Need some inspiration to come out of your shell? Feeling a bit sluggish? Lorelle’s story of following her passion will undoubtedly give you the motivation you need to fast-track your success – unlike her slow-moving research subjects!
Lorelle Holcroft is a PhD candidate at the Australia Rivers Institute (ARI), currently undertaking research on native Australian snails. We spoke with Lorelle to find more about her fascinating (and occasionally slimy!) research project and the challenges she has faced as a mature age student heading back to university.
Einstein once said, ‘Once you stop learning you start dying’. I am a mature age student of 69 who is far from ready to ‘start dying’. Having an inquisitive mind is critical in a world that is vastly different from the one into which I was born- NO, we didn’t have computers then; we didn’t even have television at home!
So why did I start a PhD when many of my peers are having a wonderful time in retirement? Simple answer, ‘curiosity’. I have loved science and in particular zoology and geology from when I was a little girl.
“At the end of high school, I was told that as a girl, I could not study geology or zoology as our family, not being wealthy, could not afford to send me to university.”
From little things, big things grow
So I followed what became my next love, teaching. I spent nearly 39 years in primary education and the last 21 of those as a deputy principal, so I experienced leadership and management roles with staff as well as having the joy of working with young minds, especially in mathematics and science. In the 1980s when I was teaching a Year 7 class, one of the science units was on land snails so I asked a good friend, Dr John Stanisic, who was then Curator of Molluscs at Queensland Museum at that time, to work with my students and myself. We went on snail collecting trips at Mt Glorious. Science presented this way was such fun and we all learned so much. Thus, my love of these tiny but fascinating creatures was born.
Since then, John and I met again about 10 years ago and have since married. We both love land snails and we do a lot of volunteer work with the World Science Festival including presentations and school talks with groups and students from Prep to Year 12.
“People are always amazed once they find out that our 2500 native species do not eat your garden and are like the frogs of the forest.”
Snails are amazingly successful biodiversity indicators of healthy forests. We are both passionate about invertebrates comprising 99% of terrestrial biodiversity and conservation of our forests.
Fulfilling a fascination with snails
To ensure I knew as much as I could about these remarkable invertebrates, I retired, went to university at Griffith and succeeded in achieving a Master of Philosophy on Charopidae, a family of tiny pinwheel snails with a diameter 1.3-7 mm in mid-eastern Queensland. I named nearly 30 new species.
My curiosity was not yet quenched so I decided to work on larger land snails. I decided on a genus of large Queensland land snails, Figuladra (Köhler & Bouchet, 2020).
Figuladra is a very complex genus of land snail with a really confusing taxonomic history which has not been studied in-depth previously. Since the 1800s, conchologists described every different shell as a separate species. We know now that many look alike and colour morphs are common; My project is basically to sort out this genus and document the species. In doing this, I will consider their preferred habitats which occur in areas that are being systematically cleared for agriculture, mining and housing. Sorting this will assist in highlighting conservation issues in eastern Queensland and the Brigalow Belt.
Going back to Uni: not without its challenges!
As a mature age student, there have been many challenges to overcome. Firstly, getting a place in a university course against young people with current scientific study achievements, had to be overcome. Luckily, my work history gave me transferable skills I was able to access and use for my initial application. Today’s young students have a strong background in technology and their statistical representations and use of technologies for molecular analysis is part of their learning from high school. This was missing in my background and I have had to learn this.
Malacology (study of snails) is not a topic that is a feature of the School of Environment and Science. However, through Queensland Museum, I was able to find supervisors who were willing to help me and who had expertise in my weaker areas. They have been awesome in their support and teaching in those areas.
Finally, dealing with scientific literacy, the peer review cycle and maintaining my ‘determined not to give up’ attitude has been the biggest hurdle. Fortunately, in my primary school, we worked on resilience and a ‘You Can Do IT!’ attitude to leaning. I have had to put this into practice many times. Mature age students do this better than young students! I have discovered that if you push forward, the next step will take you to new and better heights. My advice, give yourself 24 hours only to feel down, then get back up. It will make an enormous difference and you will learn so much about yourself from the experience.
A lifelong love of learning
I have achieved much in my time on this planet, not just for some awards I have won and the five papers I have published in this field, but for the opportunity to inspire young learners and adults. When I complete my degree, I will have more credibility in biodiversity and conservation debates. I will work with John as an honorary researcher at Queensland Museum to describe the 400+ species of charopids sitting in museums without names. I will really enjoy my unusual retirement as the field work alone gets me to many beautiful places that most people co not or cannot access. I will never lose my curiosity.
So please don’t think you can’t do it. YES YOU CAN!
“Let your curiosity loose and you may yet change the world even if it is only in one small space. Griffith University will be there with you every step of the way.”
For more information on the fascinating world of snails, head to factsaboutsnails.com