It was an icy cold morning as Dianne Jolley completed another day of research in an inflatable boat in Antarctica as part of a month-long research trip to the bottom of the planet earlier this year.
Without warning, an Adelie penguin launched itself out of the water and landed on the edge of the boat next to her and her team, bobbed its head around to see what was happening, then dived back into the water.
Luckily a camera was rolling at the time and the video went viral.
“That day we had seven penguins jumping in and out of the boat,” Professor Jolley said.
“We work on micro algae and it feeds the krill and the penguins know this, so they were volunteering by throwing themselves at us to help with the research.”
What she was doing in Antarctica — and what she does in other spectacular locations — is toxicology reports.
She examines the chemicals in the environment introduced by human activity and sounds the alarm if they look likely to damage the ecosystem.
“Antarctica is one of the last pristine environments of the world and we’ve been going there for over 100 years, so we’ve had a lot of explorers and ecotourism boats and we need to protect it,” she said.
“We need to determine how clean we need to keep it and we do that by going down and looking at the sites that are historically protected.
“There’s some residual materials like metals and infrastructure around the cabins, and we try and understand whether those are safe and locked up, or if they’re breaking down and releasing some of those things into the environment.”
Her team completes their work by deploying small plastic reusable paddles into various environments where they can catch chemical samples over a period of time for testing.
She is sharing this and other stories of her work at the CSIRO-organised A Pint of Science Festival, which this week has been at the University of Wollongong.
Testing the toxicity of the Great Barrier Reef from mining
As well as working in Antarctica, Professor Jolley also tests for contaminants on the Great Barrier Reef from nickel mining.
She said contrary to popular belief, some mining organisations sponsor independent scientific research into their mining activity, which is where her work comes in.
“What we’re doing there is working closely with CSIRO so we can understand the impact of a range of activities up there.
“Our work is focused on coral reef systems and understanding the impact of the nickel on spawning and the reproductive health of coral systems in this climate, where we know they’re under stress.
“We can work out if the water is too high or contaminated and if we should do something about it.”
She said she is “delighted” with the recent Budget announcement of $500m to change farming practices to improve water quality, reef restoration research and the fight against the crown-of-thorns starfish in Queensland.
“Mining has a bad reputation but there is a lot of vested interest to do something about that,” Professor Jolley said.
“It’s best for everyone if we can protect that space.”
Inspiring people to care about science
Professor Jolley said she is a “geek who is passionate about the environment”, and has found herself working in a sector that not only protects animals, but also the humans who depend on clean soil and water for food.
“I’m passionate about leaving the planet it in a way that our future generations can benefit from,” she said.
“It’s worth an investment from everybody to do this.”
By spreading the message at events like A Pint of Science, she hopes to inspire more people into a career with science by showing how it can affect everyday life.
“We try and understand the relationship between the chemicals we use every day and when they go into the environment, what is that threshold where it will become a problem,” she said.
“We’re looking at how to protect food sources, ocean water quality and it’s good for the whole environment.”