A quick Q&A with Dr Michael Westaway

Dr Michael Westaway

Dr Michael Westaway

Griffith University, Environmental Futures Research Institute, Research Fellow, Dr Michael Westaway discusses his career, research tips, and skeletal remains.

1. What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I can remember going to a careers and university planning day in Year 11 and bringing home a brochure on studying archaeology and palaeoanthropology at UNE. I hadn’t heard of the discipline of palaeoanthropology until that stage. From Year 11, I started to think archaeology might be a career I could try and pursue.

2. Tell us about a previous job that you’ve had.

My first really exciting job was working as a state project archaeologist for Aboriginal Affairs Victoria (AAV). I had never lived in Melbourne before and was paired up with a senior project archaeologist and our job was to develop a list of 50 key sites, as nominated by Aboriginal communities, that would be the subject of further investigation and management.

As I had also studied biological anthropology, I was given the role at AAV to investigate reports of Aboriginal skeletal remains, and I liaised very closely with the Coroners Department during this work. Quite often the skeletal remains that were reported were non-human, but we undertook a lot of really interesting rescue investigations of Aboriginal skeletal remains.

3. Which 3 apps do you use the most on your mobile device?

Very boring I’m afraid, mobile banking, the tide times and the Brisbane airport app are really the ones I use most. I wish I could say the Australian native bird identification app or something interesting like that, but I guess the tide times is the best one. I use it when I am heading to the sea for a swim (which I tried, reasonably successfully, to do every weekend this past summer).

4. Which 5 celebrities would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

I’m not terribly inspired by modern celebrities, although I do like the way the philosopher Alain de Botton looks at life and relationships, so he is one (probably not technically a celebrity).

Barack Obama would be a great dinner guest but perhaps Angela Merkel would be better, she seems to be the most inspiring world leader at the moment. I am afraid the remainder are no longer alive, Thomas Huxley and Raymond Dart are people I’d like to chat to about their contributions to knowledge in evolution.

David Unaipon is another person (the man on the $50 note) who would be great to have a conversation with over dinner. He was such an inquisitive and intelligent individual, and from what I have read so far was the first Aboriginal person to consider scientific views of human origins at the time in the context of Aboriginal creation stories. He rallied enormous support from many Australians for Aboriginal human rights.

5. Tell us about your favourite fictional character.

I am a fan of the narrator in HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (not the Tom Cruise version, but the original seen through the eyes of the late 19th Century newspaper journalist whose name we never get to know).

6. What’s the best thing about your current role?

What is really exciting is the sense of discovery, whether it be going through museum collections and archives to find some piece of evidence that may lead to something far bigger, or investigating a remote landscape that might reveal an important new chapter into the past. The combination of research and fieldwork I find quite intoxicating, and it is really hard to curb my enthusiasm when in the midst of trying to make sense of something that doesn’t seem to fit into the current scheme of things. I undertake this type of fieldwork with students, and very importantly Traditional Owners, and I find it so inspiring when we all work together to try and make sense of Australia’s amazing Aboriginal past.

7. What sparked your interest in archaeology?

When I was a first-year student I had some inspiring and indeed life changing lecturers. The teaching staff inspired an interest in the archaeology of ancient Australia, placing its significance in the global context, and what I think certainly made the difference was the willingness and patience of the Head of School, Professor Isabelle McBryde, to take the time and discuss with me as a young first year student an exciting discovery of a shell midden I had made over the Easter Break.

8. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I would like to be continuing my role as a researcher at Griffith and teaching into a Master of Science program that is helping to building a new understanding of human evolution in our region, but very importantly also creating new insights into the complexity of Australia’s Aboriginal past. Critical to the success of this program will be the chance to provide training opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, so that they can ultimately be the drivers of this new national narrative.

9. What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

Moving to Griffith University has been the highlight, without a doubt. I was approached by Professor David Lambert who had read some of my work on the fossil human remains from the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area. He asked whether I thought the Elders from the three Tribal Groups at the Willandra would be interested in seeing if we could recover ancient DNA from their ancestors and I suggested we go and ask them. They were very interested, and Dave, his postdocs and PhD students and I have been busy writing a new population history of ancient Australia ever since.

10. Tell us about your research into the skeletal remains of first-nation people.

Since the late 1990s, I have been involved in investigating skeletal remains of Aboriginal people, initially as a state archaeologists working with Aboriginal communities and the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, but then as a biological anthropologist employed in the repatriation program at the National Museum of Australia.

11. What’s the best resource you’ve discovered in your Griffith University Library?

Definitely the books, much of the time they contain all kinds of important information. It is always a great relief to find that all our wisdom is not contained on the internet. I am a regular user of our library, the State Library (and particularly the John Oxley library) and also the Queensland Museum library. These institutions are very important, particularly for Queensland-based research into Aboriginal archaeology and culture.

12. Can you give us your 3 best research tips?

  • Universities have an increasingly important role to play in our society, and I think in the disciplinary areas that I work in, which straddles science and the humanities, it is very important to promote our research to a broader audience. Our scholarship is funded by taxpayers, and I feel very strongly that we should provide people with information that might help them make more informed decisions regarding the complex society we live in.
  • Communication is critical at all levels of research, and I have just finished rattling on about communication with the public and this, of course, should extend to all the stakeholders one works with. I think to take it to that next level, it is always good to try and undertake research in partnership with key stakeholders. In my research, I work very closely with Koori and Murri people, and together with my colleagues we always try to present and publish our research together.
  • I think it is important to appreciate and respect that your conclusions might not really be conclusions. Research is more to do with hypothesis testing, and on occasion, some researchers become so heavily wedded to their line of argument that they see any potential challenge to it is a threat to their reputation (in some cases perhaps it can be). I think the important thing is to recognise that new data can always emerge that may challenge your ideas, and perhaps if you are open-minded enough, maybe even change them!

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