Solo in Sichuan

It’s been a few months now since I visited China and I’ve been a bit slow in getting my thoughts down. I will start by saying that China isn’t on my “visit again” list. At least not any time soon. It’s not that I hated my experience or anything to that level, but it wasn’t as enjoyable as I had hoped. I didn’t thoroughly enjoy my trip, but I am glad I went. The experience was meaningful, some of the people were wonderful, and the mountains were mystical.

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The Merriwa Ringer

I wrote this article for my old high school newspaper that is doing a where are they now section. I read an article from a previous student who has only been out of school for a few years, whereas I’ve been out for over 15. I wanted to be honest, I wanted to tell my side of my story, of my life after I left high school. Some people felt my article was too negative and put my school in a bad light. I copy the article below for you to make your own mind up. 

Eliza Middleton

Class of 2002 | Lab Manager and Post-Doc, Invertebrate Behaviour and Ecology Lab

I graduated from Merriwa Central School in 2002 in a surprisingly large graduating class for our small town. I can’t say that I have kept in close contact with anyone from those days (nor that there wasn’t a fair amount of bullying back in those final years), but with the reach of the internet it has been relatively easy to get updates on how my classmates lives have changed over the years. Whilst it’s true that friendships formed during high school can be long lasting, if you are one of the few who don’t feel like you have particularly close friends, if you feel like you don’t fit in, don’t let that worry you. There is a big wide world out there and plenty of opportunities to discover the things you enjoy and the people you want to be around. Continue reading

Namaste Nepal

Nepal had always been on my list, but not really near the top. Not for any particular reason mind you, it just wasn’t where I thought I would travel next. When the opportunity arose, I was hesitant at first to commit, possibly because the first iteration of the trip was to mountain bike through Nepal and though potentially enjoyable, not something I could realistically train for whilst living in Sydney (I found this out during Timor). Eventually I was able to organise my thoughts and say yes to what turned out to be a truly touching and enlightening experience. However, it didn’t start out that way. Continue reading

Touring Timor-Leste

I hadn’t ever really considered travelling to Timor-Leste when day dreaming about the holidays I would take, but when a friend said, “Hey, want to do a 5 day mountain bike race with me in East Timor?” I said “Heck yes”. I have to admit I was ignorant of almost everything to do with Timor-Leste, it simply hadn’t registered in my mind. I knew vague things, like oil disputes and that there was a violent history, the Balibo 5, but I hadn’t ever taken the time to learn about this country. Heck, I didn’t even realise it was a country separate from Indonesia and my ignorance in this aspect really humiliated me. I was determined to change this during my visit.

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Resilience is innate, you either have it or you don’t

Yesterday I attended a short conference as part of the Swiss Re Dialogue Series. The theme of the day was Resilience, something that I am passionately interested in, approaching from a social insect and behavioural view point. When I was asked to join a debate to close out the day, I was a little hesitant, a little nervous, yet my brain did not tell my mouth and I realised I’d told Amanda “hell yes” before I had finished reminding myself of the awkward debates I undertook during high school. To then discover I was to debate a topic I was a bit of a fence sitter for then made it a little more difficult. I had to convince my audience that “Resilience is Innate” at a conference where it was championed that resilience is learnt. It’s difficult to convince someone of something you don’t believe so I had to do my best to somewhat believe it too. I took a look at what I know best, biology.

The first part felt easy. For us to have survived as long as we have, to have evolved and be a functioning, reproducing species, well, that’s innate. Those first cells that graced this planet 3.8 billion years ago couldn’t think, couldn’t learn, they could only survive the challenges presented to them through chemical reactions. Those with greater genetic diversity were more adaptable, more resilient to the dramatic changes of our young volatile earth, so they passed on that resilience to the next generation. In this instance, resilience is innate.

