It’s still sinking in for PhD student Hannah Etchells, that come July she’ll be winging her way to California to conduct research at Berkeley.
In December, Hannah was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to investigate how catastrophic bushfires affect forest ecosystems, and given recent events it will be very timely research.
“My Honours degree focused on the 2015 Northcliffe wildfire that burnt approximately 100,000 hectares of land. It was one of our largest fires and in places the severity was unlike anything we had ever witnessed.
“I looked at the way plants in the Karri forest regenerated, and how this regeneration differed between areas of the fire that were more severe than others.
“In southwest Australia, plants, animal and fungi have adapted to cope with fire, but we are seeing a rapid increase in the number and severity of these blazes, and we don’t know how they will adapt to the changes,” she says.
Following on from her Honours research Hannah never looked back and is now extending this work as part of her PhD, this time taking more of an ecosystem approach.
“My Honours research unearthed more questions that I now want to answer. Especially around why there are differences in how areas regenerate following a bushfire and how will this impact the entire ecosystem?
“As in WA, bushfires are part of the natural environment in California and having the opportunity to go there and study these events will be wonderful and challenging, and most importantly a great way to compare and contrast the two.
“It will be an unfamiliar ecosystem but like WA their landscapes are changing and we need to understand more about why this is to inform future decisions,” Hannah says.
This area of work is quite a change from when Hannah worked in the fashion industry following her first degree in design.
“I realised I wanted to make more of a contribution to society. Going back to university and being on this path that I’m now on has been so fulfilling, I haven’t looked back.
“We are lucky in WA to live in such a hot spot for biodiversity – we need to do everything we can to preserve and conserve it and I’m excited about what findings will come out of this scholarship and future research that I do.
“It can be overwhelming to think about, but it’s really exciting too,” Hannah says.
And when she’s not searching for answers to burning questions, you may find Hannah sipping on a spearmint milkshake. She’s quite the connoisseur, and if you’re interested can tell you where to find the best ones in Perth.