Ancient DNA feature big in Dawn’s future plans

Hard work, dedication and humble achievement has been the hallmark of Woolwonga woman and University of New England (UNE) student Dawn’s accomplishments to date.

From an undergraduate who sometimes doubted her ability to achieve, to a confident student who was accepted into a prestigious Oxford University master’s program, Dawn has made the most of opportunities that came her way.

After enrolling in a history degree with UNE, Dawn quickly discovered a love and aptitude for science, specifically genetics and archaeology.

“One of my lecturers, Dr Melanie Fillios, inspired my interest in bioarchaeology. It was fascinating. I especially wanted to know more about combining molecular genetics and archaeology as well as ancient DNA,” Dawn said.

Dawn’s plans hit a slight bump at this point as UNE does not offer study of ancient DNA at undergraduate level. Instead Dawn elected to study historical DNA for her honours thesis and is now learning to extract DNA from archaeological bones dating back to colonial Sydney.

“I’m extremely grateful to my supervisors Associate Professor Shubiao Wu and Dr Melanie Fillios for their expertise and flexibility with this unusual thesis!” she says.

Through her industry connections, Dr Fillios, a senior lecturer in Archaeology, arranged for Dawn to visit leading international universities in England to learn more about the intricacies of working with ancient DNA.

Along with Dr Fillios’ advocacy and funding from UNE, the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics sponsored flights for Dawn to attend the inaugural Aotearoa Summer Internship for Indigenous Genomics (SING) Consortia conference in New Zealand on her way to England.

SING was both a confronting and rewarding experience for Dawn.

“This was my first ever opportunity to interact directly with First Nations Canadian, Native American and Maori geneticists, and I found the experience invaluable. Although I didn’t realise until I arrived, I was the only Australian at the alumni event, which was confronting but ultimately useful to provide some Australian perspective,” Dawn said.

True to form, Dawn is now helping to organise the second SING Australia conference, currently scheduled for early 2021, where she will share her Aotearoa experience with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and community members.

In England, Dawn visited the Universities of Huddersfield and Warwick, both of which have ancient DNA laboratories, to learn more about ancient DNA studies in a global context. She also spent two weeks at the University of Oxford’s world-class PaleoBARN where she networked with and shadowed experts.

“I spent a lot of time in the ancient DNA laboratories and was blown away with what I saw,” Dawn said. “Huddersfield really impressed me with the internal separating protocols they use to protect the integrity of ancient DNA, while at Oxford there was this amazing sense of collegiality and team work.”

Dawn, who is currently living in Uralla, NSW, plans to act as a bridge between archaeogenetics and Indigenous communities, working to help Aboriginal people gain control and ownership of their past.

“I grew up on the Sunshine Coast and am a great-granddaughter of Nellie Flynn of Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory. Community and history is a part of who I am and very important to me. I want to work for the benefit of Aboriginal Australia and help preserve our heritage.”

Dawn is the first in her family to attend university but, much to her chagrin, not the first to graduate, having completed a double major in archaeology and genetics in mid-2019.

“I’m the third of four girls and the first to uni. My little sister began her degree after me but graduated first!”

“University has been difficult for me to navigate at times. My mum fought extremely hard to get me here, which I deeply appreciate, but neither of my parents or my siblings had been to university so navigating the systems was quite difficult at times.

“I didn’t come to UNE expecting to find a community, but I am so at home now that I cannot foresee my partner and I leaving any time soon. Even my mum has moved here!”

Dawn’s study tour was made possible with support from Dr Fillios, UNE’s Vice-Chancellor and CEO, Professor Brigid Heywood and Oorala Aboriginal Centre. Dr Fillios also endorsed Dawn’s application to the Master of Archaeological Science program at the University of Oxford, England.

“It was a pleasure to help Dawn pursue her academic interests. Academia is a marathon. Talent and intellect will open doors, but it is up to the individual to seize the opportunities. Not all students do, but Dawn is a shining example of what can be achieved with grit and determination,” Dr Fillios said.