Welcome to Pitch Your PhD – Shownotes

Season 1, Episode 7

Marine Ecosystems with Dr Jess Melbourne-Thomas

Dr Jess Melbourne-Thomas was awarded the Australian of the Year in 2020 for Tasmania and joined Catherine to speak about her amazing and unique PhD journey.. a PhD that almost didn’t happen.

I was increasingly engaged with trying to connect better.. Connect science to policy and decision-making for conservation 

Growing up Jess cultivated a love of the ocean and ecosystems.  After winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford Uni, Jess’ PhD journey almost ended there. But after returning home and working in a scuba shop, she was found by her old university supervisor, which put her back on her PhD pathway.

This is a “kind of, sort of, vaguely close” copy of the words from this episode.

IT IS NOT 100% accurate.  We are very sorry if we have spelt something completely incorrectly.  If it means a lot to you to have it corrected, email us at mel@ramaley.media

PYP – Jess Melbourne-Thomas

[00:00:00] Catherine: hi and welcome to Pitch Your PhD. In this podcast, you will hear from PhD students from the past and the present to inspire the future. I’m your host, Dr. Catherine Ball. Now in life. Sometimes things go our way and sometimes they just don’t. This PhD story you’re about to hear almost didn’t happen and how I first met this wonderful human being was through the superstars of STEM project with Science and Technology Australia when I was pregnant with my first baby. And I think Jess was pregnant with her second.

[00:00:32] So today I’m speaking to Dr. Jessica Melbourne- Thomas. She’s currently working at CSIRO in Hobart, within the oceans and atmosphere business unit. And Jess also grew up in Tasmania, was a studious student and growing up her dad would explore sunken treasures and they had an amazing fish tank in the house.

[00:00:50] But it was a family trip to Southeast Asia as a teenager where her entire family spent time snorkeling and diving, which really cemented her interest in the Marine [00:01:00] environment towards the end of high school, she tossed around the thoughts of being an astrophysicist or a medical doctor, but they just didn’t feel quite right.

[00:01:08] And it was after winning an international biology Olympiad in high school that really, she found her path. That win brought her to the attention of professor Craig Johnson, who suggested that she joined him at the University of Tasmania for her undergraduate degree. After her degree, Jess won a scholarship to do her PhD in the UK at Oxford university.

[00:01:29] And that’s actually almost where this story ends, but I feel like we’re about to learn some more. Hello, Jess

[00:01:36] Jess: hi, Catherine. And thank you so much for having me on the podcast. I’m really excited to talk to you today.

[00:01:40] Catherine: So with your, childhood experiences, let’s walk through a little bit about what you were like as a student, and let’s talk about, your prize winning. I want to even know what this Olympiad thing is, and that’s obviously when you were first, you know, you first caught the attention of the wonderful Professor Craig who came in on and plucked you out as your mag, which effectively for which we’ll [00:02:00] can great expectations here. Wasn’t he really? So tell us about this Olympiad, what the heck is a biology Olympiad?

[00:02:05] Jess: So they used to run them. I think they do still happen. I keep meaning look up where they’re at, but there was a chemistry one, a physics one, and a biology one. and basically you could apply to do a training program over the summer holidays. and then from that pool, they selected a team that went to a different country each year to compete.

[00:02:24] and it was a mix of, Exams, and also conducting experiments. and then, they awarded gold medals and silver medals and bronze medals. But basically I, I kind of learnt the first year uni biology textbook over the summer holidays, and that was kind of what it was about, but it was, but I guess it does get to your question in that, it really exposed, it was the full breadth of biology, right?

[00:02:46] It was right through from cell biology to ecosystems. And I think having that all crammed in was a great opportunity for me to think, well, actually, you know, this is the bit that really sparks my interest and you’re right. It [00:03:00] was at the system level. It was thinking broad scale complex systems. how do all the pieces fit together?

[00:03:06] Catherine: So you’re at the Olympiad you’ve won and then this professor comes out of nowhere and says, come with me to this amazing university and let’s, get you into the university. I mean, that in itself is pretty magic right? how did you feel? Talk to me about that. that

[00:03:20] Jess: Yeah. I mean, it’s a long time ago now, and I’ve known and worked with Craig ever since then, but I mean, I was pretty young at the time and just thinking about what options might be open to me in terms of, you know, whether I moved away from Tazzy or where was their best place to study Marine science.

