Still Curious S1E7 - Kathryn Harris

Kathryn Harris00:00

taking that step just so far outside of what I'd ever expected in my life. I'd always thought it was going to be high school and then university and then be a music teacher. And then when I moved to somewhere all in the middle of nowhere, red sand everywhere, no other town within coo-ee, no family within a few hours.

It was an absolutely pivotal moment in my life about growing as a person, understanding the importance of friendships, sitting in sand dunes in the middle of the night, watching a storm just roll across this massive landscape. It opened up the world to me. And feeling that sense of community around me and feeling supported again and loved and joyous enabled me to then go on from there and have the courage to do a lot more.

Danu Poyner00:55

You're listening to the still curious podcast with me, Danu Poyner. My guest today is Kathryn Harris, who is a hydro-geologist at Origin Energy in Queensland, Australia. Kathryn has a wealth of experience in the private energy sector around water quality, earth science, geophysics, and water resource management.

And she's recently been involved in setting up one of the largest and most complex aquifer injections schemes in the country. I met Kathryn when we were both working on a systems implementation project at Bond University. In this episode, we discuss how Kathryn got her love of geology and the environment and the path that took her through dropping out of music school and waitressing in outback Australia to managing multimillion dollar groundwater projects.

We hear about the time Kathryn found a search party waiting for her after getting lost in the wilderness and her thoughts on what it's like to be an environmentalist working for an energy company on coal seam gas projects. This is my most wide ranging and surprising conversation to date and it's also a very personal and emotional one.

We cover how low points in life can open up surprising new pathways, filling your own cup and the dangers of putting too much of yourself into work, the importance of a nurturing environment for learning and what it's like to be a mum to a curious little boy. If that weren't enough, Kathryn also shares her experiences of diversity and inclusion in the energy sector and the challenges of moving from being a specialist out in the field to being a manager behind the desk. We hear about singing in a barbershop quartet and at one point we even have to pause the conversation because Catherine has just seen a whale. This one has a bit of everything and I hope you'll forgive a couple of small audio glitches towards the end. Enjoy! It's Kathryn Harris coming up right after the music break on today's episode of the Still Curious podcast.

Hi Kathryn. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast. How are you?

Kathryn Harris03:15

Good Danu, how are you this morning?

Danu Poyner03:16

Oh really well, thank you. I've got so much to ask you, so I'm just going to jump straight into it if it's all right with you. You describe yourself as a hydro-geologist with experience in water, quality and earth science, petroleum geology, geophysics, and water resource management.

That sounds like a terribly impressive bunch of things. How would you explain maybe what hydro-geology is? I always like to ask people how to explain these things to a 10 year old.

Kathryn Harris03:48

Yeah. So I fell into hydrogeology. What it is, basically a geologist. I love looking at rocks and finding out about the history of the earth really by looking at the rocks, but then I specialize a little bit more by looking at the water that's in those rocks.

So I guess if you imagine a kitchen sponge, it looks quite solid but then it can soak up quite a lot of water. Rocks in the ground are often the same or they might have fractures that they have water in and hydro-geology is really finding out more about that water. So you might be wondering how old it is or where it originally came from.

You might be looking at it from a resource point of view. So, how much water can we use from a particular rock, which we might call an aquifer, which is the rocks that have water in them. So lots of people out on the land, like landowners might need water for their cattle. So they'd drill a bore and they need to know how much water they're going to get out of that bore for instance.

So that's, one of the things that we do looking at water resources, also water quality as well. So there's a whole variety of things that hydrogeologists do. And I just find it ties back into that story of formation of the earth and where does this water come from? How did it originally get there?

I work a lot out in the great artesian basin and Roma itself, which is one of the main towns out there, their main water source is from the precipice sandstone aquifer. And that water is a million years old. So it was going into the ground many years ago and here they are pulling it out and drinking it. And I just think that fascinating.

Danu Poyner05:38

Yeah, that's really interesting. I like what you said about being able to see the history of the earth through rocks. That's not something I had personally considered before. Have you always been interested in geology in that way?

Kathryn Harris05:52

So no, not always.

I was a late bloomer. I was intending to become a music teacher really but then, when I went back to university, when I was around my mid twenties, I picked up geology as my fourth subject as something that, oh yeah, sure, I'll do this and just loved it just from the very first lecture. Our lecturer was a man by the name of Clive Burrett and I'm just so blessed that he was my first ever lecturer in my first lecture in geology because his passion, very dry sense of humor but he did have a passion for geology, and the way that he talked about the formation of the earth and the history of the earth and the things that we can learn and how human kind is really such a tiny portion of earth timescales, it just hooked me. He, yeah, just really hooked me, even though I hadn't really had much exposure to formal learning of geology before anything, like I'd always liked bushwalking and being out in nature.

But that really hooked me.

Danu Poyner07:12

Yeah. Wow. So was there a moment when you were, were you sitting in a lecture or there was a moment when the whole world of geology was revealed to you it sounds like?

