Queen’s Birthday honour for trailblazing sub-Antarctic scientist
Pioneering Australian scientist Dr Patricia Selkirk has been awarded an AC (Companion of the Order) honour for her decades of work and research on Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic.
Dr Selkirk was among the first Australian female scientists to spend a lengthy amount of time in Antarctica and Macquarie Island.
She was the first woman to spend a summer at Casey research station over 1982/83.
“I didn’t set out to be a trailblazer. I was interested in what I was doing and I had the opportunity to visit places of enormous scientific interest,” Dr Selkirk said.
“It’s an astonishing situation I find myself in now, I’m delighted, surprised and very honoured to be receiving this recognition.”
Magnificent Macquarie Island
From 1979 to 2004, Dr Selkirk undertook 11 expeditions to Macquarie Island to study the island’s plants, their biology, their distribution and their environment.
This was summarised in her pivotal book ‘Subantarctic Macquarie: Environment and Biology’ which she co-authored with Bob Selkirk and Rod Seppelt.
In 1992, she was the first scientist globally to predict the future impact of climate change on the island’s sub-Antarctic ecosystem and to recognise its importance as a climate change sentinel.
The island has a special place in her heart.
“I’ve seen it in many phases over the years as the rabbit and rodent populations increased to where devastation of the vegetation and the environment was acute,” Dr Selkirk said.
“Their eradication from the island is a fabulous environmental conservation story in terms of remediating a problem that humans caused in the first place.”
“But one of the other questions that does arise is how the sub- Antarctic is going to fair in an ever- changing climate. This is an ongoing story that is going to require a lot of careful observation and scientific study.”
During her career, Dr Selkirk has also participated in five expeditions to the Antarctic continent, one to subantarctic Heard Island and one to subantarctic Îles Kerguelen as a member of Australian, New Zealand and French Antarctic Programs.
In the classroom
Her work has inspired a generation of scientists and she was instrumental in developing an Antarctic research unit at Macquarie University.
Among her students was future Australian Antarctic Division ecologist Dr Dana Bergstrom.
“Patricia was my lecturer at undergraduate level and she altered the course of my life,” Dr Bergstrom said.
“She introduced me to Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic in my third year at university and has been my mentor, friend, inspiration and colleague ever since.”
“Dr Selkirk is a quietly spoken, gentle, brilliant, supporting teacher. Yet behind this humble façade was an absolute trailblazer in Antarctic science both as a scientist and as a pioneering woman in STEM.”
“She was the first Australian female scientist to work on the Antarctic continent. As the saying goes, you can't be what you can’t see.”
An Inspiring career
Dr Selkirk has authored more than 80 papers on a diverse range of Antarctic subjects including landscape-level geomorphology, vegetation history, plant reproduction and sub-cellular genetics.
Previous accolades include an Australian Antarctic Medal and the Phillip Law Medal for her work on Macquarie Island.
“The Australian Antarctic Division is the institution that provided me with the first opportunity to travel south and conduct research. Fieldwork in such environments is a collaborative activity, and fellow expeditioners have always provided wonderful support.” Dr Selkirk said.
“I also had an enormous amount of support from my family and workplace at Macquarie University.”
“It’s now possible for women to participate in expeditions in a way that was uncommon at a time when I first had the opportunity.
“I’m very pleased to see things are much more realistic and that female expeditioners now have many roles in expeditions.”
Her advice to the next generation of scientists is simple.
“Be observant. Pursue interesting things and enjoy what you’re doing,” Dr Selkirk said.