Tropical musings

This is the second year that I have attended the Tropical Research Network Conference held from November 3 – 7 at the Cairns Institute, James Cook University. The Tropical Research Network (TRN) is a collaboration of Australian Universities who nominate students to become TRN members based on their PhD research in a tropical area. The aim of TRN is to encourage us to look beyond the boundaries of our particular research, to consider that the problems affecting the tropics will require working with others from a wide variety of academic backgrounds.

The TRN began in 2012, I joined in 2013 (my post on 2013 here: and a third cohort joined us this year for 2014. If you haven’t heard of the TRN, that’s probably because it’s a relatively young creation. The first three years have been pilot years to test out how the network would work and whether it would achieve its goals.

I had three quite personally significant epiphanies at the TRN 2014 Conference that I’d like to share…[By the way: I refer to the TRN 2014 Conference using the twitter hashtag #TRN2014]

Welcome to the tropics

Prior to #TRN2014 I had no concept of the tropics as a singular region. I identified the equator and a range of countries spanning it, with no particular relation to each other or to me. Throughout the week, as we heard speaker after speaker discuss their experiences in the region, this changed. Ann Penny (JCU) gave an overview of the newly released State of the Tropics Report ( This highlighted the importance of this region with some startling facts. Two-thirds of the world’s poor live in the tropics. By 2050 60% of the world’s children (under 10) will live in the tropics. There is more biodiversity in the tropics than the rest of the world, but loss of biodiversity is also greater. Nearly one-third of land area in the tropics has been degraded. 95% of mangroves exist in the tropics but these have declined by more than 30% since 1980…

Living and working on Indigenous land in northern Australia I found I identified with the experiences and passions of our speakers. Prof. Alexandra Aikhenvald (JCU), a linguist, talked about her work with PNG communities and the cross-cultural challenges she experiences. Closer to home the Hon. Warren Entsch presented the Pivot North report; Australia is once again looking to its north to encourage development. Prof. Sagadevan G. Mundree (QUT) discussed research to improve crops in northern Australia, including chickpeas and mung beans, some of which are grown in the Kimberley. Each of these issues is significant to where I live.

Prof. Sagadevan G. Mundree (QUT)

Prof. Sagadevan G. Mundree (QUT)


Prof. Alexandra Aikhenvald (JCU)

Prof. Alexandra Aikhenvald (JCU)


I also identified with a range of other issues that arose either through members’ PhD projects or guest speaker presentations. These issues span the tropics, including northern Australia: tropical diseases, in particular mosquito-borne diseases, public health issues, working in a cross-cultural environment, development of regional/rural economies, and policy development for tropical areas.

As this whirlpool of facts spun around in my head, I could see how single issues affect vast areas of the tropics. Now I perceive the tropics, the region between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, as experiencing similar challenges across a diverse geography. I also see my place within this region. Themes important to my PhD research are also important to other tropical communities: maintaining and reviving language diversity, Indigenous participation in biodiversity conservation, Indigenous participation in water management, and working across scientific and Indigenous knowledge systems.

2013 Cohort

2013 Cohort


Hello Network!

Networking is a concept that I understand but have not necessarily intentionally cultivated in my professional or research life. Perhaps looking too much like a buzzword…However, attending #TRN2014 for the second year allowed the network to come alive for me. This year I already knew members of the foundation cohort (2012) and my cohort (2013), and the new 2014 cohort was introduced. There were plenty of opportunities to get to know each other better. Some of these were formal, such as three-minute thesis updates about each member’s research. There were generous morning, lunch and afternoon tea breaks with a lot of time to chat (and good catering!). Plus every evening I spent with TRN members, either through organised dinners or informal gatherings.

Each of us was asked to step out of our comfort zone in some way. We were all challenged but we also had fun, and that combination fast-tracked getting-to-know everyone. I now have a relationship with 36 other PhD candidates, many studying in fields quite foreign to me, and these are people I can call on in the future.

TRN Members getting some attention from the Cairns Post

TRN Members getting some attention from the Cairns Post

Life beyond the PhD

Prior to #TRN2014 I had a fairly firm idea of where I would be post-PhD. I would finish and take leave to have my first child. In the medium-term future I would reconvene my professional life to build a small research team based in Western Australia working on Indigenous and Western ecological knowledge systems. One #TRN2014 presentation alone significantly changed this perspective. Prof. Sharon Bell, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Charles Darwin University, spoke about women in academia. Bell presented statistics on the number of women within academia from undergraduate level to the top jobs. In the sciences, after PhD study the number of women in academia falls dramatically and few remain at high levels. Research from the USA shows women experience difficulty re-entering academia after a break, for example to rear children. The statistics were stark.

I realised that voluntarily exiting the University system would potentially make a future research career difficult. (And maybe I see a personal challenge to bump up female numbers in the sciences!). My outlook has completely changed and I will now look at my options for continuing on as an early career researcher, hopefully at my home University.

I am grateful to the individuals who developed the Tropical Research Network. I am very grateful to my University, particularly the University of Western Australia’s Graduate Research School, for nominating me to become a member and continuing to support my attendance.


One comment

  1. Hi Michelle -Wonderful to hear that the exposure to new ideas from different perspectives have helped you to develop new insights about your work & your career. Good luck as a TRN member & early career researcher!

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