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Cherie Colyer-Morris: How being an intern in Indonesia changed my view of science

Man and woman standing in water in front of an island.
Cherie Colyer-Morris (right) with her supervisor, Pak Saipul, in front of the island of Pulau Badi in South Sulawesi.

Supplied: Cherie Colyer-Morris

Marine science student Cherie Colyer-Morris spent six months working as an intern on a marine sustainability project in Indonesia in 2015. It's had a profound impact on her career ever since.

Cherie Colyer-Morris has a passion for marine science.

"I'm very curious about understanding our coastal and marine ecosystems, and our interactions with [those] ecosystems," she says.

It was on a short trip to Indonesia, as part of her undergraduate studies at the University of Newcastle, that she first witnessed some of the marine sustainability challenges facing developing communities.

"I… volunteered on a community outreach program, so it introduced me to the sustainability issues that are actually present in communities," she says.

"[These issues] would have relatively simple solutions had there been… a way to instigate them."

Cherie became interested in the interface between science and society, and what creates behavioural change.

"Even though you've got a scientific answer that doesn't mean anything until you're able to apply it, and the people are able to adopt it on their own."

Later in her degree, Cherie got the opportunity to return to Indonesia for a six month internship, as part of a New Colombo Plan scholarship.

The New Colombo Plan aims to deepen Australia's relationships with other countries in the Indo-Pacific region, through people-to-people and institution-to-institution links.

"It was a very-early-haven't-finished-university-yet sabbatical," she laughs.

Female scuba diver in front of a coral reef.
In the office: Cherie working on the Pulau Badi reef restoration project.

Supplied: Cherie Colyer-Morris

Cherie interned with Mars Symbioscience Indonesia, who are currently running the world's largest coral reef restoration project.

Indonesia has a lot of degraded coral reef ecosystems because of destructive fishing practices like cyanide fishing and blast fishing, says Cherie.

With cyanide fishing, fishermen inject cyanide into the coral to stun ornamental fish species, making them easier to collect for market. But the practice has harmful consequences.

"The habitat dies because you've just poisoned it and the fish dies about a month later, so that the person who's purchased it - they lose too," says Cherie.

"The environment loses, the consumer loses, it's just not a sustainable industry using that method."

A group of people sitting in a circle outside.
A focus group discussion being run by Cherie's team as part of their social research project.

Supplied: Cherie Colyer-Morris

As well as working on restoring the coral reefs, Mars Symbioscience also works with the communities that rely on them.

It was this social research, surveying the local communities in collaboration with NGOs and universities to build a community profile, that Cherie was involved in.

"You can develop a really fantastic way to restore coral," she says, "but whether or not you've addressed the issues in society to actually change the behaviours [so that it doesn't keep recurring], that's the main question of whether or not it's going to be a successful project."

The company helps communities find alternative livelihoods, so it's a holistic, multi-faceted approach to tackle the problem of coral reef degradation.

"Instead of fishermen going into… the ocean to use the cyanide and collect the fish, how about they're able to culture the fish themselves?" asks Cherie.

Woman looking at an aquaculture tank.
Visiting the small-scale aquaculture facilities on Pulau Badi, part of Mars Symbioscience' alternative livelihoods approach.

Supplied: Cherie Colyer-Morris

She says through working on this project she's gained an entirely different perspective on marine sustainability issues.

"When you manage fisheries, you don't manage fisheries, you manage people, so you need to have that insight."

While working in another culture presented regular hurdles to overcome like language barriers, understanding how to address someone correctly according to their social status and navigating transport systems in a developing country, Cherie says it was an incredible and rewarding experience.

It's had a big influence on her future career plans.

"It's reaffirmed my passion and interest in working on projects which are directly related to the community, particularly marine sustainability projects in developing communities," she says.

"I want to seek out projects which I know have a way of benefiting a community."

"That's a very important personal thing for me… the value of the project to impact and improve people's lives."

Group of people taking a selfie on a beach at sunset.
One of the many stunning sunsets Makassar has to offer.

Supplied: Cherie Colyer-Morris

"It's also linked me with some incredible people," says Cherie, both professional contacts and new friends.

And it's affected the way she approaches being a scientist too.

"It's changed the way I view science," she says. "It's changed the way I perceive science."

"It's changed my life and I'm very grateful."

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