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Scholarship drives Emma's environmental impact

International ecologist Emma Dale is in no doubt as to the positive impact of receiving a Griffith Futures Scholarship in 2016.

"It taught me to be confident again. It meant the world wasn't just something I hoped to explore; it made that exploration possible," she says.

Emma is now making her own positive impact via a scientific career that has included environmental projects in France, Mongolia, Nepal and Tasmania. Her next stop is Oxford University.

In Nepal she founded the Red Panda Trust, a non-profit charity which connects research to conservation for the endangered red panda.

In Mongolia she worked with the Steppe Forward environmental movement, thriving in this enigmatic land of wolves, marmots, wild horses and bears. In the field, Emma lived in a felt-covered tent called a ger, while outside the temperature could plummet to -30°C.

Since returning from Mongolia in 2017, Emma has been in Tasmania doing PhD research and working as a National Parks Discovery Ranger. Her particular interest is the welfare of the iconic but also vulnerable Tasmanian devil.

Yet none of this might have been possible without her Griffith Futures Scholarship, part of an initiative which helps Griffith University students who are excelling in their studies despite personal or financial hardship.

Emma always dreamt of being an ecologist, and as she studied for a Bachelor of Science (Ecology and Conservation Biology) she was moving ever closer to making that dream come true. However, fate had other ideas.

With her father not on the scene and her mother unable to help financially, it was always a struggle for Emma to meet expenses. Had it not been for the support of her grandfather — coincidentally a Griffith University academic — Emma admits she doesn’t know what may have happened.

“I was effectively raised by my grandfather, Michael Dale. He lectured in the School of Environment at Griffith and was a big reason behind why I became an ecologist,” says Emma.

“When he passed away in 2014, I was 18 and felt very much alone. I was so close to him and his loss hit me very hard. I managed to graduate at the end of that year, but I also felt lost."

Aimless and dispirited, Emma found herself working as a dog trainer in Tasmania. Then Griffith re-entered her life.

Invited to do Honours, Emma again pondered how she could possibly afford to relocate to Queensland. Thankfully, receiving her Griffith Futures Scholarship served as both a key and a catalyst.

"There was a time when I thought my entire dream was over," she says. "The scholarship helped me believe in myself again, because it revealed that other people believed in me. I cannot thank them enough."

Emma travelled to Europe for her Honours project, assessing invertebrate communities in the French Pyrenees. But her scholarship also enabled much more.

“In my work, I gather a lot of data, analyse a lot of research and measure a lot of findings and theories," she says.

"I don't think I could measure the impact of my scholarship. It brought me out of my shellshock, reawakened my energy and commitment, and helped take me where I am today."

Where Emma goes next is another exciting prospect.

In December 2017, she was awarded a prestigious John Monash Scholarship, recipients of which are chosen for their significant leadership potential, outstanding performance in their chosen fields and aspirations to make the world a better place.

Starting in October, Emma will join Oxford University to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy (Zoology) studying the wild badgers of Oxford's Wytham Wood.

"Wytham Wood sounds like something out of a children's story, but the scientific implications are more serious," says Emma. "By using badgers as a model, and focusing on their gut microbiota, I hope to gather invaluable insight into what makes all carnivores tick."

Emma has much to look forward to. Occasionally, however, she does look back.

“All the things I've been able to do, all of them, I owe in some part to my time at Griffith and the support I received there," she says.

"I'm grateful for my mum and grandfather, who I try to honour every day. And I'm grateful for my scholarship, which I continue to value and strive to show myself as having been a worthy recipient."