From reading books about insects as a child and studying entomology and toxicology at university, to completing a PhD on pesticides, it’s clear Dr Catherine Symington’s life-long passion has been exploring the world of biology.
‘I’ve loved biology since I was tiny,’ says Cathy. ‘I got my first books on identifying rocks, bugs, plants and animals when I was five years old.’
Given such obvious enthusiasm and avidity towards biology, you’d think the decision to teach it would be straightforward, but the path to Cathy’s current position as a Foundation Studies biology lecturer wasn’t without twists and turns. And, like many things in life, it involved some hard work.
Following her passion, Cathy studied a Bachelor of Agricultural Science at the University of Melbourne, and some years later, began a PhD on bugs and pesticides at La Trobe University, with her eye on becoming a research scientist.
‘About halfway through my PhD, I had a very surprising realisation that the life of a research scientist – which I thought would be for me – actually wasn’t,’ says Cathy.
At the time, government funding towards the virology department, for example, had been withdrawn and redirected to marketing, leaving many researchers to either depend on unreliable and inconsistent funding bodies or leave the field entirely.
Chasing her own income wasn’t how Cathy saw herself operating as a scientist.
As such, one Saturday morning while avoiding writing her PhD thesis, Cathy turned to the employment page of The Age and, by delighted chance, came across a job ad for teaching biology at Trinity. She recalls this moment as the inspiration for her transition from research to education.
‘I thought, “oh my goodness, that’s my job – I can teach! I don’t have to research, I can teach!” says Cathy, as she recalls her excitement reading the job description. Little did she know, this finely printed job offer at the back of the newspaper would kick-start a rich and unforgettable experience at Trinity College, where Cathy has now taught for more than two decades, specialising in biology and environment and development.
Cathy says teaching was not just a chance to ‘flap [her] jaw about biology’; it was something much more – an opportunity to inspire, explore and, ultimately, expose others to the amazing wonders of the biological world.
In a broader sense, Cathy is proud to have the opportunity to impact the quality of the environment through the role of educating youth about its fragility and wonder. ‘[The students] realise how much they love it and they actually want to pick up their care for the world.’
Throughout her teaching career at Trinity, Cathy has moved beyond biology to also manage many music concerts and coordinate a singing club, maximising the opportunities presented at Trinity, for which Cathy says she is continually grateful.
Her desire to improve the environment also manifests itself on a global scale, demonstrated through her work with the NGO ‘WeForest’, in which she has been appointed the role of scientific communicator.
When asked about her greatest achievement with respect to teaching at Trinity, Cathy says: ‘It’s a composite of all the little moments with my students, either when they finally understand a concept, or when they’re no longer scared of a particular topic and discovered they could actually do it.’
And no doubt she’s sparked a few biology obsessions along the way – because if Cathy’s experience is anything to go by, it’s a subject that can hook you in for life.
By Andrew Allen