I have reproduced a recent article about Jacob (who you’ve likely met if you’ve visited Oasis in the past year) here for HCDS newsletter readers. Jacob knows what life is like for students because he is one, completing his PhD in the Flinders Palaeontology Research Group.
We caught up with PhD student, Oasis Project Development Officer and 2023 Staff Award winner Jacob Blokland to ask how jumping the ditch from New Zealand has expanded his horizons, and why he’s living the best of both worlds at Flinders.
What are your roles here at Flinders?
I am a PhD student in the Flinders Palaeontology Research Group studying fossil birds, supervised by Associate Professor Trevor Worthy and Professor Mike Lee. I also have a role as Oasis Project Development Officer at Oasis – Student Wellbeing Centre.
Tell us a little about the journey that led you here.
I come from a small, rural area called Broadfields in Canterbury, New Zealand and have always have an interest in the natural world, especially fossils. Chasing this, my tertiary study concentrated on geology and biological sciences, which I studied at the University of Canterbury. Upon completing my Master of Science there, which focused on the 60 million-year-old fossil penguins from Chatham Island, I jumped the ditch to expand horizons and pursue my passion for avian palaeontology at the world-renowned Palaeontology lab at Flinders.
Coming from a place well-known for its birds, it is perhaps fitting that I have been drawn to study fossil ones! My current research is centred on a cosmopolitan group of birds called rails (including moorhens, coots, swamphens and kin), particularly those that lived 34 to 5 million years ago, during the Oligocene and Miocene. These successful birds are well known for their repeated evolutionary tendency to evolve flightlessness, a condition that can be seen in bones, which makes them a particularly interesting and challenging group to study. My research aims to shed light on the relationships of ancient forms to their living counterparts, and the evolutionary patterns that lead to their modern radiation.
Having arrived at Flinders University as a postgraduate, at an odd time of year, I learned about a lot of support services through word-of-mouth. One of these was the Flinders Community Market at Oasis. Living on a student budget, access to even a small amount of free fruit, vegetables, bread and low-cost pantry items went a long way. Impressed with the initiative, I jumped at the opportunity to be involved when a position became available in late 2021. I have been lucky enough to have been coordinating the Community Market since then, which is student run and operated, and relies on the fantastic work of many compassionate and dedicated volunteers.
We have witnessed substantial growth regarding the numbers of students attending the market, at all times during semesters. This could be attributed to a variety of factors, including the relative relaxation of COVID-related restrictions, the ever-growing high cost of living and food price-hikes in supermarkets, convenience of accessibility on campus, and perhaps some successful promotion and raising awareness across Flinders University. We also hope that increased numbers partly reflect an increased association with this weekly event being for all students and a chance to connect with others, coupled with a decrease in any stigma relating to accessing it.
Over the last year or so, I have had a more involved role at Oasis, including event preparation and running, and the coordination of other programs such as Flinders Mates, which is aimed at connecting domestic and international students as well as tackling isolation and developing intercultural intelligence. On most weekdays you can find me on the reception desk at Oasis, where I am grateful to have the chance to meet and learn from a variety of people from all over the world.
What’s your favourite part about working at Oasis?
Oasis is a welcoming and inclusive place that attracts a like-minded community, and has its own atmosphere. In that way it is more than just a place, but about people—students and staff—as well, and I think that holistic system is the best thing (albeit a wee bit cheesy). My favourite things on any given day could be listening to an especially excellent song that someone is playing on the piano or one of the guitars, having a good chat with someone, observing an especially entertaining game of Jenga or UNO, or helping or being helped in some form. It is easy to finish the day with a smile.
What’s it like working and studying at Flinders?
Flinders is internationally recognised for its palaeontology research, with world-class labs and facilities dedicated to the field. To be in arm’s reach of such a diverse assemblage of fossils, a modern skeletal collection, ability to undertake fantastic field research, and surrounded by a great community of passionate peers with an extensive knowledgebase, is an unparalleled environment for opportunities and learning.
Oasis – Student Wellbeing Centre is a great place for students to come to relax, have a cuppa, cook and eat food, play games or music, study, and meet people. We also have a range of programs too that have a focus on wellbeing and community, for facilitating and encouraging student success. It is a “home away from home” for many, and seeing students benefit from the range of facilities and activities is very rewarding. I learn lots from the people I meet and opportunities that arise too! Working at Oasis, I hope that being a student myself is beneficial to understanding and relating to other student issues. The Good Vibes of the place are contagious, and the spill-over definitely complements my study and other aspects of my life.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I work part-time at Oasis, and the structure of the day there varies depending on what time of the year it is or what events are happening. I am usually stationed at the reception desk to welcome or help anyone who comes down the stairs. A good amount of time may relate to what’s happening that day itself, including running of programs and events, associated coordination of volunteers, social media, or input and organisation of data relating to weekly activities. Other tasks may include helping prepare for events for the near or not-so-near future, and could involve meetings, some graphic design or related paper-work.
After 5pm, I head over to Biological Sciences to work on my PhD. This usually involves looking at bird bones down the microscope and recording information related to the structures observed. The form of a bone can tell us a lot about how the surrounding tissues interacted with it, can inform on functional morphology, behaviour, and ecological inferences, and importantly extends to our understanding of evolutionary relationships when compared with other species. All of this can help bring a fossil back to life.
Who inspires you?
Obi-wan Kenobi maybe? I recently had a good conversation with Dave, the Coordinating Chaplain of Oasis, regarding this subject and we agreed that it is nature that inspires me. Whether it is a bone that has been entombed in earth for 26 million years or a meaningful conversation, these are all part of nature and there is so much to learn from it.
How do you spend your spare time?
I enjoy picking up a pencil and drawing when I can. When we get a spare bit of time my partner, Phoebe (also a palaeontologist), and I enjoy bird watching and hiking. If allowing, we love travelling to more remote areas to camp and appreciate our surroundings.