[00:03:38] and yeah, I guess Craig was a great salesman. He totally convinced me and he, you know, and he’s played a big role actually. And we’re at now in terms of Marine science in Tasmania with the Institute for Marine and a tactic studies, he introduced me to, Dr. Beth Fulton, who, was my other PhD supervisor and works here at CS IRO as an ecosystem model, she’s [00:04:00] absolutely amazing. She’s kind of the goddess, I guess, of ecosystem modeling. She won the prime minister’s prize for environmental science,a few years back. And she’s just really has been world influencing in terms of the way that, she uses models to inform, ecosystem management and fisheries management.

[00:04:16] So yeah, that’s been a nice series of dots that have connected, in terms of leading me to where I am now.


[00:04:22] Catherine: So what did you study at university? What was your undergraduate topic?

[00:04:25] Jess: I studied biology and maths. So, I had this gorgeous boyfriend in undergraduate, and we broke up at the end of second year, I think. And I intended to do a lot more maths in third year, but the classes were so tiny, you know, there were literally, maybe eight to 10 of us in every class.

[00:04:41] I was like, oh, that’s going to be so awkward. so I didn’t pursue some of those third year maths, subjects that in some ways I wish I had, but in fact, I ended up doing a mix of, zoology and botany. So I made it into zoology and botany. So I had the Marine sites in the zoology and did, some really great stuff in plant [00:05:00] science.

[00:05:00] And, you know, the Tazzy, environment is a really fascinating one to study plant science. And I’ve, I very nearly actually went down that pathway. but in the end, I did my honors with Craig on the Marine ecosystem modeling work, which was really exciting as well.

[00:05:13] Catherine: Well, it’s the kelp forest that I think of with you and your work and your experience in Tazzy. So let’s unpack that a little bit. So plant science is really interesting and again, it’s that systems thinking. So tell us a little bit about what plant science is in Tazzy. If anyone’s listening, that’s interested in plant science, why they should definitely study.

[00:05:30] Jess: Yes. And you’re absolutely right. In fact, in my head now, at least it’s all the same thing, right? It’s ecosystem science. It’s the way you think about, combination of effects of the environment and, and the living things themselves and the way that they eat each other or compete with, with each other for space or, have synergistic relationships with each other.

[00:05:51] Um, but we just, I mean, we have just such a diverse environment here in Tazzy from the Alpine regions down to the coastal regions, [00:06:00] in the kind of button, grass, Plains, and high Alpine cushion plants, these ancient pine forests, you know, it. And I was a Bush Walker, right. As a kid and a uni student. And so I’d spent a lot of time in those, unique isolated places.

[00:06:16] and you know, and there’s a lot to learn from the history, as well as thinking about the future of, those unique communities.

What happened in Oxford

[00:06:22] Catherine: Now let’s talk about… what happened with this PhD course in Oxford.

[00:06:26] Jess: So Oxford, um, I was incredibly fortunate to be awarded a Rhodes scholarship study there and you know, the PhD was kind of just the next thing in line, on, on my list of things I was doing. I’d done my undergrad and my honors.

[00:06:43] and so off I went, you know, bright eyed and bushy tailed and you know, Oxford is an amazing place and it was really, I was so fortunate to have that experience. And at first it was, you know, the typical Pimms and punting and all the delights of that incredible place. And,[00:07:00]  it probably wasn’t until, 6 to 12 months into being there that I started to realize that I just wasn’t fitting in.

[00:07:09] Catherine: I’m laughing along with you because, you know, I relate to this so hard. I remember my mum saying to me, when I was choosing my university, she said, don’t go to Cambridge, Kathy, please don’t go to Cambridge or Oxford because you’re a working class kid. You won’t have the money to do what everyone else is doing. And I sort of thought I’ve got to go for the best of the best, but when you don’t fit, it’s really hard work.

[00:07:28] Jess: Absolutely. And over time, you know, I’ve reflected also that I think, things have changed, I think recently in Oxford, but when I was there, there really weren’t very many, senior female role models either. So it was really difficult to kind of, you know, Look up to people. I guess. you know, I did work with some amazing professors and made some great connections and really had some fantastic opportunities, but, it’s a very hands-off environment in which to do, postgraduate study.

[00:07:55] there’s at least at that time, there was a little bit of an expectation that, you’d go off for the three [00:08:00] years and do your own thing and come back with a thesis. and that I was just a bit too young to flourish that way. I think I needed more guidance. so I did, do a couple of years of work.

