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Elizabeth’s ‘big picture’ view on life

Elizabeth Leane

Elizabeth Leane

As a double degree graduate, 1995 Rhodes Scholar Elizabeth Leane was able to combine her science and literature degrees in unexpected ways while studying at Oxford – and learn from such luminaries as Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking and Salmon Rushdie.

Name: Elizabeth Leane

Secondary and tertiary education details:BSc, BA (Hons) – University of Adelaide; MSt, DPhil – University of Oxford

Why did you choose Adelaide for your undergraduate degree?
I was born in country South Australia and although I spent the last four years of secondary school in NSW, I decided to return to Adelaide for university. Both my brothers were studying there at the time. I felt connected to the place and confident about the quality of education I would receive.

Apart from your academic qualifications, how did your experience at the University of Adelaide shape you as a person?
Socially it was an important time. I made friends – through my university subjects and through living at a residential college, Aquinas – with whom I am still in touch. I met a far wider variety of people than I’d come across before, which was both enjoyable and challenging.

Details of scholarships (including Rhodes and any others)
During my science degree I was supported by a Comalco Smelting Scholarship for Women in Science and Engineering, which also provided me with summer work experience. In 1994 I received the John L. Young Scholarship for Research, awarded to the most promising student in the Humanities entering Honours. I won a Rhodes Scholarship in 1995.

Describe your time at Oxford – what were the standout memories?
It is challenging to identify just a few memories as the whole experience was standout. My first encounter with Oxford – arriving jet-lagged and apprehensive, very early on a misty autumn morning, and pulling my suitcase through the Magdalen College grounds, up Addison’s Walk, past a meadow where deer were grazing – had the quality of a lovely dream.

The beauty of the city is breathtaking: simply strolling to the Bodleian library on a snowy winter day, or eating a sandwich in Exeter College gardens, overlooking the Radcliffe Camera, was unforgettable.

I loved living in a city where I could walk or ride a bike to most places I needed to go. On an intellectual level, being able to hear and sometimes meet internationally influential politicians, writers and thinkers was a highlight: I remember listening to Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Stephen Hawking, among others.

Equally important were the social events with highly engaging postgraduate students from all over the world – punting on the Cherwell, formal dinners, college events. Again, I made some close and enduring friendships during the time. Academically, I benefited from Oxford’s openness to new approaches: I was able to combine my science and literature degrees in unexpected ways, and I met well-known scientists and science writers, such as Susan Greenfield.

What has been your career path since then?
I had always wanted to be an academic, and I was keen to return to Australia after I finished my degree. I was fortunate to find a position almost immediately in the English program at the University of Tasmania. It suits me very well and I’ve worked there ever since. I’ve developed a research interest in the Antarctic and my most recent book is entitled Antarctica in Fiction. For the next four years I’m taking up a research fellowship split between English and the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.

How has the Rhodes Scholarship changed your life?
It has changed my life in multiple ways. It presented an opportunity to study overseas at a centre of culture and learning, which in turn gave me a “big picture” view of the world which I could never have developed otherwise. It has also provided me with a community: I have been involved with local and national Rhodes groups and the selection process for Tasmania, so there is a rewarding sense of passing on the experience to others.

Advice to incoming students to gain the most from their time at university
Initiative is a key factor. You need to understand that you are in charge of your own learning – lectures and tutes will point you in the right direction, but they also rely on you doing your own independent research, reading and thinking. Time management is vital. Success at university doesn’t mean studying all the time; you need to find a balance between socialising, exercise, leisure activities and paid work. This means figuring out how many hours you need to study, guarding those hours carefully and using them productively.

Any tips for new graduates on choosing their employment path?
I think it is important to be open minded and to understand that there are usually multiple routes to where you want to go. While I was lucky enough to find a job I wanted quickly, I had several contingency plans. I’d had interviews with publishing houses and talked to people in the public service. I knew I was interested in writing, research and the humanities, but I also knew that becoming fixated on one specific goal could be counter productive.

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