Finding a vocation down-under


Smiling Eleanor Tinsley in graduation gown and mortarboard hat in one of the Lancaster Environment Centre garden areas

When Eleanor Tinsley was choosing a university, she took the search very seriously.

“I was the first in my family to go to university, I didn’t have anyone to tell me what it was like, who could give me information or advice, so it was a stab in the dark.”

But her family and upbringing did have a major influence on her decision to study Ecology and Conservation.

“My father is a landscape gardener and I used to go out to work with him sometimes. I grew up in a rural area surrounded by animal lovers: my parents wouldn’t even kill spiders and I was always rescuing birds and small mammals.  I became fascinated by animal behaviour.”

Lancaster was the third university Eleanor visited, and she knew immediately she had found the right place.

“I really liked the learning environment, everyone seemed so friendly. I was blown away by the course and how enthusiastic and knowledgeable the staff seemed, and the students seemed very enthusiastic too. I just didn’t get the same feeling at other universities.”

Despite being nervous about coming to university, she loved her first year, helped by the support she had from other students and staff members.

“I found it so interesting to be surrounded by people who know more than you and are willing to impart their knowledge.”

But the highlight of her degree was a year studying abroad in Australia, at the University of Wollongong, an hour south of Sydney.

“It’s probably been the single biggest thing I’ve done to build my confidence in myself and my ability to do things independently. I was very nervous, I didn’t really know what to expect and found the culture strange. It was very intimidating to begin with.”

“But Lancaster prepares you very well before you go, and my study abroad advisor contacted me regularly when I was there, asking how things were going in terms of my course and general welfare.”

Her first class in Australia involved plant identification, and she soon discovered it wasn’t just the culture that was different. 

“I walked into a lab and there was a bench with four or five species of plants laid out with a guide to the flora of Australia. Most of the other students were sitting there saying I know what this is, I’ve got it in my back garden, but I’d never seen any of these plants in my life. The learning curve at the start of that year was extremely steep.

I ended up getting 100% in my plant identification. It was a lot of hard work.  But I now feel much more confident that I can do things. If I ever feel I am struggling I say to myself, you walked into that lab session knowing nothing, and ended up doing better than the people who’d lived there all their lives.”

Eleanor soon fell in love with the place. “It really stole my heart. It was such a beautiful location in a rainforest corridor spread between mountains and ocean, with tropical birds landing on my window sill, ten minutes from the beach and I could go trekking in the mountains at weekends. It was relaxed and friendly, with sunshine so you don’t have to work around the rain all the time.” 

She had chosen the University of Wollongong because of its reputation for animal behaviour research: while there she got involved in doing independent research on frog larvae, part of a larger project.

“It was my first experience of doing a full project from start to finish and I enjoyed it immensely. I had a mentor and was working alongside a PhD researcher who was looking into same frog species. It was really cool working in a lab like that.”

It helped convince Eleanor that she had found her vocation.

“As the first in my family to go to university it was hard for me to envision that the thing I loved could really become a job, but through interacting with many academics it become clear to me that research is what I wanted to do.”

Eleanor returned to Lancaster and threw herself into her final year dissertation project on the impact of noise on pollinators. She not only got a first- class degree, but also won the James Baxter Memorial Prize, awarded to the ‘undergraduate reading for a BSc/MSci degree in Biology Environmental Biology or Ecology and Conservation who has displayed the most diligence, enthusiasm and good progress in general.’

“I definitely have enthusiasm, I have loved my time in Lancaster. I’ve tried to engage with as many staff as possible. I was a subject rep and a faculty rep, and sat on the University Senate.

“This degree has meant more to me than anything. It’s been an adventure, me discovering things for myself. My family are proud of me for having done it.”

Now Eleanor is heading to St Andrew’s to do a masters in Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution. Her plan afterwards is to return to Wollongong to do a PhD.

“I’ve already submitted and got a supervisor for my project proposal, on the mating systems and behaviours in a particular Australian frog species, many of which are endangered or related to critically endangered species.”

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