Written by Chagi Weerasena
Hello! My name is Chagi and I’m an ecologist in Brisbane, Australia. My path to becoming an ecologist was not a straight one, it was very much a zig-zig, or a squiggle.
I am a first-generation immigrant of Sri Lankan parents. From a young age I was given medical kits to play with, instructed to attend weekend maths classes and place myself in as many extra-curricula after-school activities as possible. All my parents wanted for me was to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer, the classic South Asian dream. They meant well, through their eyes they were only trying to give me the best options to succeed in life that they lacked in theirs. To their quiet discomfort though, I was an outdoors girl at heart, a water baby, a curious creature. Being a child drawn to water, I wished to be a marine biologist when I grew up. But I was told time and time again, by my parents, teachers and adult figures, that “there are no jobs or money” in marine biology. “You will struggle”, they said, and eight-year-old me did not want to struggle.
At the ripe age of 17 I chose to study Environmental Engineering at university because I enjoyed maths and biology during high school. Because it pleased my parents. Because it sounded smart. Because I would be guaranteed a job. I dropped out halfway into the bachelor’s degree. Don’t get me wrong, I liked engineering, but I knew I wasn’t passionate about it. What I was passionate about was the environment. I couldn’t narrow my passion down to exactly what environmental factor just yet, so I elected to study Environmental Science with a major in Earth Resources (basically geology). Turns out, I didn’t care for rocks. Dropped that major. Turned to Natural Resources (basically soil and water) instead. This I enjoyed. Just enjoyed. Completed my honours thesis on paleoecology and then it was out with uni, and into the real world.
The real world was experiencing a mining bust, which meant that jobs were few far in between. I applied for hundreds of jobs (literally) with the words ‘graduate’ and ‘environmental’ in it. Rejection emails were so ubiquitous that when an email popped up from a company, I automatically assumed that it started with ‘thank you for your application but…’ (and they did). The gut-wrenching search continued for a year and a half. It took a toll on my mental health, constantly thinking that I was not good enough or my grades were not good enough or I’m just doomed to be jobless for life.
My first casual job came to me through a friend of a friend, a way in which I both despised and was grateful for. I hated that nepotism, instead of meritocracy, was the way in. I had seen it happen time and time before and was envious of my friends who were able to abuse this privilege. Now I was one of those sell-outs. But who cares about ethics, hey, because I had a (casual) job! I was working at a private consulting company doing odd-jobs in the environmental department. I enjoyed it. This arrangement lasted about four months before work dried up and they couldn’t offer me anymore.
The friend of a friend who gave me this opportunity had moved to different consulting company and asked if I would like to take on casual work there. I said yes. Casual work turned into a permanent full-time position after a couple of months. I FINALLY HAD AN ADULT JOB. I was placed in the Ecology team, which surprised me as I thought I was more suited to the Environmental Approvals and Management team. I knew nothing about ecology. I took one compulsory course on ecology in my second year of uni. It took me six months to actually put Ecologist in my email signature because I felt like an impostor.
As I was thrown straight into field work, my eyes opened up. Being an ecologist was incredible, I was basically getting paid to hike in remote areas to search for threatened plants and animals! I was working alongside people who had an outlandish passion for botany and wildlife. I learnt a great deal more than what I had learnt in my uni classrooms. Being surrounded by like-minded people was satiating my sombre mind.
That’s not to say that the job is perfect. I struggle to catch up to my colleagues who have demonstrated more experience in the field of ecology. I am a brown female in a white, male-dominated profession and often dismissed when speaking to managerial contractors or property landowners. I struggle to maintain my femininity with fears of being labelled as ‘too girly’. I’m still trying to get over my irrational fear of cane toads. People assume I say oncologist instead of ecologist when I respond to what I do for work and have no idea what an ecologist does. Reporting can be tedious.
But then I think about how much excitement and knowledge this line of work provides me. It brings adventure to my life. I have accessed parts of eastern Australia that few people have tread on. I am able to observe native wildlife in their natural habitat. I am contributing to protecting the environment I grew up in. I am constantly learning and I will continue to do so. I’m still getting there.
For more of Chagi, check out @chagiw_ on Instagram