Fiona Backhouse’s journey leads to 2022 John Cairney Award

A PhD is a challenging but rewarding journey. Three to four years of your life is a long time to dedicate to a single topic, and writing up to 100,000 words is no small undertaking.

For Fiona Backhouse, a PhD candidate in Behavioural Ecology at Western Sydney University’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, receiving the John Cairney Award for Outstanding Student Publication represents the culmination of four years of research into Albert’s lyrebirds.

“I’m thrilled that my paper on the mimicry of Albert’s lyrebirds was awarded the 2022 John Cairney Award for Outstanding Student Publication. It’s really nice to have hard work honoured in this way, and is a boost to my confidence as I continue to pursue an academic career,” said Fiona.

When Fiona’s supervisors, Professor Justin Welbergen and Dr Anastasia Dalziell, secured funding from the US National Science Foundation in partnership with researchers from Cornell University, Fiona gained access to the resources needed to undertake her chosen thesis project and was set on the path towards her PhD.

With the expertise of her supervisors and a trip to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where many acoustic analysis techniques are developed, Fiona learned new skills in fieldwork and analysing acoustic data that would be instrumental for her research.

“Before beginning my PhD, I knew I wanted to research animal behaviour, but I was open to both the topic and the species. While looking around for opportunities, I saw an advertisement for a project studying geographic variation in the song and dance displays of Albert’s lyrebirds. Growing up in lyrebird country and with a background in music, I was immediately hooked. I’d always been fascinated with the mimicry of lyrebirds, and here was a chance to delve deeper into that world.”

Dedicating four years of her time and energy to studying the vocal behaviours of the elusive Albert’s lyrebird, Fiona spent several months each year sneaking after lyrebirds in their rainforest habitat, and many hours at a computer pouring over sound recordings.

“All PhDs are challenging, and there were times when I wondered if I’d made the right choice and if I would be  able to stick it out. I was able to persevere through the joy of spending time in the field observing lyrebirds, the excitement of finding the answers to my research questions, and the support of my supervisors and fellow students.”

The Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment’s John Cairney Award for Outstanding Student Publication is awarded annually for a published student paper of exceptional scholarship. Professor John Cairney was Director of the Centre for Plants and the Environment, which was the predecessor to the Institute. He is remembered as a great mentor and advisor to young researchers, and always placed great emphasis on higher degree by research students’ publishing in high-quality journals.

Fiona’s winning article, Higher-order sequences of vocal mimicry performed by male Albert's lyrebirds are socially transmitted and enhance acoustic contrast, appearing in the March issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, is available to download and read here (opens in a new window).


11 April 2023

Media Unit

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