Nate Anderson: My unexpected path to academia

Nate Anderson: My unexpected path to academia

In our latest post, Nate Anderson—a researcher at the University of Western Australia—discusses the healing and regenerative benefits of time spent in nature, working in majestic Red Tingle forests, and the dangerous aspects of fieldwork in his study site.


I have followed a roundabout path to research. In 2008, my best friend committed suicide. I didn’t know how to process my grief or come to grips with his decision. Spending time outside was the only thing that provided me with a sense of normalcy, and I threw myself into it. For about ten years, I took a variety of outdoor education and guiding jobs which allowed me to spend as much time outside as possible.

Posing for an action photo in front of a Red Tingle tree. It’s usually surrounded by much thicker vegetation, but this one was cleared around in preparation for an upcoming prescribed burn (credit: Kiera Bryan)

In 2016, I took a group of university students on a 45-day backpacking trip through the remote Kimberley region in NW Australia. We were dropped off at Mornington Wilderness Camp within the Mornington-Marion Downs conservation sanctuary managed by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). Conveniently, there was an ecology presentation the day we arrived. We learned about the savanna grasslands we were about to walk through, and how AWC was working with local Indigenous groups to re-introduce a mosaic of patchy fires to the landscape. I was fascinated by the work they were doing and excited to start walking. Over the next month and a half, we walked through some beautiful country. I loved walking through the grasslands and arriving at waterfalls cascading into small pools. 

On longer trips, it can be hard to stay positive the whole time. The physical challenges can bring up emotional responses. Students sign up for these trips for a wide variety of reasons, but typically there is an underlying desire for growth and development as a person. On this trip, I helped a few of our students work through some emotionally challenging days. At some point, I realised how far I had come in processing my own grief due to the time I’d spent adventuring outside. I owe so much of who I am as a person to time spent in nature. While working through my grief, nature was my medicine. It still is.

A typical dirt road through some Red Tingle forest (left), and sunset in Nornalup inlet after fieldwork (credit: Nate Anderson)

When I got back from my trip, I enrolled at Murdoch University in Perth to complete an undergraduate degree that I had abandoned many years before. I am now in the final year of my PhD at the University of Western Australia–Albany, where I am researching the vulnerability of Red Tingle Forest within a rapidly warming/drying climate. 

All of that is a relatively long-winded way to say—I strongly believe in the value of spending time in nature and am passionate about best practice land management for conservation.

Where in the world are you?

I live and work in the stunningly beautiful south coast of Western Australia. I’m based out of the UWA-Albany campus, and my field sites are about a 90-minute drive west near the small town of Walpole. For the past two summers, I’ve tried to mostly base myself in Walpole and then focus on office-based work in the winter.

Presently, I’m working to better understand the vulnerability of Red Tingle trees (Eucalyptus jacksonii) to future climate scenarios. These narrow range endemic forest giants are foundational species for approximately 5,600ha of Red Tingle forest. They are confined to loamy soils in a high rainfall zone along the south coast of Western Australia, making them the wettest forest ecosystem in the southwest and contributing to an infrequent natural fire regime. I am looking at two main things: 1) How fire impacts their structural integrity, and 2) Plant physiological functioning across seasons and during heatwaves.

To help me explore tree structure, I’ve taught myself to draw trees. Special thanks to all the YouTube tutorials out there (credit: Nate Anderson)

Since at least the 1990s, there have been concerns that the propensity of Red Tingle trees to develop extensive hollows at their base make them susceptible to increases in fire frequency. Fire history data extends back to 1953 for Red Tingle forests, which allows me to stratify my sampling by the number of times burnt over the past 70 years. Most of my work is pretty straightforward and involves measuring tree diameters and characterising hollow butting for each tree. I want to know if forest stands with more frequent fires are more likely to have hollow butting, and if those hollows are likely to be bigger.

I’ve been very fortunate with my plant physiology work because there is a pre-existing tree top walk through some Red Tingle forest. During the early hours of the morning, I go out with a ‘pressure bomb’ to measure leaf water potentials (it is actually called a Scholander type pressure chamber). The pressure bomb is a little blue suitcase with a gauge, attachments for nitrogen gas, and a metal chamber. I can secure a leaf in the chamber with the stem exposed, pressurise the chamber and find out how tightly water is held within the leaf. It’s elegant in its simplicity, and especially fun because it looks like a dodgy suitcase from a 1970s movie. My favourite part of the work is watching the sunrise over the forest. The forest comes alive with chirping birds as the sun creeps over the horizon. It is a really special time and I always feel fortunate when I’m able to watch the sunrise over the tingle forest from within the canopy.

Tips for field work

Unsurprisingly, I love field work. I love everything about being outside, even when it is uncomfortable. However, traveling between plots involves walking through wet eucalypt forest with a dense understory of the aptly named ‘sword grass’ (Lepidosperma effusum). I liken it to spending an hour in the bathtub and then running my hands and arms through a papercut gauntlet. The sword grass is incredibly effective at hiding fallen logs. The biggest one I have unexpectedly fallen over was about 60cm diameter. So, I have had to learn to walk a bit slower, because, controversially, I really don’t like tripping and falling through sword grass.

Sunrise from the tree top walk (top), the pressure bomb in action (left) and a top down view from the tree top walk (right) note Louis Ashton at the base of the Tingle tree. (Top and bottom right by Nate Anderson; Left by Joe Fontaine)

The biggest challenge is my imagination. I grew up in a part of the US where there weren’t many snakes. So, for instance, when I saw this tiger snake slither from the road into the rough area I wanted to go, my mind immediately turned every stick and shadow into a snake. It’s incredibly hard to walk through dense forest when everything suddenly looks like a snake under my foot. They’re beautiful snakes though, and I love seeing them (from a distance).

A beautiful tiger snake (Notechis scutatus) basking in the road before making its way into my field sites (credit: Nate Anderson)

Aside from the sword grass, the most likely thing to actually hurt me is a bull ant. For those of you unfamiliar with bull ants, they’re a large and aggressive species of ant here in Australia. Most of the time we encounter one or two of them at a time and they’re fairly easy to avoid.  Unfortunately for me, they love building their nests in the accumulated bark at the base of Red Tingle trees. I’ve lost count of how many bull ant nests I’ve discovered, but the most memorable one involved me being surprised with 4 or 5 on my arm and dropping my tape measure, right on their nest. The tape was covered in 50+ ants before I could pick it up. My first thought was to use a stick to move it into safety, but the DBH tape is quite large (it needs to measure 5m diameter trees) and all the sticks were too rotten and fell apart. Luckily, the ants didn’t fully claim my DBH. So, after an early lunch, I was able to quickly grab the DBH and run away. 

The future

My future adventures are all about experiencing life through a new set of eyes. My better half recently gave birth to our son, and I’m really excited to watch him discover the world. There are so many incredible places out there, and I want to make sure we are looking after them as best we can for the next generation. 

Leave a comment

Send a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *