Catherine McCammon

PhD 1984

Since I liked the outdoors, I gravitated to geophysics

Reflecting on her extensive research career, ANU Alumna Dr Catherine McCammon recalls her first inspiration to study geophysics. “Since I liked the outdoors, I gravitated to geophysics and looked for a suitable graduate school,” she explains. “When I visited Australia with my parents (both are geologists) for the 25th International Geological Congress in Sydney in 1976, I took th​e opportunity to visit Canberra and ANU and fell in love with the place. It was my first (and only) choice when I applied for graduate school.”

From 1979 to 1983 Catherine undertook her PhD in the Research School of Earth Sciences. Much of her research career has been devoted to elucidating the nature of the Earth's interior, with particular emphasis on how changes at the microscopic level influence macroscopic behaviour, including what we observe at the Earth's surface. “My particular specialty is iron, the most abundant element in the Earth, and how seemingly minor changes in the number and distribution of electrons in iron-containing minerals can affect large scale processes such as the history and cycling of volatiles in the planet,” she says.

Catherine’s time at ANU gave her experiences that went beyond her education. “My PhD studies got off to a rocky start when my project got tangled in scientific politics, but I learnt a lot from the experience and landed on my feet in the end,” she adds. “I also made good use of extracurricular opportunities such as those provided by the ANU Mountaineering Club, where I eventually became president. A group of us organised a climbing expedition to a Himalayan peak in 1983, and I finished writing my thesis after I returned.”

And these experiences also helped shape where her career is today. “On a practical level the people that I met and the contacts that I made whilst I was at ANU brought new opportunities that I continue to benefit from even today, thirty years later,” she remarks. “On a more philosophical level the perspectives that I gained during my degree (such as the importance of being able to see the "big picture" that transcends the more specialised details of the research) enabled me to reach a broader audience with my work.”

It follows that some of the most memorial moments of Catherine’s career have resulted from these collaborations. “For me, the most defining moments in my career were the decisions to start collaborations with particular people,” she recalls. “These collaborations have led to achievements that were truly more than the sum of our individual contributions and an exhilaration in working together that was always so much greater than anything achieved on my own.”

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