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Greetings from Down Under
Laura Merwin, Fulbright scholar
Fulbright scholar Laura Merwin (BA '08) is conducting groundbreaking research in Perth, Australia, to understand how plants re-colonize following fire or drought. Her work is focused on Banksia candolleana, a plant species that has adapted to the harsh elements of South Western Australia. She arrived in Australia in September 2008 to work for 12 months at Kings Park, a world class biological preserve and research lab in conservation biology. Though she is in the other hemisphere and spends most of her time out in the Australian bush, we were able to catch up with Merwin for a quick Q&A.
Tell us about the goal of your research.
I'm working on Banksia candolleana. Banksia is a genus that occurs only in Australia and about 80 percent of the species are only found in Western Australia. This project asks a very specific question: How far can Banksia candolleana seeds travel? In turn, that question will help elucidate one aspect of this species' identity – population genetic structure, which can help determine things like minimum conservation area needed to protect this species. Conservation policies in Western Australia are obviously concerned with protecting as much diversity as possible, so this one project will hopefully be a small part of a vast and growing data set that will allow governmental policy makers, mining companies, and environmental groups to make informed decisions about conservation in this region.
How has the research been going?
My project was slow to get started because my mentors [Dr. Siegy Krauss, senior research scientist in conservation genetics at Kings Park and Dr. TianHua He of Curtin University] and I were waiting for some DNA primers to be developed, but now that those are here, we've made progress. We've collected our samples – 600 of them – and are working on extracting DNA and optimizing our protocols so we can really make a big push to get our data in the next couple months. So far, everything is going smoothly!
How does it feel to be conducting research that is so important to conservation efforts in Australia?
I've found the Australian public in general to be very aware of environmental issues. In Western Australia, so much of the economy is based on mining, but that is balanced with concern for an amazing and unique environment. So it's great to feel that this research will hopefully contribute to conservation efforts in the state.
What was it like spending Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere?
It was weird! Even though I grew up in Southern California, having Christmas in summer didn't feel like Christmas at all! Seeing Christmas decorations, which are still evergreen and snow themed, in store windows next to beach towels and bikinis was surreal.
What is best new lingo you’ve picked up?
Hmm..."rocked up" for "showed up" is one I've just gotten into using recently. For example, "We rocked up half an hour late." Also, "cheers" is a great all-purpose word – something American English lacks. I do love Aussie slang.
Any other cultural differences you’ve had to get used to?
I have found that Australians tend to be more laid back than Americans – especially in Western Australia. This was hard to get used to at first at work, because I would feel like I wasn't doing enough or being very productive. It was a little unsettling and in some respects I am still getting used to it. But once you can turn off your American workaholic instincts, it's awesome.
We hear you've been able to travel quite a bit. Any highlights you can share?
I've loved seeing unique Australian wildlife: kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, and little penguins. Australian beaches are truly some of the most beautiful in the world, and even sharks couldn't keep us out of the water! Tasmania was really beautiful – green forests in Freycinet National Park and pastoral fields outside Hobart. I can't pick favorites.
What else do you hope to do before you leave there?
I'd really love to take the transcontinental train from Perth to Sydney. It crosses, among other things, the Nullarbor Plain, which is so barren that the train runs along the longest straight stretch of track in the world. I'd like to see Sydney and also spend some more time in Melbourne, which is a great city. And I'd like to go to Queensland to see the Great Barrier Reef.
What’s next after you finish your term as a Fulbright scholar?
I will be starting a Ph.D. program at University of Chicago in September.