 km per week July through September of 2019. I ran long on Sundays with Amy, Richard or Tim. Luckily my partner Jonathan was away as a large chunk of my life was devoted to running and recovery. I managed a dull pain in my right hip flexor with therapeutic massage and rolling. Work became busy and I willed my body to hold out for race day.
Race day arrived and the weather was perfect. Still, cool. I felt strong and well prepared. Determined not to go out too fast, I maintained a planned and steady pace of 4:50–4:55 per km for the first half. I braced myself at 26 km, the stretch most likely to include a head wind and where I had become unstuck the year before, but I was fine. Amy cheered me on at 28 km, she’d had to pull out of the race due to injury. So I felt lucky to be running and that feeling kept me going for a few kilometers. I was holding pace at 4:50–4:55 per km.
I joined the 3:30 pacer and his subdued group of runners at 30 km. It was a relief not to have to track my pace. But I couldn’t hold their pace and I lost sight of the group at about 34 km. My legs were sore and I couldn’t conjure a satisfactory answer to the question of why I was punishing my body in this way. My tendency to over-think things was not helping! Despite telling myself not to, I walked through the water station at 40 km. Cried out in anguish as I ran down the Windan Bridge off ramp. My friend David, on his bike, guided me along the path to the stadium, to the finish. A short sprint across the spongy board and it was done! A new personal best of 3:34:01, almost 18 minutes faster than my previous race. Hugs from Andrea and Tasman, flowers from Jonathan. Feeling delirious from the effort. The last 8 km would haunt me in the weeks to come, and then eruditely subside, leaving triumph to prevail. I had qualified for Boston.