I was an inquisitive child who always wanted to know ‘why’ – I think that’s why I’m a scientist today.
Born and raised in the US I’ve worked and lived on all seven continents, and now reside in Tasmania where I am a principal research scientist and a team leader at CSIRO. This means that I’m at a place in my career where I am coming up with ideas about what work to do and getting the dollars to help fund that research, as well as identifying new horizons and gaps in our knowledge and looking for innovative ways to bridge those gaps.
At the moment much of my work focuses on the issue of plastic pollution – where it comes from, why it’s there - it is amazing how much of what we do as scientists comes back to human behaviour. We are also looking at how it moves through the environment, what the impacts are, how to invoke change - whether through policies, consumer choices or individual behavioural change.
It’s a super exciting area in which to work because it is such a tangible issue that resonates with people. We see the trash from the products we buy, we sit the rubbish on the side of roads, on our beaches, along our rivers and streams. It is something that we can clearly see does not belong there.
People often ask me if I feel overwhelmed with my work area – plastic is everywhere, all the time, and production is growing at an unprecedented rate. It seems a disaster of immense proportion. Seeing the impacts on wildlife, seeing how disengaged some people/companies are, reading and hearing the rhetoric that is blatantly false, those things are challenging.
On the flip side, I work for an incredibly supportive employer, most people ARE engaged and do care and want to make a difference. So that’s the heartening aspect of what I do.
Over the past few years I’ve been fortunate to be part of an incredible initiative called Homeward Bound, the women’s science leadership initiative. The goal of this initiative is to build a global network of 1,000 women in STEMM to influence policy and decision making as it shapes the planet. HB focuses on many of the leading environmental issues of today, with the objective of developing collaboration, inclusiveness and the leadership skills we need to be effective. Part of the program involves a journey to Antarctica with a ship full of women scientists from around the world. It is an incredible journey as well as an amazing networking and professional development opportunity.
Apart from my science work I also love to re-create, to read, cook, relax, and spend time on the beach. I grew up as a pretty sporty kid, playing volleyball, basketball, soccer, softball, track and field, etc. Injuries to my knees significantly changed my life in the last year before Uni – which closed some doors and opened some others.
It might sound silly or cliché, but there are many goals I’d still like to meet, adventures I’d like to embark on. And really, I want to know that in my lifetime people are making the changes we need to live more sustainably, to live smaller perhaps, so that this incredible planet can sustain for generations to come.
It’s not too late to make changes. I’m an optimist so I tend to believe the cup is half full. There are so many little changes each of us can make – with our consumer, individual and community voices. With the products we buy, the way we use the things we already have. We can ask, we can demand change from our communities, from companies, from industries, from governments.
I’d like to think my work is valuable and can contribute to this in some small way. It’s a fragile, and yes incredibly resilient, planet, and worth taking better care of.
Photography by Rebecca Thomson and provided by Dr Denise Hardesty.