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Coming home to give back to the environment: Alyson’s PhD story

This article appears in: Environmental Sciences, Study tips
CDU Student Alyson with an baby possum

Alyson Stobo-Wilson is an Environmental Scientist completing her PhD at Charles Darwin University. Many of her days are spent traipsing through the tropical savannas of northern Australia collecting data on a new species of marsupial glider.

Ultimately, Alyson’s research will form the basis of knowledge on this particular species and help with its conservation, as well as inform management of other tree-dwelling mammals in northern Australia. But Alyson’s remarkable experience as a higher degree by research student at CDU hasn’t been without sacrifice – read on for her full story.

What is your thesis topic?

I’m describing the distribution and ecology of a marsupial glider in the tropical savannas of northern Australia: this includes investigating where you can find the glider and how environmental factors impact what habitat it uses, its body size, how abundant it is and what its home range size is. We have always known that a marsupial glider occurs in northern Australia but until a recent investigation into the genetics and morphology of the glider we didn’t realise that this is a species unique to northern Australia. It was always assumed that the species up here was a sugar glider which is a species common in south-eastern Australia.

Watch a short 3 minute video on Alyson's research here.

Species description is a rare thing to get to work on, especially for mammals. It involves researching a species that has never before been investigated. Because of the remoteness of northern Australia and lack of research effort in the area there are still these opportunities. I’m working on something that has never been looked at before in this intensive kind of way which means that future research will be building on the foundation of knowledge I started.


CDU Student Alyson climbing trees

Why did you decide to study your PhD with Charles Darwin University?

Although I’m from Darwin, I’ve lived interstate for a few years.  I wanted to return and contribute back to the environment that is home to me. I love northern Australia and CDU is ideally located for tapping into the great environmental research opportunities in the region. The opportunities at CDU have been amazing.

While studying my PhD through CDU, I have conducted extensive remote field work in some of the most iconic areas of northern Australia, including Kakadu, Litchfield, Elsey and Nitmiluk National Parks. I have also worked extensively on Melville Island, which is an area most people would never go to. I have worked a lot with traditional owners on country and Indigenous ranger groups; an experience I’ve been very fortunate to have.

CDU Student Alyson on field field trip

How have you found studying in a fairly remote location?

Although the main campus in Darwin may seem remote compared to other cities, the research undertaken at CDU connects students to a range of national and international networks.

It's an ideal location for undertaking unique research

CDU’s location also means it’s a smaller university, which has allowed me to interact with a wider range of people on campus.

CDU has a lot of researchers that work in the cross-disciplinary space, which means we’re actively being encouraged to think outside the box and consider how our research is applicable in other fields. This also means that you are exposed to more disciplines so you’re expanding your knowledge base outside of your own field.

I’ve worked alongside a lot of social scientists, and discussion with these students has provided other points of view that I might not have considered previously, such as the value of traditional knowledge systems rather than pure ecological/western science research. This has made me challenge my way of thinking and developed me as a researcher.

I have easier access to staff because there are less students and I meet people from a range of research backgrounds that I may not be exposed to if I were at a bigger university. The HDR students at CDU are mostly from other cities, so everyone is very welcoming.

The research opportunities at CDU are amazing. The research that is undertaken at CDU connects its students to a range of national and international networks. It is an ideal location to undertake unique research.


CDU Student Alyson receiving an award

What’s your advice to others considering studying an HDR?

Consider the commitment you’re making and be willing to commit fully to your project. The time goes surprisingly quickly if you’re passionate about what you’re doing. But, if you don’t have the drive to finish, it’ll be an uphill battle from the start.

However, my experience as a PhD student hasn’t been without its challenges. One of my biggest challenges has been sustaining the PhD workload. I’ve made number of personal sacrifices to stay on task and ensure that I complete my project within the scholarship time frame.


CDU Student Alyson with an baby possum

I have conducted extensive field work for my research, roughly 370 days. Most of this work is remote and means I am away from home. This does not come without sacrifice, as I have missed out on a lot of social events; however, everyone has been really supportive and sees how much enjoyment I get out of my work. Personally, it has been a time where I have been allowed to be selfish and focus on something that benefits me and is developing me as a researcher. This is an opportunity others might never get.

If completing a PhD or a Masters sounds like it could be for you, find out more about studying a Higher Degree by Research at CDU. You’ll join a research community that delivers real-world and measurable impact in northern Australia and the Asia Pacific and be supported by committed and professional supervisors. Find a supervisor or download an application pack.


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