Undertaking a research studentship at CSIRO has been a life-changing experience for Robyn Pearce.
A proud Barunggam woman, whose Country stretches around the south and west of the Dividing Range in southern Queensland, Robyn has been studying at Bebegu Yumba campus, James Cook University (JCU).
Through the JCU-CSIRO partnership, Robyn has undertaken a studentship with our Health and Biosecurity team. She said the skills she has learned – and the confidence it has inspired – has resulted in her changing her career aspiration from research assistant to lead researcher.
It is fair to say the 54-year-old Robyn’s road to science was long and winding. She worked in administration and accounting for many years, which included working in family-run businesses in electrical and air conditioning as well as a quilting fabric shop.
The accidental student
Robyn's motivation to head to university was to support her daughter, who had enrolled at JCU as an undergraduate student and was experiencing severe anxiety. Instead of just spending time on campus supporting her daughter, Robyn decided she should also enrol in a course.
It was 2018 and Robyn opted for a Diploma of Higher Education. It has been full steam ahead since then.
Following her diploma, Robyn enrolled in a Bachelor of Science, majoring in zoology and ecology. She switched to molecular and cell biology because it was more analytical. When COVID-19 arrived, Robyn didn’t want to miss out on lab work so she looked for another science-related degree to complement her original studies. She then enrolled in a Bachelor of Biomedical Science, majoring in microbiology and immunology.
In addition to studying, Robyn volunteers as an Indigenous Peer Assistance Learning Tutor and is a student ambassador for the JCU Indigenous Education and Research Centre (IERC). She had a couple of touch points with us. One was tutoring an employee – who is also a student at JCU – and the other was winning JCU's IERC STEM award, which is sponsored by us. A conversation, with CSIRO's Ally Lankester and Fiona Smallwood, introduced Robyn to the CSIRO Vacation Studentship opportunity, supported by the JCU-CSIRO Building Indigenous Research Capacity (BIRC) initiative.
For this wife, mother, grandmother and foster mother to a two-year-old boy, Robyn’s 12-week studentship continued after the vacation period, in parallel with her two degrees. Since the conclusion of her studentship, she has continued as a volunteer working on the joint JCU-CSIRO research project.
"I was given the opportunity to work on an avian influenza project, where we examined water samples for the virus," Robyn.
"It’s a pilot program that might lead to the detection of new viruses."
The work was conducted in Townsville, in conjunction with the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine.
Robyn said the research skills she learned during her CSIRO studentship had resulted in a huge boost to her confidence.
"We’re very much handfed in our degrees, so it is great to do new and innovative things in the lab environment," Robyn said.
"I did a literature review, I designed a complete protocol, tested the protocol and started the project. I had always suffered from imposter syndrome and was worried that I wasn’t up to speed. Now my attitude is ‘I’ve got this’.
“It was valuable to contribute to a research project that is going to make a difference. For the rest of my life, I will appreciate the opportunity provided by CSIRO."
Robyn said her primary CSIRO supervisor, Associate Professor Roslyn Hickson, had been a great support, as had Dr Anjana Karawita. Her JCU supervisor, Associate Professor Paul Horwood, had also facilitated her increased confidence by never micro-managing her.
Roslyn said Robyn exudes enthusiasm, optimism, a love of learning and the willingness and courage to try new things.
"She has a strong foundation of logical reasoning and introduction to lab work from her undergraduate studies," Roslyn said.
"This set of positive attitudes – combined with her foundational skills – meant she got the most from CSIRO’s 12-week research placement.
"I am excited to see where Robyn’s journey takes her. She is not only on an incredible scientific journey, but she is bringing many others along with her through a combination of her own inspirational story and her leadership," she said.
A love of learning
Robyn started her degree thinking it would be great to become a research assistant. She's now aiming much higher.
"Now my increased confidence has got me thinking that I would like to pursue postgrad study, including a PhD. I could even do postdoctoral work overseas. I really hope I inspire other Indigenous community members, particularly young people, to try something different," Robyn said.
"The whole experience of the studentship was beneficial – working in an inclusive organisation like CSIRO, interacting with people who are passionate about their work and being accountable for your work.
"Australia also needs Indigenous-led research. That would be amazing," she said.