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Ecology in the Antipodes

Joe Fontaine (Murdoch University)

A postdoc in Perth – I couldn’t believe my good fortune! I was in the first year after completing my PhD, juggling several part time jobs to pay the bills and do science, and beginning to question if a research career was going to happen. After an undergraduate semester at UNSW, I had always wanted to return to Australia. 

Oregon-Los Angeles-Sydney-Perth. Two and a half days in Perth to sort myself and then off to the field for two months with a PhD student, three honours students, two German backpacker volunteers and wafer-thin walls. Before arriving, I had peered at Google Earth and seen a weird looking landscape that didn’t compute to my North American trained mind.

The next morning, we headed out to the field sites. Trying to keep up as my new boss, Neal Enright, quickly strode through the heath, species names came quick and thick. I think I made it about 50 meters before my brain was full of names of plants with bizarre and wonderous shapes and colours that I would never have imagined anywhere outside of a Dr Seuss book. 

As a fire ecologist, I have had the good fortune to work with experimentally applied fire and look across multiple fire intervals, something my colleagues in North America could never do where fire intervals often extend well past the length of an academic career. Credit: Willa Veber.

The ‘oddities’ kept piling up – trees in the ‘wrong’ place, sand everywhere and no ‘normal’ soil, the absence of familiar topography driving vegetation patterns, burned areas regrowing in a few years versus decades, and the list goes on. It wasn’t long before I knew I had to set aside what I thought I had learned in my undergraduate ecology class and start over. I made myself a blank slate, knowing that I was in a totally different region of all the graphs I had been shown in my previous ecology classes. 

Over my first couple of years in Western Australia I truly was back to being an undergraduate student, learning as much as I could. It was enormously fun and challenged all the ideas, assumptions, and principles I brought with me. But, steadily I gained ground. As surely as I expanded my local vocabulary (furphy, anyone?), I began to connect the dots and be able to see the connections with what I had brought with me. 

As a transplant from the United States, one of the biggest dangers is when confronted with something familiar is to assume it is the same. KFC, Maccas, academic jobs, promotion, tenure, etc. all exist in America and lure one into a sense of equivalence, leading to missteps that range from comical to a sharp pain in the bum. The meaning of professor, how to network, and the pitfalls of being a loud American at staff meetings all took time for me to learn as a transplant. 

As with the ecology, it took me a few years to get the hang of things. Now, after 10+ years, I feel settled and have been able to develop a research program that addresses issues incredibly relevant to Australia, but also of value globally. For example, as a fire ecologist, I have had the good fortune to work with experimentally applied fire and look across multiple fire intervals, something my colleagues in North America could never do where fire intervals often extend well past the length of an academic career. 

Coming to Western Australia has been an incredible gift to me as an ecologist. I had to re-tool myself and came out better for it. Being an academic in Australia has been incredibly rewarding and I still pinch myself that I get to live and work on the edge of the Indian Ocean, studying wonderous things, like Banksias. 

For more information, contact Joe here: J.Fontaine@murdoch.edu.au

This article was first published in the ESA Bulletin March 2021. 

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