[00:08:10] I was very fortunate to be able to travel to Indonesia. I think three or four times in that period to do field work on coral reefs there, some exciting sites, but reach the point where, I realized, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to finish this thing. And so there was a difficult decision to make.

[00:08:27] Catherine: Sometimes it’s harder to stop than it is just to keep going and suffer.

 What stopped Oxford?

[00:08:31] Catherine: So making that decision to stop and to leave Oxford, must’ve been really hard. What was it that really helped you close the door on that part of your PhD journey?

[00:08:41] Jess: So I think probably a variety of factors, maybe the main one was around resolving, you know, there was this huge expectation, right? Oh, Jess has gone off as a Rhodes scholar to do these amazing things at Oxford and I just felt this great wave of, I think, to kind of turn around and say, oh, actually I failed.

[00:08:58] but having a [00:09:00] wonderfully supportive family and some great friends at the time to help me through that process, and realize that in fact, everybody just wanted me to choose what was best for me, was a really important factor. I guess the other one was just the practicality. You know, I realized I was looking at five years to have any chance of finishing this thing.

[00:09:17] Most of the people in my lab group had been there for between five and eight years. I think the one person who did submit his thesis within three years then failed anyway. And I only had three years of funding, so I wasn’t that keen to have a big debt in Pounds and be stuck at a place, that wasn’t me.

[00:09:35] So I think the other part of that is people, you know, you’re never going to enjoy a whole, all of your PhD, right? It’s going to be super hard bits and the ups and downs, but overall the median state shouldn’t be an unhappy one, I don’t think. And so I think that’s an important piece of it that even if it’s a bit longer than three years, but you have a lot of enjoyment, you learn a lot.

[00:09:57] and you’re not just kind of, you know, nose to the [00:10:00] grindstone the whole time, then that’s a better outcome as well.

[00:10:03] And really, it was a super tough decision and it probably took me a good couple of years to resolve it in my own head as having been the right thing to do. but I, I learnt a lot from going through that process and was also lucky that it didn’t disadvantage me in other ways, in terms of what I wanted to do next.

[00:10:20] Catherine: But what great experience, you know, flying over to Indonesia, being there in Oxford, going through that whole life experience. I mean, that’s something that not a lot of people get a chance to do. So. I mean, the PhD though, it started in, stopped at Oxford, It did give you a bit of life experience in a way that you probably may not have been expecting when you were first thinking of going into science as a career right?

[00:10:37] Jess: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And not least that I met my husband in Indonesia and was able to convince him to come back to Australia. So it did work out.

Thesis Title in Oxford

[00:10:50] Catherine: So, what was your thesis title at the time in Oxford?

[00:10:53] Jess: Oh gosh, that’s put me on the spot.

[00:10:58] Catherine: I can barely remember my [00:11:00] current PhD thesis title, but was it around the sort of research that you ended up doing your PhD on? Was it around the coral reef work?

[00:11:06] Jess:  It was, but in a kind of convoluted way. So I had really wanted to be an Antarctic researcher. And when I was first awarded the Rhodes scholarship to do a PhD, I had intended to work, on Antarctic science, in Oxford and connect for instance, with the British Antarctic survey, which is in Cambridge.

[00:11:24] and then at the very last minute I made contact with a professor in the tropical Marine biology lab. and it just, I’m not entirely sure why I can’t put my finger on it, but it really excited me. So that was why I did a bit of a dogleg from where I thought I’d be to work on tropical coral reefs.

[00:11:40] and mostly I was focusing on, basically how adaptable, corals in the way that they respond to different environmental conditions. So there was certainly a link from that to where I ended up going around, considering how coral reef environments are responding to climate change and other stresses, but, the bit that was missing, I think for me, in [00:12:00] terms of stuff, you know, science that gets me excited was the mathematical modeling element.

[00:12:05] And I had done that as part of my honors. and it really interested me and, I think where I ended up going and was able to use that as key tool in the work I was doing was more satisfying for me in terms of my science interests..

[00:12:18] Catherine: So, Okay.

[00:12:19] Let’s jump from Oxford and all of that was, and all of that learning. and quite frankly, you’ve got such strength in you Jess, , I don’t know, a lot of people that would actually have the strength to quit something like that.

