We all have inner strengths. But we often don’t realise it until we’re forced to tackle a challenge or opportunity head on. And while some people can bounce back from adversity overnight, many of us need to take a more gradual approach as we learn and gain confidence – particularly in our working lives.
This has been the case for Cairns-based research scientist at CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, Dr. Cass Hunter throughout her career journey. As an Indigenous social ecological researcher for CSIRO, she has found the inner strength to navigate her own path to career success.
“A career is a journey of learning and problem solving. It can consume you! Which is why it’s important to develop the right navigation tools to recalibrate your direction and anchor you to your personal and professional goals.”
A young navigator sets sail
As many of us can attest, a successful career takes years of hard work and dedication.
“Being a scientist didn’t appeal to me in high school. I wanted to be a park ranger, working outdoors and protecting the environment, as I didn’t feel inspired by experiments with Bunsen burners and lengthy reports! But CSIRO Marine Division shared information at my high school about an Indigenous cadetship program, and I knew it was a great opportunity.”
At seventeen, Cass applied and successfully secured a position as a CSIRO cadet. After five years, she commenced her PhD while remaining an affiliate to the organization. Then, after successfully completing her postdoctoral fellowship, she returned to the organization full-time.
“I knew it was the right decision when I had my first interview. The panel was so welcoming and open. And when they told me the group plays touch football at lunchtime, I thought wow!”
From cadet to doctor
It hasn’t all been clear sailing. For Cass, completing her PhD was the most challenging time of her life. But, in pushing her past the comfort zone, it resulted in massive personal growth and grew her skills immensely – from public speaking and critical thinking to time management.
“It was a constant refinement process. I repeatedly felt out of my depth from learning something new or developing a new skill. Your research question can change as you discover more details. I’ve thought to myself: ‘surely version 25 has to be the last!’ It can feel like taking two steps forward and two steps back. But it was a great learning and resilience-building experience. I’m proud that I pushed through all the hurdles to achieve my PhD.”
Now, in her current role, Cass leads research on collaborative environmental design and useability. She also manages the uptake of tools, research translation, and develops tools to support sustainable livelihoods and ecosystems. She enjoys developing science, information and tools that are practical, relevant and accessible.
A map, crew and destination
For over a decade, Cass has engaged with inspiring Indigenous young people, rangers, leaders, educators and scholars. She has received invitations to forums, STEMM camps, Indigenous panels and keynote talks.
And if there’s one thing she can teach others, it’s this: “Once you get used to the rollercoaster-like ups and downs, you start to enjoy the challenges. They don’t go away, but you find better strategies to overcome them.”
Cass’s passion for undertaking new learning and leadership opportunities has been the cornerstone of her career success: from changing career paths, to working in different organizational structures, applying for new roles and interacting with senior leadership.
Strong CSIRO mentors have also helped her navigate the complexities of professional and leadership development and gain the confidence to be a voice of change.
Recognizing the unique contributions of Indigenous scientists
Cass champions the value and distinct contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff.
“Indigenous Scientists are creating Indigenous-led change in the sector with their distinct skills. But these skills can be undervalued. They can also sit outside traditional career advancement systems, which can limit people’s progression.”
While it’s great for organizations to designate time to discuss career development, specific roles focused on talent management can challenge the status quo, improve retention and grow internal talent.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders comprise less than 3% of our staff, so we try to position ourselves on the agenda to strengthen Indigenous Talent management. Building champions of change takes time. I’m excited our organization has appointed an Indigenous Talent Acquisition Business Partner. It’s the start of a new chapter of championing commitment, understanding and strategy so we move in the right direction for Indigenous employment.”
Cass is driven to build national and international networks of Indigenous practitioners. This will enable organizations and people to share learnings and place Indigenous people at the heart of environmental and economic co-design and advancements.
Weathering the storms
Moments of adversity, such as not receiving a role, crying from self-doubt, and mastering tough skills, like public speaking, are all part of the process.
“I don’t see these moments as setbacks. The wind returned to my sails, as I know it’s all part of the journey.”
For Dr. Cass, success is a matter of perspective. There is no one way to measure it, and it can evolve over time. She holds the belief it is better to understand the pathways to legacy change by differentiating between short and long-term success.
“Our organization creates opportunities to charter new waters. But there’s always more we can do. We need to advocate for missing navigation tools (agendas for creating long-lasting change). We can do this through inclusive practices, behaviours and mindsets to change the status quo, and leveraging key people internally and externally to reach our destination.
Finding the balance
“In my early career, my primary goals were work milestones. But over the past few years, I’ve spent more time reflecting on career balance and longevity. I’ve created new goals, like: how many small and big adventures can I have with my family in a year? I’ve taken up flexible work arrangements, such as reducing my salary to get additional holidays and working a nine-day fortnight.”
With competing pressures on her time, Cass has been more realistic about the work she can take on – which has meant getting comfortable saying “no” to new requests while juggling multiple commitments.
“I haven’t mastered the juggle, but I definitely understand more about consequences and commitments.”
Overall, it has taken many years of learning and reflection for Cass to identify her driving motivation and purpose: legacy innovation. She is proud to be part of a team catalyzing a new Indigenous Science and Engagement Program in the organization.
“The fire in my belly comes from a desire to create national change to elevate science and advancement outcomes for Indigenous communities and individuals across Australia. It’s crucial to keep pushing the boundaries. Doing so will enable Indigenous leadership to achieve higher levels of influence and pitch ideas directly to senior leaders. I’m motivated to influence key people who direct the agenda. I want to work alongside the next generation of Indigenous leaders. The sky is the limit!
“CSIRO has given me opportunities, mentorship, learning experiences and independence to carve out my role. This independence doesn’t mean I’ve sailed into the sunset. It means I can navigate the strong tides of meeting high expectations and bravely take on tough challenges with purpose, urgency and integrity.”