Profile with Elle Leane  

Elizabeth Leane (South Australia & Magdalen 1995) holds a research position split between the School of Humanities and the Institute for Antarctic and Marine Studies at the University of Tasmania. At present she is completing a book entitled ‘South Pole’ for Reaktion Books’ new ‘Earth’ series. Elizabeth holds a DPhil in English Literature from the University of Oxford. She also holds both a BSc in Physics and a BA (Hons) in English from the University of Adelaide.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me a favourite childhood memory?

Elizabeth Leane: There are so many to choose from, it’s hard to pick just one! I think the thing for me that stands out in my childhood is the holidays; I remember those before anything else. We went skiing a few times when I was in primary school. Those times stand out in my mind because I lived in country South Australia which is flat and hot and dry, so going to the mountains and skiing and tobogganing – that’s a stand-out memory.

Rhodes Project: What did you find strangest about Oxford?

Elizabeth Leane: My first few days felt very strange. I’d come straight from Australia and I’d never been overseas before.

From Australia, you arrive at Heathrow at five o’clock in the morning, always. So I rock up horribly jetlagged to Magdalen College and suddenly I’m dragging my suitcase past a herd of deer. It was a beautiful day when I arrived and there was dappled sun over the meadow. It was absolutely picture perfect, but I was so sleep-deprived I could barely take it in; the whole thing just struck me as completely surreal. I then had to find my way to Rhodes House for a welcome, when all I wanted to do was collapse. I’m told that I went to lots of orientation events in the following days but I have very little memory of that period!

Rhodes Project: What has been your greatest motivation through life?

Elizabeth Leane: I don’t think there’s any one thing that keeps me going. I think that people are probably most effective when they do what they most enjoy and contribute in the areas where their talents lie. So, in terms of career, that would be what drives me.

Rhodes Project: As an academic you have feet in both the arts and sciences camps. How would you describe your area of work and how did you arrive there?

Elizabeth Leane: Upon leaving school I wasn’t sure whether to go towards the arts or the sciences. I went with the sciences partly because I’d been awarded a scholarship offered to women in non-traditional career streams, and did a degree in physics. I came to the end of that and still was unsure. I did a summer internship in a cosmic ray department and that decided that it probably wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. I then enrolled in an arts degree, majoring in English, partly because I’d was an avid reader and liked the idea of making my hobby my profession. When I came to the end of that I realised there were very few people with both those interests - not just arts and sciences but particularly English literature and physics, which are often seen to be the two polarised ends of the disciplinary spectrum. So when I went to Oxford my idea was to combine them in some way, which is why I looked at physics popularisations, from a textual point of view. Then arriving back here in Australia – and taking up an academic position in Tasmania – I became interested in the Antarctic. This was partly because of the sense that it’s a place dedicated to science and I felt people in literature had been reluctant to explore it from their perspective. Again I thought that with my combination of interests I was well placed to do that work and that’s basically what happened.

Rhodes Project: Is there any one moment in your career that you would like to revisit and change?

Elizabeth Leane:  Not really, because I love what I’m doing, but I do wonder sometimes where I’d be now if I had stayed with physics rather than shifted to arts.

Rhodes Project: You are one of very few people to have spent time in Antarctica. What surprised you about the place? Was it how you had expected it to be?

Elizabeth Leane: I had an enormous number of preconceptions – far too many – and it was a bit of a burden in a sense. If you’re writing about a place and you’ve read a lot about it and then you go there, you worry about what to expect. You have all these ideas in your head; it’s hard to approach it fresh. I guess what did surprise me was the childlike glee that came over me when we first reached the ice fields. I just remember being overtaken with excitement in a way that I never would have predicted. I didn’t want to go to sleep because I knew I’d miss out on it. This amazing enthusiasm surprised me, as I was prepared to be jaded.

Rhodes Project: Can you describe a memorable teaching moment?

Elizabeth Leane: Not any one moment, but there have been many times when students have shown remarkable insights and others where things have gone chaotically wrong (often involving an audiovisual hiccup). Some memorable moments have occurred when I’ve taken a bit of a risk and stepped outside my comfort zone. I’m not by nature an extrovert, but when lecturing or tutoring occasionally I will do something extroverted in order to make a point for the students. For example, in one tutorial I sang some of Emily Dickinson’s poems to the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’ to make a point about the metre – and singing is far from being one of my strengths! The students didn’t forget it. In some ways you have to risk making a fool of yourself in class, as this is what students are often most frightened of doing, and why they are often silent. So if you break the ice by risking looking an idiot, they then have a licence to take risks – that is, voice an opinion – themselves.

Rhodes Project: Who is your real-life heroine?

Elizabeth Leane: No one particular heroine that I’m conscious of, although there are endless people whose lifestyles and achievements leave me in awe. I’m certainly aware of the big literary figures who have been women, people like George Eliot. I wouldn’t say they were heroines exactly but I’m conscious of that tradition. I’ve had several mentors or role models throughout my career. I think my brothers were a major influence on me early on. Both of them are older than I am and I think that was probably a big reason why I went into physics in the first place. They were that way inclined and they always gave me the impression it was quite a natural thing for me to do and encouraged my interest. I think that that’s had a big influence on me, especially in that I’ve gone into often fairly male-dominated areas. Like physics, Antarctic studies is still quite male-dominated. I feel reasonably comfortable doing that and think part of the reason is that I had these brothers who never thought twice about it. And along the way teachers and some senior colleagues at the University here have been very helpful– so I’m a big fan of mentoring and now welcome the opportunity to mentor others.

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy?

Elizabeth Leane: I have to say my family. I’ve got two young children, 4 and 5. You can’t get much more joy than that. Sharing a good joke with my kids and husband would have to be number one. I get a lot of joy out of my work. I get a lot of joy out of reading a good novel, and I get joy out of writing something that is going well – when I get that sense of ‘flow’ that people talk about. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does it brings me joy. Living here in Tasmania brings me a lot of joy; it’s a stunning place.

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