By Kelly and Sarlae

If you’ve been hiding under a rock and haven’t heard, 20 years on from its inception the United Nation’s Conference on Sustainable Development returns to Rio this June. Earlier this week, I caught up with Sarlae McAlpine to discuss her participation as an Earth scientist in the ANU delegation to Rio+20. As mentioned in a previous post, Sarlae is the only representative from the College of Physical Sciences; a challenge we both agree is a little daunting when the majority of the delegation is from environmental studies and humanities. However, she quickly adds that this rather unique opportunity allows her to represent her science and her conscious.

“The challenge of being the only geologist within a delegation going to a conference on sustainable development was always going to be a daunting task. One of the topics Australia in particular is pushing to get onto the negotiation table is ‘mining for a sustainable future’. This involves channelling ‘oil dollars’ (for example) back into the wider society, particularly in developing countries. This will be a controversial discussion and one in which a geologist with industry awareness should be a part of. However it could be assumed that I am not aligned with an environmental viewpoint coming from the scientific background that I do – and I would hate to be judged before I have the opportunity to share my ideas and insights. “

“I believe a scientist – and particularly an earth scientist – has a lot to contribute in a forum such as Rio+20. We are critical thinkers, strong communicators, and proven researchers. We have strong analytical skills and can produce innovative ideas and simple solutions to complex problems. We can take the big picture view with our understanding of earth processes and should be valued in any global forum.”

This is an issue that has been brought to my attention on a number of occasions, most recently at a ‘careers for graduate’ workshop. PhD students all too often undervalue the impressive skill set that they acquire and pigeonhole themselves and their career options. So much of what we learn is transferrable, and when applied creatively to areas outside our core disciplines, enable us to participate in solving the defining issues of our time. Take Sarlae as an example when I asked her how her own PhD topic qualified her for this upcoming role:

“I think of myself as quite a ‘pure’ scientist when it comes to my personal research. By that I mean that my work has less ‘real-world’ application than that of some of my colleagues. I study the geochemistry of a particular rock type that is erupted in specific tectonic scenarios and have three localities that I concentrate on. So no is the simple answer to this question. However this isn’t strictly true. One of my sample localities is in the vicinity of Ritter Island. Ritter Island experienced the largest lateral collapse of a volcanic island in historical time and flung devastating tsunamis tens of meters high onto adjacent shores. In the detailed studies I have made of my localities I have learnt a lot about the greater geological events that have occurred in this region including natural disasters, which is part of the critical issue I will be focusing on at Rio+20.”

I hope to delve deeper into some of the controversial and inspirational aspects of our discussion. If readers have any burning questions feel free to ask in the comments section below, and I’ll broach the subject the next time Sarlae and I catch up for a coffee…..erm serious interview.