Returning to PhD

[00:12:29] Catherine: So you managed to do a PhD in the end though. So we’re going to have a good end to this story. and, and more than just PhD too. So Tell me a little bit about what happened when you were back in Tassie after you’d left Oxford, what you were thinking of doing and how did you get back on the PhD train ?

[00:12:43] Jess: So, I guess, unsurprisingly, I went through that kind of dip of, oh no, maybe science isn’t for me. I got a job in a scuba diving shop and worked as a diving instructor, with basically just a bit of a dive bum for kind of six [00:13:00] to eight months. and then Craig Johnson, who you mentioned in the intro who, had been an important mentor and was my honors supervisor came into the shop one day and basically said, Jess what are you doing?

[00:13:11] I have a PhD project that I think would really suit you. It’s a great opportunity. Would you think about giving it another crack? and I did, and, I’m extremely grateful that I had that opportunity.

Thesis title

[00:13:22] Catherine: So, what did your thesis ended up being called? What was the title in the end?

[00:13:26] Jess: I’ve got it here

[00:13:27] Catherine: You’ve got a copy. I know it’s a gorgeous cover. My cover is boring and yours is so beautiful in any way. It’s a beautiful coral reef image on the front of Jess’ PhD.

[00:13:35] Jess: It’s one of my dad’s scuba diving photos, but the title is “Decision support tools for visualizing coral reef futures at regional scales.”

The Research

[00:13:44] Catherine: So why a regional scale’s important for us to look at coral reef ecology?

[00:13:49] Jess: Good question. so the project itself was part of a global initiative funded through the World Bank on basically building capacity for, [00:14:00] protecting coral reefs into the future. And I was part of the modeling team in that program. And so we were building, a set of different types of mathematical models to be used as, decision support tools to inform management and they were targeted at different scales.

[00:14:16] So there was one PhD student in the group who was focusing more on the local scale. and then my project was about trying to link from the local scale. So as in kind of, you know, between two kilometers and five kilometer sections of reef, right up to the regional scale where we’re looking at Thousands of kilometers in different environments. and I guess the main reason why that’s important is that, ocean currents, transport the larvae of, both corals and reef fish across quite big distances. And so if a reef in one location, is damaged by coral bleaching or, a storm event, or even, you know, destructive fishing practices, then the way that it can recover is from these sources of larvae from other [00:15:00] places.

[00:15:00] And so you really need to take that bigger scale to think about, how you best manage reefs to be resilient to those kinds of disturbances.

[00:15:08] Catherine: So you and I are quite similar in that we’re both systems engineers to a certain extent So when we talked earlier about the communities and the idea of looking at reefs on a regional scale, one of the things you were talking about is how different reefs obviously then seed other reefs inside a larger reef system. And so when we worry about the rainforest, for example, in south America, we talk about fragmentation actually being a huge issue.

[00:15:32] So fragmenting islands of forest effectively causes species decline at such a rapid rate. Would you, have you been experiencing from your research when you did your PhD, the idea that’s because we have the ocean that we’re not going to see that fragmentation on coral reef systems, the way we would see in a terrestrial forest system.

[00:15:50] Can you talk us through that a bit?

[00:15:51] Jess: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that it’s still is an ongoing issue that, you know, beneath the waves, it’s a little bit out of [00:16:00] sight out of mind. Um, coral reefs have been, you know, you could say the poster child or the Canary in the coal mine for, Impacts of climate change on, biodiversity in the ocean.

[00:16:13] and I think there’s another issue there. I mean, the kelp forest story, I think, is becoming more prominent. People are realizing that it’s not just tropical reefs, that are being impacted by climate change. We’ve lost 95% of our giant kelp forest off the coast of Tazzie over the last decade. But then, you know, the Southern ocean and antarctica, not only is it far away, it’s also really expensive to get there and to do research.

[00:16:36] So one of the challenges I think is that, in complex systems and in ecosystems, things don’t change in a linear way. we see very abrupt change. We see tipping points, we see cases where, You can’t easily just reverse the decline by changing the conditions back to how they were before.

[00:16:56] and I that’s, that’s a difficult one, to communicate in a [00:17:00] general way, the fact that, we can’t imagine that things that is gradually declining, and if we fixed them, they’ll gradually recover again. and you know, if we take too long to act, then it will be too late. So, yeah, I think they’re important challenges.