Kathryn Harris07:23

I think that first lecture absolutely sparked my passion. Cause I, I remember it so distinctly and then as I went through university, geology is a very small community in a way, and a very close community and so I really liked that about it as well. I liked the sense of community amongst geologists and they're very, terrible pun, but down to earth

Danu Poyner07:48

I was going to make a pun about having a dry sense of humor before but we'll let it pass.

Kathryn Harris07:52

Can I just interject and say, there's a whale jumping out of the water down in front of me. Wow. Which is quite interesting. So yeah, and then, as I went along, it was a sense of humanity, but also just. Everything I learnt just increased my enthusiasm for the subject even more. When we started looking at rocks and minerals through a microscope, it's a world of beauty that you just don't realize.

it's such a small percentage of people in the world that get that experience to look through a microscope at a rock or a mineral, and just see how amazingly beautiful they are and you spin them around and they make different colors. And it's amazing. Yeah.

Danu Poyner08:34

That's really interesting.

I often ask people about what was plan A and I'm already hearing that geology wasn't plan A and that you fell into hydro-geology. So maybe can you tell a little bit about the story of how you fell into things and what you were doing before you accidentally discovered geology at uni.

Kathryn Harris08:54

Yeah. So my, I've had very many plans. It's all right. I'm

Danu Poyner09:02

on plan, double letters, something.

Kathryn Harris09:07

I think some of my original plans when I was young included becoming an actress becoming an astronaut and becoming a park ranger, but I did settle on becoming a music teacher. And that's really what I was aiming towards throughout high school.

Cause I was very dedicated to piano. I played piano quite seriously, classical piano. I always sang as well in choirs or groups, not solo So following high school, I was accepted into the School of Music in Canberra. And so it was sort of a split degree where I would study the music component at the school of music and then I would study the main education degree at University of Canberra. So I lived on campus at ANU and and then caught the bus or rode my bike through the streets of Canberra, out to university of Canberra and did education out there. Now I was, I would say, quite a naive young 18 year old and university really hit me with a blow and I was a bit lost.

I um, wasn't that socially aware. And it was really a very difficult time for me to adjust to living out of home, which was something I'd always thought that I'd be totally fine with. I was quite an independent young girl, I thought. And then the music world at the school of music was just so alien to me.

I'd had an amazing piano teacher, so supportive and loving, and I'd really flourished with her. I'd always felt very safe and very confident in my abilities with her. And then the school of music, I'd imagined that it would be this very nurturing atmosphere where everybody was supportive of each other and encouraging, and it was far from that.

I found it very competitive. I found the teachers there really couldn't care less personally about you. And it just really struck a blow for me and so I only stayed there for six months. And I ended up staying in Canberra for about 12 months and just really hit a bit of a low point in my life.

And so my mom had been talking to a friend whose daughter was working up at Yulara at Uluru. And she said, here's the contact give them a call. See if you can get a job up there cause I'd been waitressing in Canberra. And so I gave them a call and put in an application and off I went to the center of Australia.

It was a bit of a change and it was honestly exactly what I needed. It, it was such an absolute pivotal moment in my life, changing as a person. And I'm just so grateful that I got that experience because I got up there and I was a terrible waitress. I have to say I was hopeless.

I was terrible at talking to people At the cafe that I was working in with the cafe that all the cool people worked in and everyone wanted to work there. And I had a lovely boss who took me aside and he said, look, I think you're a really lovely girl and you've got a great smile. So let's just use it a little bit more.

And he, gave me some ways to talk to customers and so he really helped me out. And so that was a really pivotal moment in changing me as a person. And then from there I tripped around quite a lot and eventually realized that I needed to use my brain a bit more than what I was.

And I had been bushwalking down in Tasmania after year 12 and just absolutely loved it. Absolutely loved it. So I applied for university down there and yeah, got in. And that was the start of the geology journey. I hadn't been planning on studying geology. I was going to do an environmental degree, very focused on zoology and geography.

And as I was signing up for my fourth subject, the lecturer looking at my enrollment for me said, what bloody degree is this, cause it wasn't a bachelor of science. It was some new one they'd brought in, some bachelor of environmental, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah long-winded or I'm sure it never stuck.

And he crossed it out and he said, ah, just do a bachelor of science. They'll be recognized around the world. And he said, do geology as your fourth subject? I bet you'll love it. And we ended up being quite good friends. In fact, we still stay in contact. So he knew what he was talking about.

Danu Poyner14:00

Wow. Yeah, there's a few things that strike me about that story, Kathryn. What's really leaping out to me straight away is the chance encounters and those kind of conversations with particular people like Clive, the lecturer at Tasmania uni the conversation that got you to Uhluru, the piano teacher, these kinds of people who are looking out for you and acting with a bit of care, really having quite an influence on what happened. Is that a fair assessment?

Do you think about it that way?

Kathryn Harris14:28

Absolutely. I knew it was very interesting when I was reflecting on your questions and thinking you know, what's my plan and, what has driven my decisions to this point in life. And I'm thinking a lot of it is external factors. As you said, people influencing those decisions may moving into spaces where I feel safe and supported and encouraged.

And so I'm not sure that I'm consciously planning and following a determined pathway so much as, oh, this seems good at the time, I'll take this opportunity. And so bouncing around like that but also I guess, guided a little by my enthusiasms and my, I guess you would say curiosity. It's almost an emotion driven enthusiasm to think.

