Lizards, elephants and hanging with Hermione: Jess’s journey from UniSC to Oxford

University of the Sunshine Coast

Seeing actress Emma Watson isn’t a “pinch me” moment.

She’s on billboards, screens and magazines in every town from Toogoolawah to Timbuktu.

But seeing Emma Watson in person, as you’re both being formally admitted to the University of Oxford, is.

UniSC alumni Jessica Tacey will attest to that.

“We were at the same welcome ceremony! There’s been lots of surreal experiences since I’ve been here, but that’s one of the most memorable so far,” Jessica said.

Jessica at her matriculation ceremony at Oxford University

But unlike her fellow student’s famous character Hermione, there was no witchcraft or magic in Jessica’s journey to studying a DPhil (PhD)at Oxford.

It involved a lot of hard work. And chasing lizards at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

“Growing up in Western Australia I spent a lot of time camping, and my brother and I developed a fascination with the abundance of wildlife out there. We were always going after native animals to see how many we could find!” she said.

A love of all things animals and ecology had taken root early, and endured all the way through school, a Bachelor of Science at the University of Western Australia and a job as a whale watching guide in The Kimberley.

A lifelong love of animals and ecology started in Western Australia, where Jessica worked as a wildlife guide

But higher academic honours beckoned, bringing Jessica to the Sunshine Coast where she undertook an Honours in Science at UniSC.

It was a chance to get into the nitty gritty of what it takes to be researcher.

“As part of my honours at UniSC, I investigated the impacts of reptile behaviour on infectious disease transmission. The COVID-19 pandemic emphasised that social behaviours can be key to both spreading and avoiding disease, and many animal species also use social behaviour to avoid infection,” she said.

“Interestingly, I found that non-diseased lizards in South East Queensland avoided socialising with those that were more severely diseased.”

Now armed with a UniSC Honours degree, Jessica took her talents to the field – first as an environmental scientist for an international engineering firm and then as a research assistant investigating killer whale behaviour near Antarctica.

“I’m happy I completed my honours at UniSC and then went on to have those varied experiences across such different avenues of animal ecology,” she said.

Jessica studied the impact of reptile behaviour on disease transmission as part of her UniSC Honours project.

But there was still an academic itch she wanted to scratch.

“I wanted to apply the skills I gained through these experiences to the ultimate test of completing a PhD. And I had my eyes set on doing it at Oxford!

“Specifically investigating the life-threatening conflict that occurs between people and elephants in southern Africa, as they compete over water resources in drought-stricken landscapes.”

Lizards to elephants, Queensland to England – it didn’t just happen with the wave of a magic wand. More hard work, applications and trial-and-error followed.

But the same compulsion that drove Jessica to chase critters through the WA scrub and lizards at the University of the Sunshine Coast, now sees her chasing a new dream in the centuries-old sandstone halls of the world’s most famous university.

“I feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by such history every day, and it is inspiring to know about all the brilliant minds and global changemakers who’ve come before me – especially the many brilliant women in STEM,” she said.

“I’d always hoped animal ecology would take me on a journey like this, but for a while it seemed like a crazy dream, and I had no idea what that journey would look like.”

Most likely a journey with plenty more “pinch me” moments to come.

“I plan to travel to Zimbabwe to conduct my fieldwork. I can’t wait!” she said.

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