Hat trick of awards for UNE superstar of STEM

Published 07 June 2021

Dr Betts, a palaeontologist and geologist with the University of New England’s Palaeoscience Research Centre and Litho Lab UNE (LLUNE), is only the second UNE researcher to receive this honour since the awards were first introduced in 1998. The other was Professor Paul McDonald in 2012.

“It was a wonderful surprise! It’s a great opportunity to highlight the great work being done by researchers at regional universities like UNE,” Dr Betts said of her award.

The awards honour research excellence and offer winners opportunity to speak about their research as well as engage in outreach activities with students, teachers and communities.  The awards are also widely considered to be an early indicator of future scientific leaders, identifying outstanding early career scientists.

Dr Betts was nominated by her PhD supervisor Professor Glenn Brock from Macquarie University, with whom she has maintained close ties since completing her PhD in 2016.

“We still work together – particularly when it comes to the Cambrian of South Australia. He’s been one of the strongest mentors I’ve had in academia. He’s very passionate about Cambrian palaeontology, but also Earth Science in general. I have always found his enthusiasm super infectious. So I guess I just caught the Cambrian bug!”

Dr Betts describes herself as a palaeontologist with geological “roots” who started out with a keen interest in geology but then discovered a love of palaeontology.

“I tend to use fossils to answer broad geologically-themed questions about the age of rocks and what the environment was like when they were deposited,” Dr Betts explained.

“I have been working on refining Australia’s contribution to the Geological Timescale for a very important interval of time called the Cambrian – when most major animal groups appeared in the fossil record in the geological blink of an eye. This work has highlighted the excellent Cambrian rock packages in South Australia, and now underpins the scientific side of the current nomination of the Flinders Ranges as a World Heritage site.

“I love that my work is like doing a huge four-dimensional puzzle. Each tiny piece that we find – fossil or rock – is important, it’s just a matter of understanding how it fits into the larger scheme of things.”

Students studying earth sciences at UNE are also fortunate in that its main campus in Armidale is located in a “geological playground” according to Dr Betts, offering plenty of opportunity for fieldwork.

“The rocks around here tell incredible stories about the evolution of eastern Australia, capturing nearly half a billion years of Earth’s history.”

“Our students are pretty spoiled; we have the perfect outdoor classroom for teaching geoscientific concepts but also a really good balance between online and face-to-face teaching which gives our students great flexibility.”

In addition to winning the Tall Poppy Science award, Dr Betts was awarded the A.H. Voisey Medal by the Geological Society of Australia (NSW Division) in March for “significant contribution to the field despite having only completed their PhD in the past five years.”

She was also one of 60 scientists selected to participate in the 2021-2022 Superstars of STEM program. This professional development program for women in STEM aims to increase the visibility of women as experts, and reset society’s gender assumptions about who can work in STEM.

Together with her colleagues, Dr Luke Milan and Dr Tim Chapman, Dr Betts recently established the geoscientific research group, LithoLab UNE (LLUNE). Follow them on @litholab_une on Twitter and Instagram to learn more of their work.

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