Continuing in this series of interviews, we caught up with Ellen Cliff, who was named the Queensland Rhodes Scholar for 2017. The Rhodes Scholarships are awarded to students around the world to support postgraduate study at the University of Oxford. Ellen has recently moved to Oxford, England to begin her PhD in Biogeochemistry at their Department of Earth Sciences. Ellen completed a Bachelor of Philosophy (Honours) in Chemistry and Marine Science at ANU, in addition to contributing to National Science Week in 2015 & 2016, working as a demonstrator for undergraduate courses and as a research assistant in the Research School of Biology and the Research School of Earth Sciences. Here’s what Ellen shared about studying at ANU and her experiences in STEM:
You’ve achieved quite a broad scientific background at ANU, what part of your STEM journey have you enjoyed the most?
The part of my time studying STEM at ANU that I most enjoyed was making very good friends, meeting my partner (who is now with me at Oxford) and meeting amazing mentors who pushed me as a scientist and encouraged me to apply for scholarships to get me onto the next big thing – my PhD at Oxford.
Have you always wanted to pursue a scientific career?
Not really, but it was never ruled out. As a kid I never had a career that I really wanted to do – I enjoyed reading and learning and have always had a love for nature and finding out how the world works. Both of my grandfathers were scientists so there was a fair bit of science around the house. It wasn’t until my first year of university, where I did arts and science because I still didn’t know what I wanted to do more, that I realised that chemistry was what really interested me. And harking back to my more ‘environmentalist’ roots the field of marine biogeochemistry was a perfect fit for my career.
The Rhodes Scholarship previously excluded women applicants until 1977. Why do you think it is important for STEM to provide women with equal opportunities to excel in their chosen careers?
It is important because, quite simply, it is ludicrous to exclude half the human race in trying to advance science (or education, economics, politics or anything!), especially at a crucial time like this where we need as many new ways of thinking and solving problems as possible.
Could you share the most important thing that you learnt during the application process?
The most important thing I learned was to be myself and be confident in being myself which included blowing my own trumpet when the application required it. I got a lot of help from mentors and generous people along the way – knowing that they wanted me to succeed really helped me to be more confident.
Good luck with your PhD candidature at Oxford, what’s one thing you’re taking with you from Australia to remind you of home?
On the advice of an aunt and my cello teacher I have brought over a handful of eucalyptus leaves, and also a few small prints by Australian artist Margaret Preston.