2022 Foundation Day Address—Dr Melissa Cowlishaw (1998)

Good morning Principal, Ms Euler, Members of the Old Girls Association, staff and students. Thank you for having me here to celebrate Foundation Day with you.

I think I last sat in this gymnasium almost 25 years ago.

I would like to acknowledge the Turrbal and Jagera peoples as the Traditional Owners of the land that we are on today, and I would also like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the Great Barrier Reef—a place where I get to live, work and play. I pay my respects to them, and to their Elders, past, present, and their emerging leaders.

‘Give me where to stand, and I will move the Earth’, a famous quote from the Greek mathematician and scientist, Archimedes. Not wanting to take anything away from Archimedes, but I have a slightly different take on these words. I think it is important to ‘Show them where to stand, so they too can move the Earth.’ Too often, I see a world lacking in kindness, authenticity, and empathy—both at a social level with how we interact with each other, but also in how we interact with our environment.

Now, like Archimedes, I am a Scientist—unlike Archimedes, I do not like physics. What I do love though is the ocean, so for me, it was a natural decision to pursue a career as a Marine Scientist, and when I finished here at Girls Grammar, I went on to do a Bachelor of Science with Majors in ecology and marine biology at The University of Queensland. Pretty early on, I had my mind set on doing a PhD, so I did an honours year and was focused on securing a PhD scholarship. I then chose to head up to Townsville and completed my PhD in coral reef fish ecology at James Cook University, with my field work being based on Lizard Island. In between, I took a year off and spent 12 months living and working on as many of the Great Barrier Reef islands as I could. It was wonderful.

Since leaving school, I have walked on country with our First Nation’s people, they have shared their stories with me and given me the opportunity to view the beauty of their connection to country. I’ve had the privilege of waking up each morning to some of the world’s most amazing landscapes, getting up close with spectacular marine life. I have lived on coral cays that are important turtle nesting areas and home to more than 30 different species of seabirds—at one point I couldn’t sleep unless there was a mutton bird wailing under my hut. I have witnessed the wonder of coral spawning—and smacked headfirst into a large male loggerhead turtle because the water was so thick with coral spawn that I couldn’t see. I have seen sharks so big I couldn’t see where they ended as they came up from the depths off our continental shelf, and I’ve gotten lost in the most vivid array of colours I have ever seen among schools of vibrant reef fish.

But I have also witnessed some truly heart-breaking environmental decline. I have performed necroscopies on starved turtles and dolphins—their bodies riddled with disease, man-made chemicals, and plastics. I have witnessed bays full of coral turn to rubble as a result of high-intensity cyclones and seen the complete devastation that resulted from the successive mass coral bleaching events that occurred several years ago.

But I use those experiences to drive myself forward, to work hard and really explore what is possible. Much of my career has been about the application of science and knowledge to develop public policy and management responses designed to build the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef to the mounting pressures associated with a rapidly warming climate. I personally aspire for a career where I can support others to apply science, in an honest and sincere way, to harness the collective good to ensure a sustainable future.

It was this School that taught me that you can lead from the front and the back, and to hold myself accountable for my actions. I learned early on that it is important to ground yourself in your values—the values you get from this School and from your family. I use those values to guide my decision-making when the world gets overwhelming. It is important to me to know that when I lay my head on my pillow each night that I have acted with integrity and done my absolute best.

It was my time at Girls Grammar that sparked my love of learning and I remain enthusiastic about learning to this day. I believe it is important for us all to have a growth mindset. I try to take time out to reflect and check my own biases. I remember, here at Grammar, the teachers were always getting us to challenge our thinking, to be curious about the world and its drivers. They were right, I encourage you all to seek out opportunities to collaborate with others to identify and solve problems, overcome barriers, and deliver sustainable outcomes. Honestly, it’s boring if you don’t get to connect with people.

I greatly enjoy engaging with stakeholders and working with them to find innovative solutions. Diversity of opinion is a wonderful thing, it drives innovation, so don’t be afraid to have conflicting opinions—when presented respectfully, they can be game-changers.

Throughout my 20-year career, my knowledge has been tested, my emotional intelligence has been tested. As a woman in a largely male-dominated field, my confidence in myself and the perspective I bring, has been challenged. And it pains me to say, particularly off the back of International Women’s Day where the theme was, break the bias, that some of you will experience gender-based bias at some point in your careers. Remember what this School has taught you about equity and respect. Remember your strength and lead with integrity—their behaviour is not acceptable.

Now back to Archimedes and his ‘Law of Leverage’—this School, and the privilege that comes with it will give you where to stand. When you leave here, be like the women who have come before you and embrace diversity, embrace authenticity, and embrace integrity, so that you too can show people where to stand, because now more than ever, our future depends on it.

Thank you.

Dr Melissa Cowlishaw (1998)