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Illustrating care for the environment

Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria at sunset.

Personnel Image

Written By

Tianna Killoran

College

College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

1 June 2022

From Karumba to Cairns

A proud Kamilaroi woman and environmental scientist, JCU Alumni Merinda Walters has combined her love of science and art to shine a light on invasive species. This World Environment Day on 5 June, passionate environmental scientists like Merinda remind us that there is #OnlyOneEarth, but many of us who can make a difference.

Merinda grew up in Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria and says she always had a knack for science. When she was younger, she dreamed of being a palaeontologist, but guided by her mother, she decided to study a Bachelor of Environmental Practice after finishing high school. “JCU in Cairns was very local, so I put in for Environmental Practice as my first preference and I was super excited about that.”

Merinda says her studies ignited her passion for the environment. “I studied evolutionary biology subjects, which I absolutely loved. I also studied subjects about weather patterns and natural disasters, and even an anthropology subject which put me on the path to doing Indigenous stakeholder engagement in my career,” she says. “But one of my favourite subjects was probably Biological Invasions, which was all about invasive species in the Tropics.”

It was this Biological Invasions subject that Merinda says sparked a new opportunity for her. “As an assessment, we had to write a science communication piece about invasive species. We were given complete freedom with it,” Merinda says. “So, I ended up writing and illustrating a children’s book, which was written partly in Indigenous language and also in English.”

The book is soon to be published with Batchelor Institute Press. “It’s called Ngarrangarra-li Guru-Mayuu: Looking After Country and I wrote it because I grew up in a very small community and I was always running around and being a brat outside; I didn’t really know much about invasive species until later in high school,” Merinda says. “I considered myself environmentally well-versed from a young age, but the idea of invasive species was something I knew little about even though it’s something so integral to the health of the environment.

“I wrote this book for all of the kids that are living out in community or in regional or remote areas,” Merinda says. “They might see cane toads, red fire ants or buffaloes and they might not realise those species don’t belong there. This book might encourage them to think about what they can do to help look after Country and look after our environment.

“It was one of the best assignments I’ve done, and my lecturer emailed me to tell me that she’s been using it as an example for her classes. So, to see my work being published, has been wonderful. I plan on getting a few copies and giving them to the university and to school libraries and passing them around as my way of giving back.”

JCU Alumni and environmental scientist smiling and wearing a black shirt and standing in front of two artworks she painted.
Illustrated cover of the book written and illustrated by Merinda Walters which reads Ngarrangarra-li Guru-Mayuu Looking after country.
Left: Merinda with two of her artworks commissioned for the CareerTrackers Brisbane office. Right: The cover of Merinda's forthcoming book she wrote and illustrated, 'Ngarrangarra-li Guru-Mayuu: Looking After Country'. Supplied by Merinda Walters.

Creative at heart

Merinda is a scientist with a creative flare. While she was studying, she decided to start her own creative ‘side hustle’ with Mindy’s Art Thawun Wandabaa.

Now having completed over 30 art commissions and sold over 2000 pairs of earrings, Merinda says that her family, particularly her mother, has been instrumental in her success. “It was my mum who suggested that I use my artistic abilities and shouldn’t hesitate with painting Indigenous artwork. My family put a lot of emphasis on ‘passing the baton’ of our heritage and encouraged me to be proud.”

Merinda says she started off with small paintings and found enormous support. “I started painting because I’ve always been an artist and always been drawing, but I never painted much because it felt too permanent.

“One of my first big painting commissions was for a lady that was my advisor at the Indigenous Education and Research Centre (IERC), so having that educational support and personal support was lovely. That really kicked off what became a flourishing little business with my painting.

“I had quite a few moments throughout my degree where my relatives who are artists would sit me down and encourage me. They’d tell me that this is who I am and I have the responsibility and the talent to share our stories. So, I started this little business and it’s just spurred on from there through word of mouth.”

Merinda says her artistic talent has also been recognised in her workplace, where the GHD Cairns office has commissioned an art piece. “I’m doing the largest artwork I’ve ever attempted, which is about 2.5 metres wide and 1.5 metres tall. It’s taken about six months and I only just finished the painting side of it last week.”

JCU alumni and environmental scientist Merinda Walters smiling with thumbs up wearing a wide brim hat and gloves standing in front of bushland.
JCU Alumni and environmental scientist Merinda Walters smiling while she crouches and plants a small tree sapling.
Left and Right: Merinda says her role as an environmental scientist at GHD allows her to do a range of field work. Supplied by Merinda Walters.

Connecting environmental practice with people

After graduating from her degree, Merinda landed herself a job working at GHD in Cairns after going through the CareerTrackers program. She says she enjoys how her job enables her to connect with people and develop her skills as an environmental scientist.

“I started out as a graduate doing a lot of desktop reviews, which is where you research all the environmental aspects of a particular patch of land. That includes what we can and can’t do on that land, the corresponding legislation and the permits we might need. I found that really interesting,” she says.

“Then I also became involved in the approvals process, which is the next step in assessing how we can make sure a project goes ahead while still ensuring sustainability.”

But Merinda says as a generalist environmental scientist she’s also been able to do a wide variety of field work, including water and air quality sampling in Greenvale, and work in Townsville doing benthic sampling, which is assessing sediment from the sea floor. “It’s very messy, but very fun,” Merinda says.

In her role at GHD, Merinda says she’s been offered a lot of opportunities to develop her skills and use her strengths. “It’s opened up a lot of opportunities working at GHD in the Cairns office and I’ve been able to branch out into things that suit my personality,” she says. “I’m a bit of a talker, so I’ve been involved in some stakeholder engagement since the middle of last year, which has been pretty sensational.

“It involves talking to people, discussing their perspectives and then relaying that back to the project team. It involves a lot of understanding of cultural knowledge, so I’m able to advise on what is culturally appropriate and communicate that. I really like to be able to help out in that space.”

“Naturally, I have a desire to educate others and a willingness to learn new things, so going into the stakeholder space has been a really fulfilling opportunity that has arisen for me.”

JCU Alumni Merinda Walters

Kerr Point, Weipa, Cape York Peninsula

Taking action on Reconciliation

Merinda says a highlight of her work has been her involvement in the Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) Committee at GHD since 2021. “We have a massive focus on our inclusion and diversity commitment, so we have a few different committees. One of them is the RAP committee, as well as the LGBTQI+ committee, which is a space for allies and/or identifiers to come to together.

“We celebrate a lot of events, such as International Women’s Day or World Engineers Day, as well as Reconciliation and NAIDOC Week.”

Merinda says she’s been given many opportunities, whether that is giving a presentation or an Acknowledgement of Country. “Last year we hosted out of the Cairns office the Reconciliation Day event where we had some guest speakers, I did the acknowledgement of Country in language, which I was very privileged and proud to do,” she says.

As well as events and celebrations, Merinda says she’s also involved in a lot of background work to support GHD’s inclusion and diversity goals. “We also do a lot of outreach programs and funding, including the CareerTrackers Program, which was the organisation I went through for my internship,” she says. “We also partner with the Jonathan Thurston Academy, and other organisations around Cairns.”

For Merinda, this combination of work keeps variety in her day and helps to guide her on her career path. “My team leader is very supportive and sees the potential in people and guides them in their career pathways,” she says. “In my future, I would like to keep doing environmental work, but I’d also love to grow my work with stakeholders. I feel like that personal element of projects is important.

“I feel like I’m in a really good position in my career to do both of these things, where you can go out on a property and either walk on Country or do an environmental assessment and have conversations with people.”

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