#islandlife – turtles, a manta ray, sustainability (and no sun)

I haven’t blogged in awhile….for many reasons (too busy, tired, avoidance) but the last four days have reinvigorated my passion for what I’m doing (and why I’m doing it).

I just spent an internet-free four days on Lady Elliot Island learning about climate change and environmental sustainability (and a whole lotta play thrown in) with a bunch of high-calibre, fascinating people, as part of the Global Change Scholars Program.  While the weather was pretty dismal, the location and the company more than made up for it!

Lady Elliot is a small coral cay that sits on the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef.  It has its own (grass) airstrip and is home to an eco-resort committed to environmental sustainability.  Until the late 1800s it was covered with bird poo (guano), the mining of which (yes apparently you can mine bird poo) resulted in extensive damage to the island and a complete loss of vegetation.   You wouldn’t even know if you saw it now!

Revegetation, initiated by past lease-owners (the island is leased by the Commonwealth Government), was systematically and extensively advanced when the island management was taken over by the current ‘custodian’, Peter Gash.  We were lucky enough to not only have our flight piloted by Peter but we also heard first-hand about the trials and tribulations of bringing the resort to the level of environmental sustainability that has been achieved.

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We were given a fascinating tour of the resort by a staff member (who was obviously very passionate about his work).  The hybrid power system supplying the entire resort (with up to 150 guests and staff and the main amenities you expect from a low-key resort) is predominantly run on solar energy.  There is no naturally-occurring fresh water on the island so all water for the kitchen, showers, hand basins and for drinking is seawater that goes through a desalinisation process.  All food has to brought over from the mainland, some waste is processed on location and used on the runway (if I remember correctly) and some of it has to be periodically taken off the island – so waste minimisation is emphasised.   The entire set-up was impressive and the innovative solutions to overcoming the unique challenges presented by this setting were inspiring.  However, Peter was very honest about the need to balance the achieving sustainability and protecting the reef and the island with the financial reality of the business.  His somewhat unconventional business approach centring on trust, relationships and the sharing of knowledge (rather than keeping ‘trade secrets’ close to your chest) was refreshing.

The benefits of the revegetation for the natural world was obvious with the abundant and huge variety of nesting seabirds.  (There was a moment though, where two of us, somewhat lost in the winding paths in the middle of the island, surrounded by birds were sure this was a perfect setting for a horror movie – a la Hitchcock).  Lady Elliot Island is also located in a highly protected area of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the diving and snorkelling was spectacular.  I swam with a plethora of turtles (including witnessing a particularly intimate moment between two of them :p), a huge manta ray, some sharks, octopi, cuttlefish, a massive cowtail stingray, a bunch of beautiful fish and coral and I could go on….

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But even more fun than the ocean activities (pretty hard to beat…) was developing bonds with the other GCSP participants.  Like all good team bonding our relationships were built through loads of laughter, some embarrassing incidents, card games, stories and, of course, wine. While there was a lot of fun, hilarity and ‘non-academic’ conversation I was struck by the level of engaging conversation I had with all the scholars and I learned something new from everyone that I spoke with.  These conversations also gave us a chance to talk candidly about our work and I gained some awesome fieldwork ideas to incorporate into my research.  Relationships make the world go round….if I’ve learned anything in my career so far it’s that who you know is just as important as what you know.

This experience, on this unique, beautiful island, reinforced for me where my research fits within the wider climate change picture.  The magnitude of the issue is clear and the many different facets of climate change were highlighted.  It also made clear how easy it is to become ‘siloed’ in our focus and thinking. It’s useful to recognise that we need people working on all these aspects of climate change (eg. Reef and marine conservation, health, water security, food security etc) but it’s also useful to see the big picture, how all these pieces fit together and how we can do a better job of addressing the issue with inter-disciplinary collaboration in order to exploit synergies in our work and minimise or avoid duplication of efforts.

Now please excuse me while I go do some yoga or HIIT to try and make up for 4 days of second breakfasts and multiple dessert helpings – #nobuffetcontrol

#phdlife #climatechangeisreal

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Meditating your way to a calmer Phd.

