by Amanda Lu
Looking back on my time in Australia with the SIT Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology program two years ago, I can still vividly recall the soothing voice of Rusty Butler, an Aboriginal elder, explaining the medicinal uses of various bush plants. Learning about the traditional Aboriginal way of life was part of a weeklong camping trip in the bush as part of an incredible semester in Queensland, Australia.
I joined the SIT program when I was a junior at Harvard University studying organismic and evolutionary biology. Since I was kid, I had always dreamed of going to the rainforest and seeing the Great Barrier Reef. I hoped that this semester would quench my curiosity about the habitats and wild reputation of the sunburnt continent.
I can wholeheartedly say the semester was an incredible adventure. From hiking through the Wet Tropics in search of cassowaries to camping in the bush with Rusty to the unforgettable coral reefs and tropical paradise of Lizard Island, I loved my time in Australia.
The program was structured into two-week trips (Wet Tropics, bush, Lizard Island) with a few days of rest back in Cairns. Days followed more or less this schedule: hikes with teaching in the field in the mornings, a break for lunch and a swim, hikes in the afternoon, cooking dinner, and finishing work on the field notebook before bed. While it was an extremely busy program, I never regretted losing a few hours of sleep for the chance to see more animals and places. It’s definitely a different experience from being on-campus, and I came out of the semester more independent than ever.
The Wet Tropics was an oasis of towering waterfalls, March flies (less pleasant), and biodiversity. Our camping trip in the bush taught us to view it not as an ecosystem but as the ancestral home of the Aboriginals and a source of sustenance. The last trip of the program took us to Lizard Island, currently a research station and coral reserve, and we were incredibly lucky to go. The corals and sea creatures around the island are unbelievably stunning and a once-in-a lifetime chance.
For many, the ISP (Independent Study Project) is the highlight of the semester, a chance to break away and explore any habitat in Australia on your own. For my ISP, I chose to study the effect of dingoes on the foraging behavior of small mammals in the forests of New South Wales. I worked with Nick, a PhD student at the University of Western Sydney, and we conducted a variety of faunal abundance and habitat assessments, including Elliott traps and sand plots, to understand these forest ecosystems.
At times, I worried I had bitten off more than I could chew. My first day in the field, I spotted a brilliant turquoise and yellow worm on the ground. Astonished, I pulled Nick over to ask what kind of animal was so colorful and fat.… After an awkward pause, he pointed to the trail of blood running down my arm where the leech had just finished feeding.
Like my first day, my ISP month was simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting, a level of field work I had never experienced before. Our days ran from 5 AM in the morning to check rodent traps, to counting bait and animal traces in each of our seven sites during the day, to 9 PM at night when we conducted spotlighting surveys for arboreal mammals. While my ISP pushed me to my limits — through rain, leeches, mosquitoes, bogged trucks, and permit delays — I also spotted a dingo pup in the wild for the first time and learned to read marsupial tracks.
Writing this post two years later, I am still close friends with the people on my program. One friend, Kelly, and I are actually traveling to Patagonia together this spring. As an alumna, I can say my time abroad opened up so many opportunities. This year I am exploring the Peruvian Amazon to study the ethnobotany of traditional medicine on the Harvard Trustman Postgraduate Fellowship. Just as Rusty taught me uses of medicinal plants in the bush, I am learning the uses of medicinal plants from indigenous communities in the Amazon. After my year in Peru, I am headed to Yale to continue my studies in medicine. Regardless of where my adventures take me, I know I will always carry my sense of exploration and appreciation for nature I found in Australia.