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By Hannah McCleary 27 July 2021 6 min read

The deck of a research vessel in the Arafura Sea in 2021 is a long way from my home in lutruwita/Tasmania.

A person standing on the deck of a ship holding a weather balloon.
Hannah McCleary with a weather balloon on board RV Investigator.

However, it’s where I found myself after accepting an opportunity to develop and share an at-sea professional development program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students for CSIRO.

The program, known as the Indigenous Time at Sea Scholarship (ITSS), began in 2018. It provides sea-going experience for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander University students aboard research vessel (RV) Investigator.

Programs like ITSS are fundamental in encouraging a higher uptake of STEM related university degrees by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Currently, Indigenous students make up less than two per cent of all undergraduate university enrolments. This statistic is even lower for postgraduate students.

Even though the program is in its infancy, it’s already making a positive and tangible impact in the lives of participants of the program. It has been extremely rewarding for me to see the benefits of ITSS as its coordinator.

All hands on deck

There’s nothing quite like the ITSS program. Students who receive the scholarship are given the opportunity to mingle with marine scientists across a range of disciplines. From senior researchers and experts in their field, to early career researchers and those undertaking honours projects, individuals on board come together with a common focus to better understand and protect our marine environment. The research that takes place onboard ranges from sky-high atmospheric measurements to deep seafloor mapping, and everything in between.

Not only does the ITSS program provide scientific research experience, it also gives students the opportunity to experience a deep dive into the technical aspects of running a multidisciplinary research vessel.

The direct scientific research benefits that the ITSS offers to its participants are far-reaching. They include hands-on experience with a variety of scientific instruments and equipment, the ability to network and develop diverse relationships, encouragement to continue study, and inspiration for the many career paths available after university.

Our ITSS students also have the opportunity to learn from the crew that work to keep the ship going round-the-clock, including the ship Master (captain), engineers and technical staff.

The program also delivers against CSIRO’s objective of increasing the diversity of research teams on board RV Investigator, which has multiple benefits, including the sharing of different perspectives and experiences.

RV Investigator is operated by CSIRO on behalf of the nation. Image: Owen Foley

A unique opportunity and experience

Three women smiling for a selfie.
Tiahni Adamson (let) and Sophie Gilbey (centre), who took part in the inaugural ITSS voyage from Darwin to Fremantle, with ITSS Coordinator Hannah McCleary (right).

The program has now successfully run on two voyages: a transit voyage in 2019 from Darwin to Fremantle, and a transit voyage in 2021 from Brisbane to Darwin, supporting three students.

Sophie Gilbey and Tiahni Adamson, the first recipients of the scholarship, took part in the inaugural ITSS voyage from Darwin to Fremantle.

Sophie, inspired by her time on board the ship, chose to continue her study at Flinders University and commenced her Honours degree shortly after the voyage. She is now working part-time with CSIRO while completing her degree. Tianhi soon after started work in fisheries conservation and compliance in South Australia.

Breeanna Muggleton, the most recent scholarship recipient, was part of an 11-day voyage from Brisbane to Darwin in June this year. Breeanna is an Indigenous woman with family ties to Queensland and Western Australia.

During the voyage, Breeanna joined the science team and was involved in both hands-on projects and data analysis. Breeanna also led a seawater sampling project that had been impacted when its researchers were unable to board the ship due to COVID-19 restrictions.

When asked about her experience on board, Breeanna echoed the responses of previous participants in the program.

“I was beyond excited when I was offered a position on the RV Investigator as one of the ITSS recipients. I have never been to sea or had the opportunity to work in a science-based environment before,” Breeanna said.

“Since I am studying engineering and environmental science, I also thought it would be a really great experience to help me with my career. What I was looking forward to most about the voyage was meeting new people in a wide range of science roles and learning about the different projects that I could participate in while being on board,” she said.

Offering a different perspective

Two people on the deck of a ship kneeling over a piece of electronic equipment.
Breeanna Muggleton learning to use a cosmic ray detector.

The benefits of the program flow both ways. The knowledge and perspectives of the students is also shared with those on board, including through the daily presentations run in the ship’s lounge. It’s in this informal environment, where voyage participants and crew mix and share their experiences, where some of the greatest benefits from the program are realised.

The experience on board is diverse and unique for each student. During the most recent voyage, Breeanna worked alongside me, on board in the role of ITSS program coordinator, to take water samples to test for carbon and bioluminescent species, help maintain cosmic ray detectors, and assist with the setup, deployment and analysis of oceanographic samples.

“Overall, the journey was an incredible experience and made me realise that I would love to work in this kind of environment when I graduate from university,” said Breeanna.

Offering these opportunities forms an important part of CSIRO’s Reconciliation Action Plan, for providing opportunities for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The program complements our students’ study in STEM, through the unique hands-on industry experience it provides. The future of the program is exciting and the potential positive impacts for students are endless.

Applications recently closed for two more Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander university students studying a science, technology, mathematics or engineering-based degree to join a 12-day voyage on RV Investigator later this year.

Through being involved in the program’s development to now having witnessed two successful ITSS voyages, I am excited to see who will be joining the diverse research team on this upcoming voyage and the connections and experiences that will be made. We hope that the program will continue to grow rapidly with support and awareness, allowing more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to realise a passion for our marine environment and take them to places they never imagined before, just like myself, Sophie, Tiahni and Breeanna.

Take a virtual tour of RV Investigator.

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