My name is Izzy and I am a Zoology student currently on placement at The University of Melbourne, Australia (where people do in fact say “g’day”). Being a Zoology student, I am interested in all things animal – in particular, animal behaviour, ecology and evolution. My work here focuses on long-term monogamy in the iconic and charismatic black swan Cygnus atratus. I spend most of my time either in the field or trawling through the university’s very large swan database (I’ll talk a bit more about that later). So far I have learned a lot about the life of a researcher and have really loved getting to know Melbourne – and it’s rather favourable climate.
My placement was self-arranged and I managed, with a bit of luck, to secure it fairly early on in my second year at Manchester. I had a vague idea of what I was interested in so I had a browse online to see if there were any university research teams that tickled my fancy. As luck would have it, one of the first that I came across was the Mulder Lab at The University of Melbourne – specialising in the evolutionary ecology of birds. After exchanging a good few emails with Prof. Raoul Mulder, my placement was arranged! It was a weight off my shoulders and goes to show that it’s always worth asking! Following this came organising visas, health insurance, flights etc. I won’t bore you with the details but I will advise those planning trips outside of Europe – save yourself a lot of panicking and look into visas early. Don’t do what I did (i.e. leave it until a few months before going and then PANIC).
After a ridiculously long journey, during which I made the mistake of watching ‘The Imitation Game’ and cried a lot, I stepped off the plane and into Australia for the first time. Unfortunately, it being winter in August on the other side of the world, it was raining and cold. That soon changed though and I was able to spend my usually drizzly November birthday in 30 degree heat… on the beach. Definitely not a bad thing!
My first few weeks at the university involved meeting my supervisor’s group of master’s and PhD students and spending time getting to know their individual projects. During this time, I learnt the basics of mist netting, a technique used to capture small birds within a study area, as well as DNA extraction and molecular sexing in the lab. I also enjoyed a jaunt to Werribee Open Range Zoo where one master’s student was studying mate choice in the critically endangered (and totally adorable) eastern barred bandicoot. While there, I met three beautiful Maremma sheepdogs who were being trained to protect a population of bandicoots from predation. Non-native foxes and feral cats are a big threat to Aussie wildlife, so I thought this was a pretty awesome solution. But, before I carry along this tangent, I should probably tell you what I actually do here on placement…
I had initially planned to carry out my own investigation on a bird species called the superb fairy wren (cool name, I know). However, after a month or so of planning and collecting some preliminary data in the field (or ‘the bush’ as it’s known over here), it didn’t look like the project would be feasible. After this I turned my attention to the black swan population at Albert Park in Melbourne and, after much umming and ahhing, I decided to look into long term monogamy and reproductive success.
My time is mostly spent either in the field, working on the database, or reading papers. Field work is awesome. Not only have I gained valued experience in handling and banding wild animals, but I also now know how to safely wrestle and capture a swan – a skill I am certain will be useful in later life… maybe. On top of this, I have also learned the art of handling cygnets and, let’s face it, life is better when you get to cuddle tiny fluffy swans. Other field work has included taking population censuses and canoeing around the islands where the swans nest. It’s hard work in the midday sun but it’s rewarding. My work on the database involves ‘tidying up’ 10 years’ worth of swan breeding data – it’s a fantastic resource and I’m getting some key experience on a widely used platform. I also attend a lot of seminars and generally live the life of a PhD or master’s student – which is great as I’m considering going down that path myself. On a side note, if you fancy seeing some of the black swan project in action then click here for a beautifully filmed ‘science short’ made by Wild Melbourne (I feature briefly as ‘girl in blue jumper releasing swan’).
It’s a real privilege to be here in Australia – a country of strange marsupials, oversized arachnids, and birds that really remind you of their dinosaurian origins (by which I mean emus). In addition to swans, fairy wrens and bandicoots, I have had my fair share of animal encounters since arriving. Only yesterday (as I write this) did I have a very close encounter with a brush-tailed possum on my way home. Needless to say I was very excited, despite brush-tails being about as common as the squirrels of Platt Fields Park. For my birthday I was surprised with an overnight trip to Melbourne Zoo (it’s a thing – google ‘Roar and Snore’) which, as I’m sure you can imagine, was filled with some incredible animal experiences, including feeding some very adorable wallabies. I have also visited a colony of little penguins and chased an emu on my bike (don’t ask).
Living abroad offers the chance to really get to know the nooks and crannies of a new country (cue ‘A Whole New World’ from Disney’s Aladdin). Being on placement has allowed me to get to know Melbourne – voted the world’s best city to live in for a reason! I’ve been to various amazing festivals, gigs, bars, sports matches and markets, made easily accessible by Melbourne’s cheap and frequent tram network. One highlight would be the night noodle market – a huge wonderland of paper lanterns and the best Asian food I’ve ever tasted. Outside of the city, I have spent some time on Mornington Peninsula appreciating its mobs (yes, I googled the collective noun) of kangaroos and the beautiful coastline. I had my New Year’s Eve in Sydney, overlooking the harbour bridge and its magnificent fireworks, and have recently booked my flights to New Zealand for 9 days of hiking, volcanic spas and generally enjoying the scenic views of Middle-Earth. I will also be ticking ‘visit Hobbiton’ off the bucket list. I am a big Lord of the Rings fan so to say that I’m excited is a monumental understatement…
All in all, my placement year has given me some incredible opportunities and valuable skills – I couldn’t recommend it enough to those of you currently deciding on a course to study at university. To current students, I wish you luck in sorting your own placements and thank you all for reading my ramblings.