Today I am re-committing to a daily meditation practice.

Many of you know that I double as a yoga teacher and meditation goes hand-in-hand with yoga.  (In fact, the main purpose of a physical yoga practice, asana, is to prepare your body physically for long periods of sitting in meditation).  Over the years I have had a fluctuating meditation practice, but, I do know that I feel better when I meditate regularly.  I am able to make better decisions, have more clarity of mind and am able to handle stress with much more grace than I have been lately!  But recently I have found myself saying, more often than not, that I do not have time to meditate.

It is becoming increasingly acknowledged that PhD students often experience high levels of anxiety and stress (some blog posts here and here) and I can see why – it is quite the juggling act, can be a very isolating process and not everyone gets a lot of support from supervisors (I’m lucky!) and colleagues.  Meditation is one technique that can help to experience a much calmer (and more enjoyable) PhD candidature.  (For serious anxiety or depression it is important to consult a professional – try your university student support or Lifeline).

There is more and more research on the benefits of meditation and I could use this blog post to review and critique the literature and try and convince you with scientific evidence that meditation is a good idea.  But I’m not going to do that (and not just because it feels like work :p).  I think that the benefits of meditation are best demonstrated through experiential learning.  So it’s time to sit still and just be.

How do I meditate?

First you need to find a (fairly) quiet space – I am lucky enough to live only 2 minutes walk from home and my office is usually just me – but even a nice outdoor spot in a park can work (I have taken a nap in the middle of the Great Court at UQ St Lucia and meditated at a train station in Sydney – public spaces are fine!).  Then find a comfortable sitting position.  Ideally your hips are above your knees, so sit on a cushion if you can, but even sitting in your office chair will work well.

It is important to set a timer so you don’t worry about drifting off for too long.  I usually meditate for 15-20 minutes but you do not have to do that long.  CONSISTENCY is key – it’s going to be more beneficial to do 5 minutes a day seven days a week than 15 minutes a day sporadically.

There are many different meditation techniques and I’m a bit of meditation-whore – I like to mix it up!  So experiment – find the one that works for you (google is your friend).  Since my 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat last year I am partial to that technique but if your mind is particularly wild when you sit to meditate or you are new to meditation simply counting your breaths is a simple and effective practice.  Close  the eyes, relax the shoulders, but draw the crown of the head so you’re not slumping.  And then on each exhale, starting at 10, count down to 1.  Once you reach 1, start again at 10.  If you find your mind is drifting and you’ve lost count just gently draw the attention back to the breath and start at 10 again.

So many of my friends and students tell me ‘I can’t meditate.  My mind just won’t stay still’.  And that is part of the practice!  My mind constantly wanders, some days more frantically than others, but it is the practice of becoming aware of what your mind is doing, where it goes and then re-focussing the attention.  Some days I’ll spend the whole session writing a piece in my head – as much as I try to bring the attention back to the breath it keeps returning to that piece of work.  And sometimes (not all the time) I let it.

I find that if I meditate regularly the hours I spend not meditating (everything minus the 15 minutes of sitting still) are more productive and more calm.

And it begins…

So this is the obligatory “what is this blog?” post.  This is a blog about all things Pacific Islands….but with a particular focus on climate change, health and nutrition.  I am currently completing my PhD at the University of Queensland investigating the impacts of climate change on food and nutrition security and non-communicable diseases in Vanuatu (try saying that 10 times fast!)

Why you ask?  A PhD blog can be a great way to learn to communicate your research to the general public, to disseminate results to a wider audience, to play around with ideas that are not developed enough to be full-fledged academic papers just yet and to just practice writing!

Or perhaps it’s just a thinly veiled procrastination technique (I am a PhD student after all – it’s pretty much what we excel at!) – but I hope it will be more than that.  I aim to present, and critique, Pacific-focussed research in everyday language, communicate my own research and probably share some of my personal trials and tribulations (and super fun experiences) in completing PhD field research in a beautiful Pacific Island setting.  Hopefully there will be an audience out there that will find some of this interesting and useful and maybe even start some more conversations around climate change and health in the Pacific.