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By Kate Cranney 16 February 2022 4 min read

University student Katelyn Dooley has always had a love for geology. In the moments between studying her Bachelor of Environmental Engineering, you might find her investigating the rocky cliffs and outcrops along the Geelong coastline. So when the opportunity arose to spend three months at CSIRO pursuing her groundwater focus as a vacation student, she knew it was a match made in heaven.

How did you go from undergrad to underground?

I spent this summer as an undergraduate vacation student, based in Geelong on Wadawurrung Country. 

I joined a team of scientists investigating groundwater in northern Australia. It was a great fit as I am studying a Bachelor of Environmental Engineering with a major in groundwater. 

During my studentship, I worked on projects based in the Roper River[Link will open in a new window], the Victoria River and southern Gulf of Carpentaria. These assessments investigate the opportunities and risks of water and agricultural development. A key part of this is looking at groundwater hydrology. In other words – what’s happening with underground water? To understand this, we need to map and characterise aquifers. We also look at their interactions with ‘groundwater dependent ecosystems’, like springs, creeks and rivers.  

And that’s where my studentship came in! 

Before scientists go out to do field work in northern Australia, they need to know what they don’t know. The first step is to look at what groundwater data we already have on the study areas. There are 35,000 or so water bores[Link will open in a new window] in the Northern Territory alone. (In fact, about 90 per cent of the Northern Territory’s water supply comes from groundwater.)  So that gave me plenty of data to collate, analyse and interpret! 

What did you most enjoy about the work? 

Sometimes I felt like a detective, uncovering important information from old, hand-written records! That’s because, even though most of the Northern Territory’s groundwater data is digitised[Link will open in a new window], some records are still hand-written. So I spent a lot of time digitising important datasets about water levels, water quality and aquifer testing observations. 

For me, one highlight was identifying the aquifer for each bore. I really enjoyed trying to decode the bore driller’s notes. It helped me understand the really varied geology of northern Australia. And I like the fact that my work will support future research.  

My research shows which areas are lacking data. This helps my colleagues choose where they will focus future field work — where they will drill or collect water quality samples. The Roper River study area is larger than the size of Tasmania, so it’s important to focus your efforts! This will help everyone better understand groundwater in the study areas.  

How did it work, completing a studentship remotely?  

My work was completely desktop based. This meant I worked remotely during COVID-19 lockdowns. The Groundwater Systems team based at the Waite Campus in Adelaide were extremely welcoming, and my supervisor Andrew Taylor was incredibly supportive.  

This experience has reiterated to me, with the aid of technology, just how much you can discover from your computer, before stepping foot into the field. 

The most enjoyable part of the studentship was the opportunity to talk to different experts and learn about each researcher’s area of interest, within the groundwater field. It also affirmed how exciting and diverse a career in research can be. 

CSIRO also connected me with my local site, the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness[Link will open in a new window] in Geelong. I worked there for four days, in between COVID outbreaks. That was fantastic. It allowed me to see some of CSIRO’s world class facilities in person. It gave me exposure to the dynamics of working on site in an office.  

Best of all, I had the opportunity to meet researchers in different disciplines to me. Who knew, with my background in environmental engineering, I would have the chance to speak in person to some of the scientists currently working on better understanding COVID-19[Link will open in a new window]?!  That’s the great thing about working with CSIRO: you gain multidisciplinary exposure. 

Do you have any advice for future students?  

Like many undergraduates, I’ve completed a large portion of my studies remotely. And now I’ve completed an studentship remotely. It’s clear to me that, in the future, other students may complete their first professional industry experience online, too.  

My advice is to reach out to your team members. Introduce yourself via email. And set up regular online meetings with different researchers to learn more about their work.  

Working remotely does have its perks. I had the time to go surfing in the mornings before starting work for the day! And I was also able to take my dog for a stroll during lunch breaks. But it can also feel isolating. So do make sure you reach out to team members and raise any concerns with your supervisor.  

CSIRO is an incredibly supportive workplace – it’s been amazing to complete my vacation student experience and expand my groundwater knowledge and skills during a pandemic, all from the safety of my home. 

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