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The scientist who went out in the cold

12 April 2017
Recognising a true scientific pioneer

Soon to be recognised with the University of Sydney's 2017 Alumni Award for Professional Achievement, we talk to Dr Patrica Selkirk AAM about her extraordinary career.

Dr Patricia Selkirk doesn’t mind the cold. Awarded the Australian Antarctic Medal in 2004, she has spent big chunks of her career on Macquarie Island (1500km south of Tasmania) and Heard Island (4000km southwest of Fremantle) where the temperature hovers about five degrees Celsius. How did she work in such conditions? “I just put on more clothes,” she laughs.

In the summer of 1983, Patricia was the first woman to live at Antarctica’s Casey Station while conducting research, though she characteristically downplays this too. “I didn’t know I was going to be the only woman until the ship was part way there,” she says. “Not that it would’ve changed my mind – I just got on with it.”

Graduating from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Science (Hons) in 1964 then completing a PhD in 1969, she attributes her abiding interest in bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) to an inspiring botany teacher, Geoff Berrie, and the collegial, academic atmosphere at Women’s College, where she lived for four years.

Her studies led her a long way south. “The subantarctic islands are of immense interest botanically because they’re very isolated,” Patricia says. “They’ve not previously been connected with a continental land mass.” Plants got here “by air mail” – carried by the wind. “The islands are beyond the latitudinal limit at which trees can grow, the largest plants are tussock grasses,” she says. Bryophytes assume a vital role here in soil formation, water retention and nutrient cycling.

I didn’t know I was going to be the only woman until the ship was part way there
Dr Patricia Selkirk

Patricia Selkirk at Scott Base in the Antarctic. Photo: Dieter Adam

Dr Selkirk’s book, Subantarctic Macquarie Island: Environment and Biology, published in 1990, is a key work in the field. She describes working with a colleague to blend nascent satellite technology with exploration on foot, “scribbling on image copies in the rain”. The result was a detailed map that is still very much in use for both research and island management.

Possessed of a great spirit of adventure, Patricia describes a trip to Heard Island made possible only by helicopter support. She and two colleagues were the first to visit some sites, collect mosses and “expand the knowledge of the island’s vegetation”.

With this comes a note of caution, however. “Since the 1950s, the glaciers have retreated by a kilometre or more and there are big lakes in front of them that you can’t get across, where once you could walk across snow and ice,” she says. “That’s the most dramatic evidence of climate change that I’ve seen.”

Solitary fieldwork is unsafe in this environment, but this opens up great opportunities for collaboration, says Patricia, who has been involved in finding a new orchid species and a new plant virus, uncovering vegetation history, geomorphology and mapping. “All sorts of things to do with the plants and the climate,” she says. “It’s all interconnected, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.” Patricia’s PhD students also speak highly of her warmth and mentoring.

Yet there have been frustrations too, some to do with funding, some with logistics. Then there was the reporter from a popular women’s magazine who, even in 1980, was more interested in questioning Patricia about “abandoning” her husband and children than finding out about her research. “The world has moved on now,” Patricia says.

Patricia exudes a great love for the unique landscape of her research. “The islands are wonderful, just magic,” she says. “The scenery, the plants, the whole environment, are just beautiful. And on the beach you’ll meet, depending on the season, seals and penguins and all kinds of seabirds.” She sums up her hopes for the region in one elegant phrase: “Peace, conservation and science.”

Dr Selkirk and other winners will receive their awards in an official ceremony in Great Hall on Thursday 27 April.