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Larissa's Top End adventures: on the trail of a mysterious mammal

This article appears in: Environmental Sciences
Larissa Potter Head Banner

Passionate about ecology and wildlife, Larissa Potter graduated from CDU with a Bachelor of Science with first class Honours. She was nominated by her lecturers as a Valedictorian for her outstanding academic record. Here's her full graduation speech, where she recounts what sparked her move to Darwin from Sydney, and where she shares her experiences doing field work on the Tiwi Islands while searching for the elusive, tiny mammal called Butler’s Dunnart.  

Good morning Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, distinguished guests, fellow graduates, family and friends. It is my pleasure to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are gathered on, the Larrakia People, and pay my respects to elders, both past and present, who are here today.

Life is an adventure. There is often something unexpected, exciting or challenging waiting for us just around the metaphorical corner.

I like to think I’m a bit like the Disney character Pocahontas... I have brown hair, enjoy running through the forest and am one with wildlife. I feel this strong connection through a combination of both my Indigenous ancestry and modern scientific approach. But most importantly, I always want to know what’s around the river bend; what the next great adventure will be. And that is exactly why I’m here today.

Larissa Potter and her adventures
Larissa Potter and her adventures

One day, I was procrastinating on starting an assignment by trolling through Facebook - something I’m sure many of us here have done. Amongst all the travel photos, animal videos and memes, I ended up on the Australian Mammal Society Page, where I came across an advertisement for a potential honours project based here at Charles Darwin University.

The project was to examine whether remote sensing cameras, or camera traps as we call them, could be used to survey for a small, elusive mammal found only on the Tiwi Islands. Being from Sydney, this project just captured something inside me.

Larissa Potter shares an image of a unique Australian mammal
Larissa Potter shares an image of a unique Australian mammal

I spoke to mentors about the project, who said it would be difficult; moving interstate to a new university, to work with supervisors I’d never met and study a species which few people have ever seen. All added challenges to a year many have described as the most stressful of their life. And yet, I knew I’d regret not taking this project.

To me, it was the opportunity to work in an amazing part of Australia that I’d never been to, the Tiwi Islands, the chance to meet new people and create a wider professional network, to leap out of my comfort zone and become one of the few to hold a Butler’s Dunnart. Who wouldn’t move to Darwin for that! So, using the words of the wise hobbit Bilbo Baggins, I told my family and friends “I’m going on an adventure!” and I moved to Darwin in July 2016.

Sunset in Darwin
Sunset in Darwin

Whether it’s a degree, certificate or diploma you’ve achieved, it takes a fair bit of hard work; "blood, sweat and tears", some might say. But up here, it’s mostly just sweat. And I suppose I found this out the hard way, conducting all my fieldwork in the build-up. But it was a great way to discover true Top End life, and I have no doubt that through studying at Charles Darwin University we have all had the opportunity to experience the uniqueness of the Territory, such as education and health students travelling out to remote communities.

There are also unique challenges, remoteness and climate being just two of them. I also discovered this during my project, with roads turning into muddy rivers after huge thunderstorms, getting evacuated due to a cyclone warning and walking 10 metres through the bush at 7am to find myself already dripping in sweat.

Larissa Potter during her research
Larissa Potter during her research

But despite the challenges, I have loved every bit of my experience up here. I loved my project and study species, my supervisors Brett and Chris were fantastic, the members of the School of Environment, RIEL and the postgrad society were very welcoming, and I thank you all. I would also like to thank my family, who have travelled all the way up from Sydney to be here today. And this probably goes for many of us here; friends, family and guests who have given up their time to celebrate with us today, we thank you very much for coming; for your continued support and love. We would not be here without it.

Many people ask, "so what are you going to do next?" My answer is usually an “I don’t know? I’m just winging it”. But really, I don’t know what I’ll be doing next because I don’t know what opportunities will arise in the near future. What the next adventure will be. So, my advice to you all is to be adventurous, get out of your comfort zone. You will learn new things, and hopefully have a lot of fun in the process, like I did.

Larissa Potter in the forest
Larissa Potter during her research

Before I conclude, I would like to wish all fellow graduates enormous congratulations and best of luck for the future. It is a great honour to be up here this morning, hopefully passing on some wise words. So, to finish off, here is a limerick I composed to mark this occasion.

Certificate, diploma, degree;
Straight outta Charles Darwin Uni;
With knowledge to impress,
A measure of our success
For the future, we all are the key

Thank you very much.

Ready to pursue your calling in Environmental Science like Larissa? Explore our undergraduate and postgraduate courses here or contact CDU's School of Environment to discuss any questions you may have regarding undertaking a PhD at CDU. 

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