An Amazing And Serendipitous Opportunity
Updated: Feb 29
Back in 2017 I competed in my university school's 3-minute thesis competition as part of our yearly postgraduate research forum. It was a relatively new format the school had introduced, where all third year PhD students would sum up their thesis, or a chapter of their thesis, in a mere 3 minute presentation, to be judged by a panel of external judges. There were some tremendous researchers in my group and so I went in with the intention to entertain and show off one of my favourite species, the feathertail glider. I put together a presentation heavily influenced by the film noir genre (for that I blame my high school English teacher), and with a strong detective theme (and for that I blame my mother). The audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, and so along with my honourable mention from the judges, I called that a win! Little did I know what amazing opportunities would arise from my little performance.
One of the judges was friends with one of the reporters from the ABC program Lateline. He'd mentioned my presentation and the story it told to his friend and she was interested in doing a piece on it! Long story short, she got the zoo where I did my research on board and we filmed a nice little piece about the cool noises the feathertails make. You can watch the video here.
Some behind the scenes from the Lateline filming (August 2017)
Coincidently, at the time the piece aired on the television, a collective of primary schools from the northern suburbs of Sydney was carrying out a joint STEM program with the zoo called Project Feathertail Glider. The project aimed to teach the students about the species, and introduce them to conservation topics and public outreach; all my favourite things! The school coordinator of the project saw my piece on TV and got in contact with me to see if I'd like to be involved; an invitation I gladly accepted. He invited me to give a short presentation to the students from Years 3-6 that were involved in the project at the schools. Having a mother who is a teacher really came in handy for this experience. I'd been in a teaching classroom environment before and seen firsthand what students react well to, and what methods leave them bored to tears.
First school visit (September 2017)
I strongly believe that all postgraduate researchers should get this experience at least once throughout their candidature. It's one thing to be able to present your results in a professional manner to your colleagues, but these students are the future of science and our environment. Being able to communicate with them, give them the knowledge they will need in order to make a difference, and encourage them to pursue a career in this field in the future, is equally as important as presenting numbers, facts and figures to a room of professionals.
Another reason why doing this at least once is beneficial to young researchers; children ask some of the most creative questions out there. Most of us will have experienced the dry, sometimes antagonistic, often useful technical questions that accompany a conference presentation, but have you ever had your paper come back from review at a journal and the reviewers haven't understood something that should have been simple to portray, or you left it out as a pure oversight? Children recognise those sorts of gaps and aren't afraid to ask you about them. Sometimes they come up with ingenious questions that elevate your explanation the next time. It's a truly eye-opening experience that we all, as researchers, should try and expose ourselves to as much as possible.
One of the student displays (2017)
The students had put together various modes of media to inform the public about the issues faced by the feathertails in the local community. They were so creative, and some of the more technological projects were well beyond what even our undergraduate students were producing, and I felt so honoured to be a part of it all.
I must not have bored the children too badly because the following year I was once again invited to be a part of Project Feathertail Glider Part 2. This year the focus was on conservation and potential solutions to the environmental issues the species face. As luck would have it, I'd just given a guest lecture to the third year Animal Behaviour students at my university, and had included a more practical application of my acoustic studies in the form of acoustic monitoring, and this fit perfectly with Project Feathertail Glider's new focus. I was invited to give presentations to the students on a workshopping day they were having at Taronga's new education and research centre. That was an experience in and of itself. The new centre had interactive/immersive classrooms, where the back of the classroom was set up as a habitat, and animals were released into the area while lessons were being taught! It was terrific to once again be part of the Project and hear about the terrific presentations the students had put together.
My presentation in the interactive classroom at Taronga Zoo (August 2018)
Who knew that giving that fun 3-minute presentation to my university colleagues would lead me on such a grand and character-building adventure? Getting to interact with the students, and experiencing how engaging with the broader community can help to make a difference, planted a seed for environmental community education in me that I am itching to grow and develop as I continue in my career.