Phd, Technology and Climate Mitigation strategy

[00:17:12] Catherine: So the mathematical modeling aspects and the predictability of systems has always been so hard. I remember neural networks, but this is before, you know, I was working on my PhD and you were probably too at a time where, you know, quantum computing didn’t even exist as a phrase. Right. So where do you see now, the work that, your PhD started in terms of looking at some of that ways of modeling and predicting and some of Beth’s work, how do you see the advances in computing and large data analytics actually assisting us in making more accurate models of recovery as we go to a climate mitigation strategy. rather than a climate change prevention strategy was quite frankly, the horse has bolted on that one.

[00:17:50] Jess: Yeah, absolutely. Yep. Surely. That’s a great question. I think there’s some really important advances in, um, In the AI that will [00:18:00] influence the way that we are able to make predictions. The other thing in the Marine realm that’s changing very quickly is our ability to forecast and predict  shorter time scales.

[00:18:10] So in the coming decade, and that’s important because of the shortness of political cycles, but also because, typically people I’m more familiar with making decisions about, environmental management on 5 to 10 year time horizons, as opposed to, you know, 30 to 50 years. And typically in climate change science, we have been talking about, oh, this is what we predict for the year 2050, 2070, 2100. And people need more information about what the environment will look like by 2025, 2030. and so I think that’s an important advance and we are getting better at being able to do that.

PhD role to Current Job

[00:18:47] Catherine: So, what are you working on now? I mean, so, and also you need a PhD to have the job that you have, so like it was a PhD, a necessary part of your journey to where you sit there in your career.

[00:18:56] Jess: I would say, yes, the PhD has been an essential part of my journey.  [00:19:00] it is not necessarily an essential part of, the general role. I play, particularly the knowledge broker part I know, and work with some other, amazing knowledge brokers who have come through different pathways and don’t necessarily have a PhD.

[00:19:15] But the way that I got here was, through working with the Australian Antarctic division, I was increasingly engaged with trying to connect better, connects science to policy and decision-making for, conservation of Southern ocean ecosystems and, opportunities like being part of the Australian delegation to CCAMLR which is the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine, Living Resources.

[00:19:40] more and more, I just thought we need to find ways to do this better, to get our science into decision making in ways other than standard approach of do some science, write a paper published and hope that somebody that needs it read it. So, without the PhD, I certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work for the [00:20:00] Antarctic division but it was from there that I came to CS IRO and that’s where I’m focusing now on, trying to connect science with users basically is the crux of my role.

PhD and IPCC work

[00:20:10] Catherine: So tell us about your work with the IPCC and I remember when I first met you, you were churning your way through writing one of the previous IPCC reports. So, how does one go from studying in Tassie, which way you might think you’re in the most isolated place away from places like Washington DC and London, and some of these places where decisions are being made and meetings are being held, but the work that you’re doing and your personal expertise is recognized on a global level, which also, I think, led to the Tasmanian Australian of the year award that you received, which we’ll talk about in a moment as well.

[00:20:41] how important do you think a PhD was to be recognized by a global community and to be asked to take part creating and curating an IPCC report.

[00:20:51] Jess: Yeah, that was an amazing opportunity, really, really challenging one, at least because I was on maternity leave for part of it and juggling a newborn [00:21:00] baby and a two year old and, and an IPCC report was challenging at times I would very much like to, recognize the importance of, a third mentor who has been really fundamental for me in my career.

[00:21:13] Dr Andrew, Constable, who was with the Australian Antarctic division. And it is also like an incredible systems thinker. One of those people where, you know, it often you’ll have to wait to catch up to what he was thinking about cause he’s just so far ahead of the curve. But anyway, Andrew played a key role actually in me having that opportunity to work with the IPCC and was also a mentor throughout the process.

[00:21:37] having, worked as an IPCC lead author in himself. And he’s actually, again, an author on the report that’s just due to come out. but yes, I learned so much from that process. I’m very fortunate to work with a amazing international team of authors and to have some insight into the way that, you know, cause it’s a massive, ours was a special report.

[00:21:59] It wasn’t one of [00:22:00] the, the ones in the regular cycle. It was quite focused on the topic of oceans and polar environments. but you know, how do you distill so much science into the 40 pages or whatever that becomes the summary for policy makers that all of the governments sign off on that was, an incredible learning experience.

[00:22:17] Catherine: Suggest it’s an art, not a science.

[00:22:18] Jess: Yeah.

[00:22:20] Catherine: Science communication though, is something that’s been fundamental to your work. Right? And especially now with your role in CSIRO.

