Dr Kealy in the field on Alor Island, Indonesia. Photo: Professor Sue O'Connor.

Alumni profile: Dr Shimona Kealy

10th June 2020

Having completed her PhD at the School of Culture, History & Language (CHL) in 2019, Dr Shimona Kealy began 2020 by pursuing her study of the movement and interconnectedness of ancient Indo-Pacific island communities through a research assistant position at the CHL Archaeology and Natural History (ANH) lab. When the University went into lockdown to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Dr Kealy had to adapt. We talked about her experience of the past few months, and what she’s looking forward to now that the University is beginning to reopen.

You were previously involved with CHL, first as a PhD student and then on a casual contract to assist research in the Archaeology and Natural History lab. Can you describe some of your main interests, experiences and work you did in these roles?

My PhD investigated how the ancestors of Australia’s Indigenous peoples travelled from mainland Southeast Asia, through the islands of eastern Indonesia and Timor-Leste, to Australia and New Guinea. As these islands between the continental landmasses were always separated by water, and based on the archaeological dates for occupation of Australia, this also involved modelling the very first sea crossing of our species. My PhD was mostly focused on modelling and reconstructing this palaeo-seascape, however I also spent about 12 months in total conducting various archaeological and palaeontological surveys and excavations in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

It was during my PhD that I started also working as a research assistant in CHL’s ANH labs, sorting archaeological material, organising samples for radiocarbon dating, drafting field reports and designing maps.

I am fascinated by the early movements of people between these remote islands of east Indonesia, and curious about understanding how interconnected these ancient island communities where to each other. The current research I am employed to do links directly into this interest. I am looking at the prehistory of human translocations of cuscus (a cousin of the brush-tailed possum) between the islands to the west and east of New Guinea. For this I have participated in archaeological excavations, zoological surveys, the analysis of museum collections, sampling of specimens for modern and ancient DNA, and the construction of phylogenies (evolutionary trees) and biogeographic models.

How did this change once the University locked down the campus?

Unfortunately, at the time of the lockdown I had reached a stage in the project where everything I needed to do required me to either be at the ANH laboratories in Canberra (looking through the archaeological material in the quarantine labs); visiting museum collections at CSIRO or the Australian Museum; or travelling to visit the University of Monash (Victoria), University of Adelaide (South Australia) or the Universitas Gadjah Mada (Indonesia!). As you can imagine, none of these options were very conducive to the lockdown and various COVID-19 response protocols.

How have you been overcoming the challenges raised by the lock-down? What are the best or most rewarding parts of adapting to the new way of doing things?

As I was unable to continue my regular activities, and thanks to the Vice Chancellor’s generous promise to keep long-term casuals employed at the University, I have been able to retain my work hours and have substituted lab work for assisting CHL’s various lecturers as they convert their courses into online versions, as well as some administrative and record-keeping tasks.

One of the tasks I have had is to photograph specimens for students to look at and analyse as they are unable to handle the specimens themselves. I went through my linen cupboard to find a black pillow-case and turned our dining table into a temporary photography studio! I am also currently trying to create a kind of treasure-hunt for students to participate in using scans of geological maps to develop their understanding of where ancient peoples might have sourced the raw materials to make their stone tools.

What have you learned from having to adapt the way you work? What sort of innovations have you made? What have you learned to appreciate about your work?

I think I am now much more appreciative of the office space and how going into work breaks up your day! I like knowing that when necessary, I can be more creative in my research and particularly the development of course material. Between the virtual treasure-hunt I am currently working to develop and other substitutions for practical and laboratory exercises, I developed for a course run by the Research School of Earth Science. I have enjoyed thinking outside the box to develop these alternative course materials which I hope will continue to be of benefit to our students in the future.

What are you looking forward to in the next few months? Do you hope that some of the actions you’ve taken to adapt to the lock-down stay with you? What are you excited to that you haven’t been able to do during the lock-down?

I am looking forward to getting back to the research I am more familiar with, seeing more of us returning to the labs as restrictions ease, and eventually making my way to the various institutions both in Canberra and inter-state which house the materials I need to analyse. However, I am pleased with the skills and ideas I have gained for teaching online and I think this will enable us as university lecturers to be more inclusive and accommodating to our students in the future with the increased availability to alternative learning options.


Dr Kealy is on Twitter @ShimonaKealy and on Instagram @Dr.Kealy.


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Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster