Director of Regional Operations, Associate Professor
College of Science, Health and Engineering
School of Psychology and Public Health
Department of Psychology and Counselling
La Trobe University
Many people who know me find this difficult to believe, but when I first left high school my ambition was to get married, have lots of babies and live happily ever after. While I waited for Prince Charming to come along I turned my previous hobby of horse riding into a job and starting riding racehorses for a living. A few years later, whizzing around the track at 5 AM and still no closer to finding Mr Wonderful, it suddenly occurred to me that this was not how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I consulted a psychologist/careers advisor and enrolled in a behavioural science degree at La Trobe University.
Unlike some students who see study as a chore, I totally loved learning – just about anything. I don’t think I missed a single lecture or tutorial in my undergraduate career and I overloaded every year so that I could fit more in. I tried out computer science, philosophy, sociology, interdisciplinary studies, biology, zoology and, of course, heaps of psychology. Ten years later I had two Bachelor’s degrees, a Master’s degree, a PhD and an academic job in the psychology department at Monash University.
To begin with I focused my teaching and research activities on behavioural neuroscience and clinical neuropsychology. This was exciting and such terrific fun that I found myself working way too hard, with no time to enjoy myself. I decided I needed a hobby that would force me to go home from work so I bought a couple of dogs. Before long I found myself immersed in the world of dog showing and breeding. Again terrific fun but it got me interested in animal welfare and, more specifically, anthrozoology – the study of human-animal relationships. Hardly anybody was working in this area then but, as a psychologist, I was totally fascinated by the intimate relationships that form between companion animals and their owners. I was also amazed by the apparent lack of rationality in the way that humans understand and treat animals. Here we are, thinking we are so very smart and so very much in control, when in fact nearly all of us go totally gaga over a cute little piglet, even at the same time as we chow down on a pork chop. This seems to make no sense at all.
Nearly ten years later I’ve established myself as one of Australia’s leaders in the field of Anthrozoology. I’m friends with anthrozoologists from around the world and supervise a great bunch of students who are working in this general area. I’ve developed courses about animal welfare and animals in society issues for a number of universities and speak regularly at international conferences. And I still breed dogs and go home every night to Mr Wonderful and a very big team of canine companions, who totally take the place of all those kids I thought I would have but never could fit into my schedule.
In 2010 I decided I needed a break from my frenetic academic lifestyle so I left my position at Monash University, travelled for a while and then enjoyed spending time at home. In early 2011 I took up a new position as Director of Regional Operations for the School of Psychological Science at La Trobe University. This is a really exciting opportunity for me. I’m based at a gorgeous rural campus in Bendigo so get to live in an idyllic rural setting with heaps of animals, and I’m again surrounded by a great bunch of students. Hopefully I can redevelop my research group and keep juggling all those things I love to do.
At the moment I’m trying to get settled into a very busy and very demanding job so time for research is extremely limited. Mostly I’m just looking after my students at both Monash and La Trobe Universities. They are doing really exciting stuff so I figure I can relax for a while. Hopefully once I get settled I’ll pick up speed and re-engage with the research process. What I’m really interested in is figuring out exactly how companion animals improve the quality of life of ordinary people. What is it about our furry friends that keeps us coming back for more – even though pet ownership is becoming increasingly difficult? And how can we use animals more effectively to help people disadvantaged either physically, psychologically and/or socially? And how can we convince people to take better care of animals? And then there is the issue of how rural and regional Australians view their pets. Really it just never ends: there are always so many exciting new questions to ask and so many new adventures to be had.