Dr Leanne Armand, marine micropalaeontologist

Dr Leanne Armand

Dr Leanne Armand received a PhD in geology from the Australian National University. Her thesis work focused on the use of algae remains as an indicator of sea surface temperature changes and sea ice estimation. The algae remains were found in sediment cores taken from the southeast Indian Ocean. As an Australian Research Council postdoctoral fellow with IASOS (Institute of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies at the University of Tasmania) she developed this work further, especially in the area of estimating sea ice extent in the Holocene and over the last 190,000 years.

Now working in the Biogeochemical Cycles Program at the Antarctic CRC, she investigates biogeochemical cycles using algae collected in sediment traps at certain ocean sites between Australia and Antarctica and also continues her sea ice research. Her work is important in gaining an understanding of how sea ice and sea-surface temperatures vary naturally over time, and how this natural variation influences climate.

Interviewed by Ms Marian Heard in 2001.


A very interesting childhood

Where were you born, Leanne, and when?

My life started in North Adelaide. I was born on 20 February 1968 – 'just in time for lunch', my mother says. I have a younger brother, Andrew, who is currently a hospital nurse in Adelaide and who has three kids

What are your recollections of your childhood?

My childhood was very interesting. My family was always going out and doing things, sometimes associated with St John Ambulance. We did a lot of camping, and we also had good childhood experiences in and around the Adelaide suburbs.

As a young child I spent a lot of time at the beaches along Marion – Seacliff beach and Glenelg, areas around there, and that got me into collecting seashells. I used to try and set up 'museums' with my shells or even just with bits and pieces I collected around the house or whatever, and to give 'guided tours' and explanations of how and why things were.

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School experiences in Australia and America

Your primary school experiences focused more on craft than on science. Did this change in high school?

Yes, it did. I had excellent high school science teachers, who really led me on to develop my skills towards the way I would eventually go. In fact, it was in year 11 that I succeeded in picking up a John Green Memorial Prize, a biology award which was offered at our school each year.

At the end of year 12 you were chosen to represent Australia on an exchange to the United States. What was that all about?

South Australia was turning 200 years old at the time I was finishing high school, and I was chosen to represent Rotary International for a Bicentenary exchange with Arkansas. I was able to go over in a youth contingent to experience life there for six weeks, and in return we later had an exchange student come and stay about two months with us for the celebrations.

I have mixed recollections of that trip. The most important one would be of meeting Bill Clinton, who was then Governor of the State of Arkansas. But I also remember that within two days of turning up at the high school, I had outclassed all the biology students – much to my horror. What a way to make friends in my first few days of high school in America! Anyway, I survived.

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The joys of fossil fieldwork

What did you do after finishing year 12?

I went on to do a major in biology at Flinders University. At first I intended to become a biology teacher, but as the years went on, my studies focused on my interest in research and finding out more about the world around me, particularly palaeontology.

The first digs that I went on – run by Rod Wells and Peter Murray – were at Narracoorte Caves, in South Australia. These were followed by digs at Alcoota station, in the Northern Territory. I spent several seasons up there, digging fossils with Peter Murray and often a group of students from Flinders University. (We conducted coursework at the same time.) These were very enjoyable times for me.

The fieldwork certainly made life more interesting. Working outdoors, getting your hands dirty, has always been a bit of a joy for me. Some people say you never grow out of using all the skills that you acquired at kindergarten, and it is definitely true that being outdoors and digging in the dirt to find treasures is a joy.

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Teapot Creek fossils: drawing on mentor influences and expanded skills

Your interest in fossils and palaeontology stayed with you throughout your degree. But although you decided that you preferred research to teaching and so enrolled in Honours at Flinders University, after six months you pulled out. Why was that?

I started Honours in Alice Springs, hoping to work on some fossils from Alcoota station, but I needed the facilities of the university at hand. The long distance between Alice Springs and Adelaide hindered the project considerably. So I decided to pull out at that time, and instead I went on to help organise a conference for vertebrate palaeontologists in Australia.

Needing a job and wanting to continue studying, I was able to then move to the Australian National University and start a part-time position as a fossil preparator for Professor David Ride – working with material from many different areas of New South Wales – and also to restart my Honours studies.

Did your part-time work contribute to the skills you needed in your Honours project?

Most definitely. It provided a sort of background training, helping me develop skills in research as well as fossil preparation.

I did my Honours work in the ANU Geology Department, as half thesis and half course work. My project was in the Southern Monaro, the Alps region, and this was one of the sites that I was given to work up from a geological and palaeontological perspective. The thesis work was specifically to go to Teapot Creek, where we knew there were fossils, to identify all the fossil sites in that catchment and also work out the geological formations in which the fossils were occurring. I did a lot of work in that area.