Moving forward, it still felt easy. Looking at more complex systems, like the social insects I know well, it felt easy to demonstrate that the success of networks within colonies is due to the innate resilience of the species. For example, a honey bee colony has a generally tightly controlled internal temperature. This is to allow for the safe development of the brood (offspring), but also to evaporate water from nectar to turn it into honey. To regulate the colony temperature, honey bees engaging in a fanning behaviour. They arch their backs and beat their wings to cool the hive. No one is telling them to do this. There is no grand plan, or internal thermostat that switches the fanning on and off, but those colonies that don’t fan, that can’t regulate their temperature overheat and die. Those that can fan, and fan effectively, survive and pass on their genes. The propensity to fan is dependent on an individual bees genetic response threshold. To put it into human terms, imagine you are living with someone and you find the dishes are piling up in the sink. It’s driving you crazy, but you’re sick of being the one to always do the washing up. What’s happening is that your response threshold for the sight of dirty dishes is lower than your housemate. They can allow the dishes to pile higher before they are triggered into action. We can demonstrate in bees that this kind of response threshold is genetically determined. Amongst the members of a colony we see variability, individuality if you will, and those colonies with more genetic diversity are capable of moderating brood temperatures more effectively than those colonies with less genetic diversity. Their resilience in the face of changing environmental temperatures, that is, their ability to cope with a really hot summer and still raise brood and make honey, is dependent on the innate diversity within their genes. In this instance, resilience is innate.

But then it got hard. Then it got emotive. But, in the process I had convinced myself that resilience is innate. Coming to the end of the debate, I really believed resilience is innate, but let me elaborate on this, as it’s not as clean cut as you may imagine. I spoke about our fight versus flight responses. These are instincts, these are innate, and it’s undeniable that this innate resilience is what allowed our species to survive and flourish. The idea that we learn resilience was claimed to be demonstrated by our ability to now predict situations and plan for them. Climate change, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, accidents and illness, we have studied the situations, the potential scenarios and can make plans to be resilient in the face of these disasters, to recover from adversity and to improve should we be faced with a similar situation in the future. We can build our houses above predicted flood lines, we can get the right kind of insurance policy, we can stop eating bad food to prevent that early heart attack. All this because we have learnt. So maybe resilience can be learnt?

At this point, I felt the debate was unwinnable, but I had managed to convince myself that resilience was innate and that there was an explanation I was missing here. Then I realised, learning is innate. As we evolved from those simple creatures responding to chemical changes, stepping up to a more complex organism that responds to the local interactions of it’s immediate environment, we developed cognition. Our brains became more sophisticated and those who could learn, who were genetically predisposed to learn, to remember, to recognise a pattern, to plan, those were the ones would could survive, those were our resilient ancestors that passed on that innate ability to learn to us all, which has allowed us to reach the level of society we are at today. We can look to our genes to discover why some people will recover from trauma whilst others may not, why it is more difficult for some to learn than others. Now, this is not to say that those who have experienced a traumatic event, or those who have a developmental disability are less resilient or less important than those who have not, but more to highlight that it’s complex. The success of someone’s recovery from trauma, the success of someone with a learning difficulty, also depends on how they are nurtured. In their environment is it supportive? Are they able to access resources they require? Are they being taught in a way that will enable them to learn, as we all do learn differently? I guess I argue that our ability to recognise that, to be able to compensate for those genetic differences, comes from our ability to learn, which is innate within us.

What makes us resilient is innate. To be resilient in my eyes, we have to be able to withstand, to recover and adapt from adversity, and in order to do that, we need to be able to learn. Humans are incredibly diverse creatures, and if it weren’t for our diversity, for the myriad of personalities and attitudes we see around us every day, we would not be as successful or as resilient moving forward into an ever changing world.

I had a fantastic time at the Swiss Re Dialogue Series, and it highlighted to me more than ever that we need to encourage interdisciplinary communication. There were many things I learnt that were analogous to systems I am familiar with in social insects, and though not a proxy for human systems, I believe we have plenty to learn on all sides of the resilience debate.

A massive well done to the opposing team who took home the win, a massive thank you to my team for their support and banter, and also to the organisers and the people who attended. I felt so welcomed and included, and intend to develop a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to my research on resilience moving forward.





Media stints – Insect resilience and pest management

I wouldn’t say I’m shy, but I do get nervous when talking in front of a large group of people. The usual things cross my mind, worried I’ll get a tough question, that I’ll forget all these things I study and know, that I may even phrase something incorrectly and offend someone. Mostly, I worry about looking like an idiot. But, more important to me than avoiding looking like an idiot, is the outreach itself. I am passionate about getting science out there, about translating my work, the work of those around me, into something relatable, doing away with all the jargon that you need to publish and making the science accessible.

Recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few radio interviews as well as invited talks. I can’t speak highly enough of those who have interviewed me and those who have hosted my self indulgent chats about the science I love so dearly. Two that you can follow up on, if you’re so interested, are with Richard Glover on ABC 702 Drive. Richard is a really great interviewer, helping you to feel instantly relaxed and confident. I have had two stints as part of Self Improvement Wednesdays (SIW), a short segment aimed at learning something new, and loved every minute of it.

My first SIW segment came on the heels of a review Tanya Latty and I published in March of this year. Surprisingly, this review was really well received, and the media ran with it. Trying to get resilience in social insect infrastructure systems to sound a bit more interesting to a wider audience felt daunting at first, but then I realised it’s actually incredibly relatable. When we break social insect systems down we start to pinpoint factors that contribute to the colony resilience. In a sense, it’s similar to looking at the components that make up a computer network, or the neurons in our brain. On their own, these components or neurons can’t really achieve much, and neither can a single ant, but when we take these things together we start to see complex emergent behaviours, and these behaviours add to the resilience of an insect colony. For more detail, click on the linked radio interview above, or the article I wrote for The Conversation.

The second SIW segment was a little closer to home. I grew up on a farm about 2 hours west of Bourke, so literally, I am from the Back o’ Bourke. Growing up on this farm I saw many changes in practices and alternative approaches to pest management that didn’t necessarily rely on the chemicals and pesticides that are so readily available to farmers. My second interview was an attempt to turn the buzz word phrase “Integrated Pest Management” (IPM) into what it really is – alternative methods of pest control that do not rely heavily on chemical usage. I thoroughly enjoyed this segment and I am passionate about this topic. I’ve seen how our environment is changing, how our land management practices are changing, and I think that having that rural background I have been afforded an extra glimpse into the importance of the uptake of IPM nationally and world wide, but also the costs that our farmers will incur with these changes. It’s a tough predicament, that’s for sure, but I feel we can make a difference by working together. For more detail, click on the linked radio interview above. I’d be grateful for any feedback, so comment or flick me an email, we can only learn through feedback.

The bottom line is that I love communicating science. I like to think I am pretty good at it and I believe that comes from my passion for it. I don’t want there to be a disconnect between what’s going on in the labs and what’s happening on the streets and thus hope to continue my media stints for a long time to come.


Two weeks in a new country never feels like enough time, but it seems to give you a taste and leaves you wanting more. That’s how I feel after my 2 weeks in Japan.

I had never been to Japan before, and all whilst “Japlanning” I started to feel overwhelmed. How on earth was I going to see all the things I wanted to see? Where do I even start with Japans incredibly long and detailed history? Which areas should I prioritise and where can I do some great but accessible hiking? And how much Japanese should I learn before going? Where should I stay? Too many questions. Continue reading

Ultratrail 50K

A last minute decision found me 3 weeks out from an ultra marathon. I hadn’t planned to do this event, nor had I trained for it. I was just out of a surgery when a friend contacted me to ask if I wanted her entry for the 50K. I was intrigued, excited, tempted, but wanted to get the go ahead from my surgeon before I did it. I knew that mentally I was capable, and that I have great endurance, so my main concern was simply can I make the cut off times. After my surgeon gave me the all clear (with the proviso that I keep checking in with myself throughout the event), I was keen to start. Continue reading

What’s stopping us from becoming better athletes?

There are many things that may hold us back from achieving what we want, whether it’s in our active lifestyles, work places, travel desires, or elsewhere. It could be social commitments, it could be family, friends, work pressures, it could be lack of equipment or finances. The biggest thing that I believe holds us back though (myself included) is ourselves.

Have you ever caught yourself feeling self doubt, comparing yourself to someone “better” than you, being hard on yourself , giving up because others are going to “beat you anyway”, or just feeling jealous of others? I know I have, many times, and not only in athletic endeavours. Continue reading

Adaptable training

I’ve moved around quite a lot, for work and my education. I’ve also done a bit of travelling and one thing that I’ve noticed is that in different places, some types of training is easier than others. I also haven’t taken fitness or outdoor activities into consideration in my moves, I’ve focused where I live based on work. I’m learning now, that I want to change that focus. I’m also learning that I need adaptable training.  Continue reading