A love of sharks led Amy Kirke to take science to remote communities

A love of sharks led Amy Kirke to take science to remote communities

Kirke

Amy Kirke has a passion for sharks and a love for science, and she’s on a mission to share this with as many kids as possible.

She created the “Science Totally” program, and has been taking long drives and flights across the Northern Territory to share it with as many communities as possible.

And as the winner of the 2020 NT AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award — in the running for the national prize in October — she’s been using the Award to enhance the not-for-profit science outreach program, focussing on sharing sharks and fisheries education with kids, with the support of a number of individuals and organisations along the way, including from Jenny House and Inspire NT.

“It’s so important to have visual role models in some of these areas, and I love having the opportunity to be that person and to share what I’ve learnt, particularly for girls in science and in fisheries,” she says. “I’m also constantly learning, there’s so much to learn from these communities.”

The science program has been developed alongside Kirke’s PhD work, which aims to collect basic biology and ecology data on the two shark species that continue to be caught in large numbers as bycatch by offshore trawl fisheries, off the NT coast. 

Now based in Darwin, Kirke spent her childhood living all over the world including in Chile and the landlocked Laos (where she kept up the swimming, in the pool at the Australian embassy), as the daughter of parents with careers in mining.

She describes a “late onset” interest in sharks, given all the time she spent in the water during her childhood, including on the coast of Western Australia. Her first encounter with a shark was at age ten, when she came up from the water to hear her mother screaming for her to get out. On reflection, she suspects the shark was probably pretty small. 

But her game-changing shark encounter came while swimming with whale sharks in Ningaloo, something she says is so often life changing for a lot of people given the beauty of these gentle (and safe) giants. She’s since swum with far more aggressive sharks. 

“I still have a healthy fear of sharks,” she says. “Especially a respect for those that are apex predators. But I also understand the statistics around your likelihood of getting attacked.” 

When Kirke turned her attention to pursuing a PhD in sharks, she found that with limited funding in this area, it’s a competitive space. She started applying all over the world and in Australia, and eventually started speaking with Charles Darwin University to commence her research. “It has taken lots of persistent emails,” she says.

After winning the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award, Kirke used her $10,000 Westpac bursary to support the next steps of the project and to travel to remote communities to trial its key education components and adjust and adapt it along the way. 

The next steps are to make the program more accessible and take it online, especially given the desire to get it to as many remote parts of the NT and beyond, as possible. 

Her advice to other women in STEM and agriculture? Put yourself out there. Apply for the award. Ask those you admire to be a mentor. 

“I never would have applied for the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award if one of my friends had not told me to do it. And I certainly never thought I’d win. The program has given me so much, especially in being able to network with this amazing group of ladies, which starts at the finalists level.”

Kirke adds that the best thing she’s done for her career is surround herself with amazing female mentors. 

“I’ve been lucky to be involved in programs that have provided mentors, so look for these programs! But I have also asked other women to be a mentor.

“It’s really important to ask others to mentor you. You will find that a lot of women do want to mentor other young women, especially in some of these male-dominated spaces, like STEM.” 

The AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award National Winner and Runner Up will be announced via a live virtual National Announcement event on Wednesday, 20 October 2021 at 12:30pm (AEDT).

Free registrations are now open until Wednesday, 13 October 2021.

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