[00:22:27] so What were your key learnings from actually creating the IPCC report in terms of how we need to actually communicate science better? And when I say better, I mean, in a more digestible way for people who don’t have any kind of science training,

[00:22:40] Jess: Um, big question.

[00:22:41] I mean, the IPCC has, a very structured process to do that right? To synthesize very large volumes of science in a very structured way and robust ways such that, you know, all of their statements of, confidence and likelihood, completely traceable. And [00:23:00] that’s, been fundamentally important.

[00:23:03] It’s really difficult to read.

[00:23:05] and so I think, there’s an increasing need for more accessible versions, of those syntheses, that tell it in a language that people can relate to. I’m also really interested in, the way that we, use visuals and other media to engage people with thinking about the future, particularly, and part of some kind of quite exciting projects, thinking about the way that we can shift people into visioning different futures and futures that might be more desirable.

[00:23:35] And there’s a whole heap of, and you might know more about this than me, of different cognitive biases that influenced that. And I’m really excited about that, how we can better relate that field of, you know, understanding how the mind works, um, how that influences the kinds of societal trends we see to the way that we need science to be used to address challenges.

[00:23:57] And I think that’s. An exciting [00:24:00] area.

Tasmanian Australian of The Year

[00:24:00] Catherine: So tell us about the Tasmanian of the year awards that you went for and won. Rightly so. I was going for you on the day at the nationals. I was like, come on climate change, come on, Jess. So tell us about the Tasmanian of the year awards and that journey for you.

[00:24:15] Jess: it came as quite a surprise. Actually. I still don’t know who nominated me for that award. apparently that’s quite typical the nominators remain anonymous. I have some suspicions, but nobody’s owned up to it, so yeah, it was a total surprise, even more of a surprise to be the Tasmanian Australian of the year.

[00:24:34] there were some other wonderful, well actually in the whole experience, I’ve just met so many incredible people, making incredible changes, in the world. it was a funny year to be, in the Australian of the year program because of COVID. and so typically, I think it would involve a bit of travel and talking to different audiences.

[00:24:53] Most of that I did online, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It meant I didn’t have to go away from my family. and, you know, it [00:25:00] is really wonderful this year to see Grace Tame as the Australian of the year. And I think our first ever Tasmanian who has become the Australian of the year and she’s got some fantastic and very, very important messages.

[00:25:11] Catherine: So do you, as Tasmanian Australians of the year, it will have like a secret society alumni kind of get together.

[00:25:18] Jess: If there is one, they haven’t told me about it.

[00:25:20] Catherine: I, a dinner party I want to sign up for right now. Can I sit between you and grace please? Because that would just amazing conversations, but the thing is having your PhD.

PhD and Influential People

[00:25:31] Catherine: Do you think that having your PhD actually gives you kudos when you’re trying to talk to people in government and when you’re trying to talk to people who are influences and even going through awards, processes like that, do you think your PhD is, is part of what gets you through the door

[00:25:44] Jess: I think that is probably true. Yes. And, you know, credibility, and kind of demonstrated track record to support. It’s certainly an important aspect of, having an audience, listen to you. I think PhD is an important part, [00:26:00] but some of it is actually just time.

[00:26:01] But I, I can see more now why that’s important and that, you know, there’s a level of vulnerability in terms of speaking up before you’ve established yourself as someone. well, I’m not sure I’ve managed that yet, but you know, being established as someone who can speak with authority on a topic, is important.

PhD Obstacle

[00:26:17] Catherine: so when you were looking at your PhD journey in Tassie, what kind of obstacles did you still face going through that PhD journey?

[00:26:26] Jess: Um, probably the hardest part for me was that I had to teach myself to program.

[00:26:33] Catherine: Oh, crumbs which language.

[00:26:36] Jess: I chose Python. Craig said to me, I, you know, I don’t mind how you build this model. You choose a language that works for you. And I looked at a few and I don’t know, Python just seemed more natural. but they weren’t there wasn’t anyone else in my lab group who was coding at the time.

[00:26:51] and it was, yeah, it was hard. It was rewarding when I got there, but, it was quite a big learning steep learning curve.

[00:26:58] Catherine: Yes, teaching yourself a brand new [00:27:00] language from scratch effectively and one of the things I say to people now is that coding in schools is great, but it should be taught in a language classroom. Cause it’s not statements it’s a language. it has its own obviously C++girl myself.