Did you have any important mentors at this time?

I certainly did. Besides Professor David Ride, Mike Archer (one of David Ride's first students) had a great deal of influence in my palaeontological career. And from the geological perspective, Ken Campbell had a lot of input in my development.

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Linking fossil algae, sea temperatures and climate models

After Honours you chose to stay at ANU for a PhD in micropalaeontology.

Yes. My PhD focused on a collaborative effort between the University of Bordeaux, in France, and the Australian National University Geology Department. My supervisors were Jean-Jacques Pichon at the University of Bordeaux and Patrick De Deckker at ANU.

I had a choice of about five research grant possibilities for my PhD. Four of those were with vertebrate palaeontology, with the large mammals of Australia, but there were not so many jobs in vertebrate palaeontology. There was certainly a niche in the micropalaeontological world that I could move into without so much competition, and I decided to take the opportunity to move into that area.

Just what is micropalaeontology?

Well, basically what you need for micropalaeontology is a microscope to look at these tiny fossils, and to observe and characterise them. I started my new research on fossil algae, and I have researched them for the last six or seven years. Algae can be thought of as the green slime that you find on your fishtank, and their skeletal remains are made essentially of glass, silica.

When algae die, they fall to the sediments or the bottom of your ocean or stream or whatever. I focused on looking at past sea surface temperature changes and sea ice estimation, based on the algae remains found in sediment cores taken from the ocean between Australia and Antarctica. I started off with two cores specifically, looking at which diatoms, or algae, indicated warm water or cold water environments. I used the diatoms to help provide indications of climatic change – whether sea surface temperature got warmer or colder, and whether sea ice advanced or retreated from Antarctica.

Why was this work important?

At first we weren't sure how far we could develop the sea ice model, but it has become increasingly important as time goes by. Climate modelling is now a very important focus for all society: Where are we heading? What is the natural variability of the world in terms of its climate? Is it going to get warmer and warmer, or are we going to go into cold glacial periods like those of the past? My PhD study and also my current study, which has continued to some degree in this field, have been trying to give answers to modellers that will help them define the natural limits of climate variability. Sea ice, and also the sea surface temperature near Australia, are important in predicting future weather patterns or climate affecting Australia.

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France and Australia, research and family responsibilities

I believe your PhD years extended a French connection that you already had.

That's correct. I happened to meet my husband, Stéphane, at the ANU during my Honours year, and I married him during my PhD years. He is actually French, so from that chance meeting I now have a French family.

Because of the collaboration with the French university I often went to France for periods of between two weeks and two months, and I was able to springboard from the University of Bordeaux directly into my family over there. In that way I could pick up French along the way and also get a good understanding of the country and the culture, and now I am probably not badly assimilated into it.

What did you do after completing your PhD?

During the last year of my PhD I actually moved over to live in France and finished writing up my thesis there, in the hope that I might get a postdoctoral fellowship overseas. I was thinking Germany, America, possibly France. At the same time, though, I applied for a postdoc position in Australia, because you have always got to try for everything that's available.

I distinctly recall getting a phone call one night, 'You've got the postdoc in Australia.' We lay in bed thinking, 'Oh my goodness. We're due to have a baby in three months. How is this all going to work out?' But it did all work out. When our first son, Gaston, was three months old – a year and a half after we had moved to France – we packed up the house and moved back again, baby and all, to Hobart.

Was it difficult to juggle your research in Australia with caring for your young baby?

I have a great husband, and I was lucky that he decided to stay at home and look after our son in our first year back. And I guess they have both profited from being so close during this formative age. (That's not to say I wasn't around as well!) It has been a juggle, certainly, but my husband and I have a great relationship where we are able to divide up the responsibilities of life.

Beneficial research, hard work and mud fights

What research did you do in Australia for your postdoc?

It was to essentially develop further the work of my PhD, especially in estimating sea ice over the past 190,000 years. I took a transect between Tasmania and Antarctica, and picked out a few new cores to help the group that I was working with – the Palaeo Environment Group at the Antarctic Cooperative Research Centre – to establish the past sea ice variability over this distance.

This research has assisted modelling people, and also the palaeo environment community, the oceanographic community in general,

to understand what an important role sea ice has played in how the ocean circulation turns and how

fisheries stocks and the whole food web have changed over time. The bottom line is that sea ice and sea surface temperature really do influence climate, and so play a role in the terrestrial Australian climate.

How do you go about collecting the fossils that you look at under your microscope?

