GAF Story

Caitlin Polack

Earthwatch Institute
Student Challenge: Turtles on the Move

Caitlin Polack, Earthwatch student challenger

Learn how Caitlin, a past Earthwatch Student Challenger, has graduated to 'chase the environmental dream.'

Why did you decide to apply for an Earthwatch Student Challenge Program?

At the time I applied for the Earthwatch program, I was thinking about what to do for my end of Year 12 ‘schoolies’. Most of my friends were planning to go to Queensland or overseas, but I wanted to do something away from the crowds.

My Environmental Science teacher sent us a link to the Earthwatch program, and I jumped at it straight away. It was the perfect opportunity to do something to celebrate the end of my schooling with a group of like-minded people in an area I love – the environment. Luckily enough for me, the year I applied, they were even running a program based around turtles, a species I adored at the time.

What did you enjoy most about participating in the program?

Being able to spend a week achieving a worthwhile task while sharing the experience with enthusiastic like-minded people was the part I enjoyed the most.

The people I met on the Earthwatch Student Challenge are people I still keep in contact with regularly five years later. We have all gone down very different paths. However, we still reminisce over the great week we had on the Student Challenge.

Some have gone on to find careers in very different fields and others like myself, are chasing the environmental dream. But one thing is certain, we all came out of the week with a greater appreciation and understanding for the natural wonders around us. 

What did you learn from participating?

For the first time in my life I was able to use all the apparently random knowledge I had gained throughout school and learned how to apply it to the bigger environmental picture. I learnt how these small skills work together to produce a university-level research program.

This wider understanding of what seemed like a bunch of silly things we did at high school put me steps ahead of other students when I came to designing and implementing research projects at university.

How would you describe participating in an Earthwatch program to other students?

An Earthwatch Student Challenge is one insanely fun week of mud, laughter, friendships, stretching your brain to its mental capacity and making memories that you will never forget.

It is an amazing opportunity to take an interest you have in the environment and grow it into a passion. 

How have you used what you learnt on the program in your future study/career?

Participating in an Earthwatch Student Challenge set the direction for my professional life and lead me to where I am today.

During my Earthwatch Student Challenge program I learnt a lot about data collection and water quality and wetland ecosystems. Today I am in a position where these skills are the basis of my career.

I have completed a 3-year degree in conservation and wildlife biology and work as a field ecologist running a number of programs set around the management and regeneration of a past pastoral property. The property is home to two wetlands that fall under the RAMSAR agreement and are a major driving force in much of the broader decision-making concerning further research and projects undertaken at this site. 

Our work at this site also informs the bigger picture as we share our findings with the broader environmental science network involved in state, national and international programs. 

Do you feel the Earthwatch program had a lasting impact on your life? 

The  Earthwatch Student Challenge has been the basis for my professional journey since. This program introduced me to the network I still use extensively for my work in the environmental industry.

Due to Earthwatch and the people I met through the program I have gone on to assist in cat research programs run by the head scientist on my Student Challenge. I have also assisted in the running of an Earthwatch program at my current workplace with NAB employees as participants.  From these experiences, as well as my time participating in an Earthwatch student challenge, I have gone on to design and run education programs based around wetland ecology. These programs continue Earthwatch's work to build connections between school-aged students and the environment.

I hope the Earthwatch Student Challenge programs continue to run long into the future. I know for me it was a week I will never forget and I am very, very  grateful for being given the opportunity.