Wow, that seems really cool. I'm going to go do that for a little while. And this person seems like they're going to be able to support me in that. And if they think this is cool, then let's have a look at it.

Danu Poyner15:37

Yeah. Really powerful stuff. I'm really curious actually what it was like being in Uhluru as some international folk may know it, Ayers rock.

What was that like? How long were you there?

Kathryn Harris15:47

So I've stayed in your Lara, which has the little township near alert for seven or eight months. I think it was, and it doesn't sound very long. As I said it was really quite life-changing. I was a very shy, I was almost depressed at the time, to be honest because of, just everything that had happened in Canberra and such a big life change for me.

And, maybe you know, other people can relate to that too, as they move out of home and life is not exactly as they expect that it's going to be. So when I moved to Yulara and I really had to learn how to be social and come out of my shell and, I started partying and meeting boys and it was just a real eye-opener for me.

And I, I learned how to Maybe they a little bit less serious about things. I was very serious child. I'm still a very serious person, but I just learnt how to have a little bit more fun, I think, and that life didn't have to be so serious and that I could just have fun and maybe, take some time to just do whatever and meet people.

And and that was really important. Make those friendships so actually living out there well, it's again, it's a really strong sense of community because yeah. All in the middle of nowhere. Many people do the resort round, so they'll go work on Hamilton island. They'll go work at Yulara.

There's a trip, around the people we'll do working on various resorts or boats or whatever. And they might know people from various resorts that they've worked on. And so it's quite a tight community. And also the landscape itself is really just something else. It's so unique.

And, I was lucky enough to live there for long enough that I saw it in different seasons that I was able to have, quite a few quiet moments away from tourists away from crowds, sitting in sand dunes in the middle of the night, watching a storm, just roll across this massive landscape.

The sky out there is just part of the landscape because it's such a huge, tangible presence. And when the storms come over, the thunder it reverberates everywhere. It's quite an incredible place. So that too, I think broader sense of pace to me as well. It helped me heal a little from.

Canberra and yeah. And feeling that sense of community around me and feeling supported again and feeling loved and joyous, it was a really wonderful experience to have and enabled me to then go on from there and have the courage to do a lot more.

Danu Poyner18:46

Yeah. Yeah. How many people live in Yulara?

Kathryn Harris18:50

Okay. Oh, good question. I would say a thousand at most, it's just enough people to support the resort. Yeah.

Danu Poyner19:00

And it's how closest the nearest town?

Kathryn Harris19:03

So Alice Springs would be the nearest major town and, ah, it's a good few hours away. I can't remember what is it? Four hours or something?

my sort of came to a bit of a abrupt and cause I was involved in a car accident just outside Alice Springs and had to spend some time in Alice Springs hospital. And then wasn't able to work as much as I had been because I broke my pelvis and and my hip. And that, that sort of determined that, okay, it's time to move on and do some new things.

Danu Poyner19:39

I was going to ask you if there was a moment you decided to move on, but I wasn't expecting it to be so dramatic as that. I'm sorry about the car crash wow. I'm still digesting all of that, Catherine. Could you tell me a little bit about the piano teacher?

Kathryn Harris19:53

Yes. So Cathy Burgess she was amazing and I've sometimes thought I should look her up and just let her know, how influential she was on me because she was really just such a caring person.

And I often reflect, how I would like to be more caring and kind like she was, she taught piano to me in a way that I understood it. So, you know, I was very technically great and I loved the technicalities and that was fantastic, but she also tapped into my emotions, which was pretty amazing that, you know, a woman in her, I imagine she was in her thirties.

That's what is at the time, could still connect so emotionally well to a 16 year old girl going through all the emotions of a 16 year old girl that, we would, I would play these pieces. One was by Mendelssohn song without words. And, we would talk through emotions and situations of each part of the pace and that would really bring it to life for me and brought a depth to my playing.

I feel that other teachers hadn't been able to tap into. And as I said, that sense of security that she gave me, you know, this is another thing that I was reflecting on with your questions. And one of the moments were about when I feel I'm performing my best or when I'm able to create. Is when I do feel supported.

And when I feel that I have the courage to perhaps step outside what I think I'm capable of, because I know that I'm in a supportive environment. And she certainly provided that even though she, you know, provided a lot of challenges as well. So every month we would have a concert and most of the time it was at her place, but there would be other students and their families or their friends.

So you need to perform in front of people, which was very nerve wracking at first. But then as you get more and more used to it then it really built confidence and just such a great opportunity.

Danu Poyner22:07

Yeah. Again really powerful. And I guess. Music schools, losses geologies gain. You've got a very um, palpable sense of the love of the landscape and the environment.

And I guess that was already there. And then geology that's that study moment activated that in a practical way is what I'm guessing. Have you always had that love of the environment?

Kathryn Harris22:32

Yes, absolutely. I would say that was largely due to my parents, particularly my dad we would go camping quite a lot, rather than staying in hotels or fancy places or anything.

Our holidays, where was a lot of camping, which I just loved talking to mom in recent years. It wasn't something she particularly loved. But I just loved it