Views and Visions: Posts from our People

Rachael Quill
Completed PhD student
Key interests:


Dr Daniel Smith & Dr Rachael Quill at the 2018 Science at the Shine Dome.
Dr Daniel Smith & Dr Rachael Quill at the 2018 Science at the Shine Dome.

An exhibition of Australian science: an early career perspective

Science at the Shine Dome is the flagship event of the Australian Academy of Science. Each year, the three day event celebrates some of the ground-breaking science happening across the country. A symposium on Day one focuses on an individual theme. New Fellows are then admitted to the academy and Day two sees a smorgasbord of short presentations from them. Day three sees the presentation of the Academy’s Awards, and yet more insights into Australia’s exciting state-of-the-art science. I was privileged to be supported by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC to attend the event, alongside Dr Daniel Smith from JCU, with an itinerary stuffed full of opportunities to hear from and speak to Australia’s top scientists.

The symposium for Science at the Shine Dome 2018 was entitled “Predict, respond, recover: science and natural disasters”. Sponsored by the CRC, presentations throughout the day covered topics from nationwide policy through to the science behind specific fire dynamics. Mark Crosweller, First Assistant Secretary of the National Resilience Taskforce, and Dr Richard Thornton, CRC CEO, asked us to change our thinking; accept the inevitability of natural hazards and understand that disasters are made when society fails to prepare for a natural event.  Mark Crosweller went on to discuss how vulnerability should not draw parallels with weakness, but in fact everyone becomes vulnerable when situations go beyond our knowledge, skills, experience, and even imagination.

Throughout the symposium, and across the event, a number of speakers emphasised the importance of understanding uncertainty, and the use of probabilistic predictions to do so; particularly exciting to someone who works with statistical approaches to understand variability. Dr Dragana Zovko Rajak (BoM) showed us how probabilistic predictions provide better understanding of severe weather events and their predictability. CRC researcher Dr Vivienne Tippet (QUT) also remarked that probability estimates increased peoples trust in the communication of risk in the face of natural disasters.

Uncertainty in modelling can originate from data, theory or implementation; the use of probabilistic approaches helps to understand and quantify this uncertainty through the modelling process. New fellows, Prof Noel Cressie and Prof Kerrie Mengerson, described how Bayesian statistics can be used to model systems and uncertainty in a wide range of applications from atmospheric carbon dioxide to jaguar populations in the Peruvian jungle. The same principles can be applied to understand uncertainty in predicting the natural hazards that impact Australia.

Day two saw presentations from the newest Academy Fellows and, in ten minutes each, these prominent scientists summarised the state-of-the-art research happening in Australia. For me, this was the most inspiring day of talks I have ever listened to. We started the day learning about ant communities with Prof Alan Anderson (CDU). Who would have thought that the arid lands of the Northern Territory were some of the most biodiverse on the planet! Dr David Blair (UWA) gave us the 100 year history of gravitational waves in just ten minutes, finishing with a push to “bring Einsteinian thought into primary schools.” Later, Prof Veena Sahajwalla described the world of green micro-factories as we move to “recycle, reuse and reform”.

The gala dinner brought yet more opportunities to rub shoulders with our modern day giants of science. A ‘fireside chat’ with Australian of the Year, Prof Michelle Simmons provided insights into not only the world of quantum computing, but the life of a determined female scientist, breaking down barriers and shattering glass ceilings.

The final day of Science at the Shine Dome 2018 saw the awarding of the Academy’s medals. I believe the need for these few days of celebration was summed up well by Prof Matt King, recipient of the 2018 Mawson Medal, who said that “science matters because it creates an evidence base to inform decisions that impact people all over the world.”

As the Academy convened for their AGM, Early and Mid-Career Researchers (EMCRs) attended workshops on writing, policy, career planning and social media run by the EMCR Forum. I attended the Contributing to change: developing good policy in science workshop which provided me an opportunity to learn how science affects policy, but also how policies within science, and in academia, affect scientists. With an increasing spotlight on equity and diversity in STEM, we tackled the problem of how to get a more diverse range of applicants for accolades such as the Academy Awards. Accolades can build careers, which in turn build research groups and drive research directions, and for science to reflect society’s needs, our scientific leaders should reflect society. A key outcome of the workshop was understanding the importance of peer-to-peer support. So I encourage you all to go out and talk to your fellow EMCRs, discover your local EMCR network or make your own, find awards, prizes, grants and apply for them, and encourage others to do the same. We are the scientific leaders and the Academy Medallists and Fellows of the future, and I hope to see you all at Science at the Shine Dome in years to come.

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