[00:27:10] Jess: Yup. Yup. Yup.

PhD reward

[00:27:12] Catherine: so in your engaging, in this idea of coral reef research, I’m assuming there was some wonderful field work involved. I mean, what was the most rewarding part of doing your PhD? Tell me It was the field work on gorgeous tropical reefs.

[00:27:25] Jess: It was certainly most certainly the opportunity to dive on a great diversity of reefs around the world and also to work honestly, to work with the people that lived in those places and depended on them as well. I think, you know, it’s all very well to kind of just sit around and dive in these magnificent spots.

[00:27:43] But, the grounding bit was, was working with the people who, completely dependent on the resources that came from those reefs for their livelihoods.

PhD support system

[00:27:51] Catherine: And, we’ve talked a bit about your heroes already, but, who were the most helpful or inspiring people for you on your PhD journey? [00:28:00] Was it your supervisors or was it those communities that you were visiting and working with doing your research?

[00:28:06] Jess: all of the above, but absolutely my husband,

[00:28:12] yes, no, there is no way that second try would have been possible without all of his support.

[00:28:18] Catherine: So you met him in Indonesia when you were doing your first PhD. Right? So every cloud has a silver lining or a gold band lining on it. .

Advice for PhD students

[00:28:26] Catherine: So if there was someone listening to this who was interested in doing a PhD in this kind of subject matter, what would be the top pieces of advice that you would give them?

[00:28:34] Jess: Oh, go for it.

[00:28:35] Catherine: Go for it. We need you. Come on,

[00:28:37] Jess: Yes.

[00:28:38] Catherine: please.

[00:28:39] Jess: Um, you know, there’s a, there’s a tricky one around, eco reef And when you get into climate change science, there is, has been an element of, banging the door, but no one’s listening. I hope that’s changing. But I guess I’m thinking about how to find that as a piece of advice, we do definitely need more people, and that’s going [00:29:00] to help create the change that we urgently need, but there will be frustrations, I think, in, not always seeing the science to translate, into change.

[00:29:09] but that said, there’s just some really fantastically, exciting science opportunities. Now, I think, particularly in the modeling space and in being able to connect science better to, end users and stakeholders. So we’re also learning a lot from. working with other knowledge systems so that, you know, whether that’s indigenous knowledge systems or recognizing more that, industry, for instance, has important knowledge that we haven’t always brought into the scientific process in a structured way communities, um, citizen scientists. So I think that’s an exciting space as well.


[00:29:45] Catherine: so Looking forwards now on your career, where do you see yourself interacting maybe with PhD, students and postdocs going forwards. Now you’re in a sort of a business unit that’s more to do with industry engagement. Are you going to be encouraging industry to support PhD students? Or what are you going [00:30:00] to do with that? Going forward with your knowledge?

[00:30:02] Jess: Mm, absolutely. And I’ve, been really privileged to supervise, a cohort of really amazing PhD students. So I’ve literally just graduated the last one last week. so I’m feeling a bit like, you know, empty nest.

[00:30:15] Catherine: Quake someone applied to apply for PhD.

[00:30:19] Jess: yeah, I think the connection with industry, and also even opportunities to, do placements in government is going to be increasingly important for PhD candidates. and those applied skills, you know, At least in my area, there’s a need to shift the model of what a PhD looks like, I think.

[00:30:34] and spending three years on, uh, a subject that you know, is interesting blue sky, but doesn’t create the kinds of connections that, researchers need to deliver their science to end users is going to create difficulties, in the future. So, um, yeah, I’m keen to support mechanisms for that to happen more and more.

[00:30:52] Catherine: So, what are you excited about for your future?

[00:30:56] Jess: I’m an optimist I always have been. And, I [00:31:00] think, I have, set in, other contexts that now is the time of great opportunity for scientists to really influence positive change in the future. if my girls ended up being scientists and being part of that, that’s absolutely wonderful, but I’m sure they’ll find ways their own ways to do that.

[00:31:19] But despite the, deep sense of, oh gosh, isn’t the news overwhelming and isn’t the latest episodes they report depressing. I still maintain optimism that with science and with more people coming through the PhD pipeline, we really can change things for a better future.

[00:31:36] Catherine: Jess any time spent with you is time never wasted. Thank you so much for your time today on our pitch, your PhD podcast. I’m really grateful. Thank you so much.

[00:31:47] Jess: Absolute pleasure. Thank you, Catherine.