The 3 of us: Crystal Arnold, Jennifer Atchison & Anthony McKnight

What teachings are being shared by weeds? Lessons from the Shoalhaven river.

The University of Wollongong (UOW) is home to many high achieving PhD students who are working towards solving real world problems. Behind every great PhD candidate is a great supervisor (or two).

The PhD student

Crystal Arnold

Crystal is a PhD student in human geography, a field of geography that studies humans and their communities, cultures and interactions with their environments. Crystal is of Aboriginal and English descent and her work is based on an Aboriginal concept of Country in oneness, that connects Aboriginal and Western knowledge systems. In her PhD thesis she is focusing on human relationships with plants, and in particular invasive weed practices. From an Aboriginal ontology of oneness, she aims to understand how we might learn alternative ways of living and working with plants that are labelled as weeds. Her supervisors are Dr. Jennifer Atchison in the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities and Dr. Anthony McKnight in the School of Education, both within the Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and the Humanities at the University of Wollongong.  

Can you give a description of the topic or question you are investigating?
My motivation for this PhD project is to learn ways to care for Country, from the weeds and from the people of the Shoalhaven River. I aim to understand how Aboriginal people relate to, understand and manage weeds along the Shoalhaven River, and to understand how Aboriginal relationships with weeds might improve how Country is cared for in this place.
By understanding how Aboriginal people who are working with weeds feel about the language and ecological practices they are participating in, I hope to offer insights into how the two worldviews are operationalised alongside each other. The methodologies are also significant for this project. I will be guided by Aboriginal cultural knowledge holders to observe Country, in order to learn from weeds themselves. Drawing upon Ancient Aboriginal methodologies and more-than-human methodologies that involve learning from the nonhuman world.  

How did you select your research topic? Where does your interest in this field stem from?
In 2019 I completed a Bachelor of Science (hons). My honours research focused on my interest in learning about my Aboriginal heritage, and I was able to explore that by sharing my identity journey and my relationship to trees and wellbeing. After completing my honours, I felt the journey was just beginning and I decided to pursue a PhD.  

How did you find your supervisor/s?
I was very lucky that both my supervisors were my supervisors for my honours year and I have known them throughout the duration of my undergraduate degree. Jennifer Atchison’s plant work in human geographies connects with Aboriginal understandings of oneness and relationality, and she really helped guide me to find what I was most passionate about. My co-supervisor Anthony McKnight has also been significant in my academic journey. The Yuin cultural knowledge he has shared with me over the years has helped me personally and academically. There was no hesitation -I knew these two supervisors would make a perfect team for my PhD research project.  

How do you think your research can change the world?
I hope that my project can assist current weed practices by offering a deeper understanding of certain plants and places. The current management practices for invasive weeds are mostly developed from a Western scientific ecological perspective. Weeds are commonly listed by the significance of damage they cause to the environment. However, the assumption that certain plant species are equally damaging can be problematic as plants have an individual story and they often behave differently in certain areas. According to some knowledge systems weeds can also be thought of as part of a larger connection to Country, and therefore how they affect Country is a vital part of learning to address damage to the environment. By learning how the plants communicate and their individual story from Indigenous ways of knowing, we can learn to take care of places in their entirety and understand the connections between all beings.  

What advice would you give someone considering doing postgraduate studies?
I am only just coming to the end of my first year so I don’t have the full experience yet to offer advice. However, so far it has been a rewarding and humbling experience. It takes persistence and passion to get through the hard times. I would recommend having a clear aim and set of questions and get this agreed upon with your supervisors early in the process. Most importantly, I feel that having supervisors that you have a connection with can help throughout the ups and downs of the PhD journey.  

What significant findings have you been able to achieve (close to achieving) to date – or are working towards?
I am in the first year of my PhD and in the process of writing my proposal and literature review, so at this stage I have no findings to share. However, when I undertake my fieldwork on the Shoalhaven River with permission, I hope to see messages from the reciprocal relationships that weeds are involved in, to help inform me about their role on Country. For example, some weeds may grow fruits for animals or offer pollen for bees. 

The supervisors

Dr Jennifer Atchison (JA) and Dr Anthony McKnight (AM)

Can you explain your area of expertise?

(JA) I am passionate about human relationships with nature, particularly biogeography and the place of plants in everyday life. We often think of plants as very passive – as static almost neutral objects, but I am interested in how plants shape human lives and provoke us to think beyond the traditional western binary of culture and nature. I initially trained in environmental science. I then developed an understanding of and appreciation for Aboriginal ways of knowing and understanding Country during my own PhD research with Gadjerong people in the east Kimberley of northern Australia. Since then I have researched and written about native Australian food plants, agricultural plants such as wheat, invasive plants including Mimosa and Rubber vine, and plants in the context of urban change.

(AM) I am an Awabakal, Gumaroi and Yuin Man, and a Senior lecturer in the School of Education, Faculty of Social Science at UOW. I aim to continuously and respectfully incorporate Aboriginal ways of knowing and learning with a particular interest in validating Aboriginal approaches in academia and schools. I do not see myself as an expert because Country is the knowledge holder and I share my story of relationship with Country in placing Country central in our work and daily practice.  

How did you find yourself where you are now professionally?

(JA) I worked for a period outside of academia before taking up a fellowship here at UOW in 2006. I joined UOW as Senior lecturer in 2015, teaching and developing new social science programs before moving back to human geography in 2018.

(AM) The University of Wollongong is placed on the Country in which I am connected too, plus I successfully completed my undergraduate and PhD at UOW. I currently have the privilege of teaching our future educators in how to work in partnership with Country and Aboriginal peoples to help all students succeed in learning.    

What makes a great PhD candidate?

(JA) I think a great PhD candidate is curious about the world, not just curious about understanding the way it is now but also curious about wanting to know how it got to be this way and how it might change. A certain approach to flexibility is also beneficial; a PhD is a long journey, things change, research doesn’t always go according to plan, so having longer term goals and a sense of the bigger picture is important.

(AM) Someone who has an open mind, is dedicated and passionate in their learning journey especially in the area of what they want to research.   

How do you guide candidates on their journey?

(JA) My overarching approach to guiding my students is that I like to demystify the PhD. The process can be confusing and daunting but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a learning process, a set of skills and training that teaches you how to think, develop new ideas and test them out amongst a community of scholars. I also think that it’s a privilege to supervise PhD students and cultivate a sense of enquiry, so I really look forward to discussions with my students and getting to know them through their research journey.

(AM) I can only be me and share what I have learnt along my learning journey from the many people that have influenced my journey as a candidate, academic and supervisor. For me the key concept is to have a respectful reciprocal relationship.  

What should candidates consider when finding a supervisor?

(JA) This may seem obvious but candidates should know the kind of research that their potential supervisor does - their empirical concerns and the conceptual or theoretical tools they use in their research. They should make sure this aligns with their own research interests. If a student has a particular supervisor in mind, I would suggest they organise to meet with them before-hand. Read their work and discuss your ideas and interests with them to see if there is a good fit. Ask for testimonials from previous students or their colleagues to get a better understanding of what you might expect from this person during your candidature.

(AM) Respect is one key component with relates to the crucial element of communication. There has to be a relationship where communication is clear and occurs both ways.