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Sandra Oliveira - Portugal

Studying in Australia was a turning point in Sandra Santos de Oliveira’s life. “It changed my career path completely,” she says.

Course: Master of Environmental Science (MEnvSc)
Institute: University of Wollongong
Wollongong, New South Wales

Studying in Australia was a turning point in Sandra Santos de Oliveira's life.

"It changed my career path completely" she says.

Disenchanted with being a geography teacher in her native Portugal, Santos de Oliveira decided she wanted to build on her scientific skills. So, she signed up to do a Master of Environmental Science a world away in Wollongong.

"I had always wanted to go to that part of the world," she says, explaining that while she didn't know what to expect she did know that Australian universities had a strong reputation for the subjects in which she was interested, such as biology, ecology and environmental science.

In Australia she focused her attention on research. "I like being able to discover new things, using creativity to solve problems and doing it outside of a routine."

As part of her Master's degree she began examining forest fires, choosing the topic initially because it was something common to both Australia and Portugal.

"It was the right choice," she says. "I've been working on this topic for the last three years in the Joint Research Centre at the European Commission and I am currently doing my PhD in Forest Engineering."

Her PhD examines the different causes of fire in various regions, looking at the factors affecting fire occurrence and assessing the long-term forest fire risk for Europe.

"It was in Australia that I, coming from a broad scientific domain such as geography, started to specialise and to design my future professional road."

Aside from a valuable qualification, she says she picked up many new skills at the University of Wollongong, from learning how to write a paper for publication to discovering the Australian definition of 'harmful' and 'harmless' in terms of animals.

"The biology teacher asked the students to study spiders... poisonous spiders, those that can kill you," she explains.

"Coming from a country where poisonous animals are practically only ever seen on TV, I felt this a very demanding task and as a non-native with no knowledge on how to distinguish the 'bad ones' from the 'not-so-bad ones', my survival instinct just made me assume that every species could deeply harm me.

"For Australians, however, the concept of 'harmful' is somewhat different: a huntsman spider, for example, can bite you and cause an infection with some fever for a couple of days, but since it doesn't kill you, it's just a 'harmless' species! Well, not for me!"

The Portuguese researcher did, however, eventually get used to having a family of 'harmless' blue-tongue lizards living in her back garden. She insists that the novelty of having unique species all around - seeing animals in the wild, not in a zoo - was one of her favourite things about the country.

"Australia has an amazing richness in nature," she says, "and the starry night of the Simpson Desert near Uluru was the most amazing sky I have ever seen."

She also liked the easy-going lifestyle, and learning that you can be highly competent and do a good job even if you're not wearing a suit and tie!

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