The following is a piece written by Jane Elith, the author highlighted in our first International Women’s Day article. Dr Elith also won the Recognition of Achievement for a Research Paper award for Methods in Ecology and Evolution in 2014 (you can read her full paper here).

 We asked Jane: what drew you to a career in science?

Jane Elith MEE Recognition of Achievement for a Research Paper Award Winner
Dr Jane Elith

I’ve always loved nature, and at school found I was better at science than other subjects. Obvious choices for university would have been Quantitative Ecology or Conservation Biology, but back in the early 1970s such courses didn’t exist in Melbourne. I decided on a Bachelor of Science (Forestry) – science, but focused on trees. However that wasn’t to be – the Head of Forestry advised me that there was no future for women in Forestry. By memory, his reasoning was that there were no facilities for women in the field and entrenched attitudes amongst foresters would make it impossible to get a job. I can’t quite believe, looking back, that I accepted that and changed tracks. But I did.

My alternative, Agricultural Science, was a high quality four-year course at the University of Melbourne. I was one of 12 women amongst 80 or so students – we were a close-knit bunch doing 30+ hours per week of Biochemistry, Microbiology, Animal Physiology, Botany, Economics, Genetics and Breeding, Agricultural Engineering and so on. In our statistics classes the lecturer was resisting the move to computers and made us do everything with slide-rules. Some of my women friends went on to be among the first females in their chosen professions.

Yvonne Aitken
Dr Yvonne Aitken

A few lecturers particularly stand out in my mind and, for International Women’s Day, I’ll mention two women (by memory we only had three or four female lecturers in total over the four years). Yvonne Aitken was an astute but understated person and a keen teacher; she was well ahead of her time as a woman who, against many odds, achieved international recognition in plant sciences. Her mix of avid interest in plant phenology and genetics, deep knowledge of plant species, and generosity with her time deeply impressed me.

Nancy Millis taught us Microbiology and was full of enthusiasm for the subject. She had a great sense of humour and would probably be amused that the clearest memory I have of her teaching is her slogan “Hush the flush: my proposal’s dry disposal” – at the time, raising alternatives to flushing toilets for dry lands like Australia. This interview with her is a good read and her closing answer a gem:

Nancy Millis
Professor Nancy Millis

Q: “Let’s return to the young girl at the side of her tall, handsome father with the dark hair and the blue eyes, visiting the Victoria Market all those years ago. What advice would you give to that child’s equivalent today?”

A: “I don’t know what on earth I’d say, because I have never planned my life, not at all. I have been the biggest opportunist ever. It is no use to advise anyone to choose their parents, but if your parents can give you the courage to believe in yourself and give you the opportunity to express yourself in whatever way is good for you, then you’ve won the battle before anyone has drawn the battlelines. That really is what it’s about.”

By the end of Agricultural Science I’d proved to myself that I could do the work and was offered the chance to start a PhD, but I was unsure whether I really wanted to move in that direction. I tested the waters as a Research Associate. After a year I was sick of studying but not particularly keen on the idea of a career in agriculture. So I tutored in Animal Sciences for a couple of years. Not yet enthused about that as a career, I (quite typically for the 1970s) stopped work completely to raise kids – creating a much simpler life than many face nowadays, as they juggle work and families. Three sons and 12 years later, with the last starting school, I was invited back to tutor in Agricultural Science, and took the chance to do that part-time for the next five years.

By the mid-1990s I’d had enough of teaching in other people’s subjects, and had met Mark Burgman, who was establishing the first Environmental Science stream at the University of Melbourne. The course sounded just like what I would have wanted to study originally and somehow I came up with the bright idea that I could change tracks by doing a PhD. Apparently I wasn’t one to worry about all the gaps in my education! Critically, Mark is an exceptionally broad-minded person who sees opportunities rather than barriers, and didn’t hesitate to accept me as a PhD student despite the clearly unorthodox route I’d taken. Within a week we’d submitted applications for scholarships and a project and I started my half-time PhD, finishing seven years later in 2003. Mark was generous in giving me opportunities to travel to workshops and from those I’ve developed a great network of collaborators.

Since then, I have researched and published extensively on improved methods for, and applications of, species distribution modeling. I feel very fortunate that my work has been supported by Australian Research Council grants (Discovery and Linkage Projects and a Future Fellowship) and recognized by my peers. My current research continues my established interests, and includes:

Kayaking on the Fitzroy River, Australia

So, back to the question: what drew me to a career in science? It was more of a winding path than a calculated progression; a process – still ongoing – of finding a place that allowed me to work close to something I value (nature) within the capabilities I discovered in myself.