Collecting is always a business, and there are certainly hard moments. We tend to go out on cruise vessels specifically designed for research purposes. We go out with our coring devices – piston cores, and also box corers. Piston cores are very long metal tubes with very heavy weights on top, and we send them down with a cable. They penetrate into the sea floor and their special 'Chinese fingers' interlock at the bottom to stop the sediment coming out of the tube. Then, when the cores of sediment come back up to the boat, we sample them. They can be anything from 5 metres long – I think the longest core I took (as part of the team) was around 35 metres. We took that one on the Marion Dufresne, when we were not far from Kerguelen Islands.

There are fun elements, too, in going out collecting material. There can often be mud fights, usually when we're finished with the sampling of the material. You know – somebody throws a bit over there and, 'Oops, it's landed on you.'

Exploring biogeochemical cycles

Haven't you just taken up a grant for another 18 months with the Antarctic CRC?

Yes, but I have diversified slightly. I do have some continuation with the sea ice program, but I will now be working with the biogeochemical cycles program that is run by Tom Trull. This is more specifically to look at sediment-trap material. Sediment traps are essentially very large funnels that collect material from the surface of the ocean. A little collection cup at the bottom of the funnel collects material over a year-long period. People go out and retrieve these sediment-trap devices from the ocean; when the traps are brought back to the laboratory, we

sample them. I will be looking at the annual cycle of the algae that are produced in the ocean at certain sites between Australia and Antarctica.

What are your thoughts about Antarctica? It seems to fascinate scientists who are involved with it.

I guess Antarctica always has a certain mystery about it. It is an amazing place which a lot of people would love to visit, just to experience the isolation, the whiteness. Certainly it is spectacular and unique, but at the same time it is very cold and windy – and very white. I have yet to set foot on Antarctica, but even after having seen it I still do not really have it as one of my goals to go down there. There are other places I would like to see now. Going to Antarctica has just been icing on the cake.

The thrill of the find

What, then, have been the most rewarding or exciting aspects of your science career?

For me the exciting part is the thrill of the find. There's always something new turning up, there's always something fantastic for me to look at under the microscope.

I get a thrill every day from the variety and the beauty of diatoms, to me they are the most beautiful creation that nature has brought about. I never tire of looking at them down the microscope. The little skeletons are magnificent in their variety of shapes and the little areolation patterns that occur on them – they're an amazing assortment. You're always looking for your favourite one, or saying, 'Ooh, look! There's something new!' They are just wonderful to look at.

And finding an answer to something that you may have spent months or years studying is also a fantastic and rewarding focus of your work, as is being able to contribute to solving a greater problem.

Vital skills and approaches

What skills do you think are needed in science today?

If you are to move on, you really must have a passion. I think that is true for anything that you choose in life: you must be passionate about it in some way or another. I firmly believe that to be in science you must be a detective as well. You must have the desire to answer a question, to solve the mystery, to go that one step further. And then the skills that complement those sorts of initiatives come from a variety of backgrounds. You can be a biologist or an oceanographer or a geologist, but actually being a bit of everything is also very important these days. Often, I think, being rounded rather than specific is the better option. But being passionate is the most important thing.

Science communication is one of the key skills you need to develop, even while you are developing the skills of whichever area you wish to go into. But it is probably one of the hardest – not something that we would normally develop at school age, when we can communicate on certain levels, and write essays or whatever, but the ability to communicate science to a general audience can take a long time to develop.

Thirdly, collaboration and teamwork is an absolutely integral part of science. My own work is very internationally based; probably not a day goes by when I'm not communicating by email or faxes, or sometimes telephone, with colleagues in America, Germany, France and other countries – even, on the odd occasion, Poland or Japan.

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Where do you see yourself in 10 years' time?

Ah, this is a good question. Science is a hard thing to stay within. In 10 years' time, I hope, I'll be with the new-form cooperative research centre that will follow on when the Antarctic one finishes up. I truly hope that I will be part of the team that develops and goes forward with that research area. If not, well, maybe I'll be working with Geoscience Australia, or maybe out consulting. If all else fails, I may turn back to a teaching career.

Your research is clearly a very important part of your life, but no doubt you will want to continue with your range of other interests as well.

I certainly hope so. Earlier this year I had a second son, Maxime, and I keep myself busy with my two young boys. As something different, I do quilting, and I enjoy yoga for a moment of peace.

I spend a lot of time with my family. We do car camping, we get outdoors, we enjoy our life as much as possible in that respect. I enjoy bushwalking, and occasionally some climbing – just getting outside, getting mucky (which probably relates back to my early days at the beach) and enjoying family life. That's really the most important.

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