Close-up of various-shaped microscopic marine organisms

The big and small of it all: how a larger-than-life scientist shaped this micropaleontologist’s career

Publication date
Tuesday, 18 Jun 2024

One night in the middle of the Southern Ocean, sailing from Antarctica back to Tasmania on the RV Investigator, around fifty scientists converged on the ship’s deck.

Among them were micropaleontologist Kelly-Anne Lawler, and her mentor Professor Leanne Armand, and directly above them was a shimmering Aurora Australis.

“It was just lighting up the sky for hours,” Lawler remembers. “We were literally freezing, lying on the deck watching it.” 

Lawler cherishes this memory from her first Antarctic voyage, not only because of the aurora, but because of the presence of Professor Armand.

“I do think things would be very different if I hadn’t met Leanne,” says Lawler. “I actually don't know what I would be doing right now.”

“She was an amazing scientist and mentor.”

Woman at a desk
Kelly-Anne Lawler. Photo: Nic Vevers

Professor Armand was the voyage’s co-chief scientist, and, says Lawler, created an unforgettable atmosphere of posivity and inclusivity on the ship.

She went on to become Lawler’s PhD supervisor at the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences until 2021, when Professor Armand became ill and stepped back from her work.

Sadly, Professor Armand’s remarkable life was cut short at the age of 53 on 4 January 2022, leaving her family, friends and the Earth Sciences community bereft.

Lawler was part-way through her PhD under Professor Armand’s supervision at the time, using similar techniques which Professor Armand used to discover the history of past climates in her extensive body of research.

“I could talk to her not just about science facts and figures, but also about how you could navigate a career and life as a scientist,” Lawler says.

Professor Armand stood out in a good way, she continues.

She was fun and vibrant and advocated for others. Lawler particularly notes how grateful she is for the times that Leanne encouraged her to put her hand up and try out new opportunities.

It’s something Lawler wants to emulate for others too.

“She was definitely not the kind of person that pulls the ladder up behind her. That will be really missed.”

Professor Armand’s Antarctic Science colleagues shared a similar sentiment, writing in an obituary: “The number of medals and awards she received is testament to her achievements throughout her career. However, her other - perhaps more important - legacy will be in the inspiration of the next generation of marine researchers and in the promotion of women in science.”

Two artworks
Two artworks of Leanne Armand, created by Sarah Kachovich. Photo: Nic Vevers

Now, in a fitting full circle moment, Lawler has been announced as the 2024 recipient of the Leanne Armand Travel Award, set up in Professor Armand’s honour.

Lawler will use the grant to travel to New Zealand to work alongside her other PhD supervisor Dr Giuseppe Cortese at GNS Science.

On the trip, Lawler will be analysing some of the material collected back in that memorable first Antarctic voyage with Professor Armand in 2017.

Lawler’s project is specifically investigating changes on the diversity of microscopic plankton called radiolarians by analysing ancient seafloor sediments.

The information that Lawler can gather about radiolarians and the conditions that these creatures thrived in, provides a window into past environments and climates. It helps to understand our present and future climates too. So far, Lawler’s published several peer-reviewed papers and datasets from this work.

As her PhD project draws closer to the finish line, Lawler’s success in micropaleontology keeps shining on. Professor Armand would be so proud. 

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