My Five-Year Journey from Reno to Melbourne

Dr. Heather A. Holmes, Fulbright Future Scholar, Funded by The Kinghorn Foundation | University of Utah/University of Melbourne

This story begins many years ago, before a global pandemic, before I lived in Utah, before I spent 10 months living out of an RV, and before I ventured off to spend three months on my Fulbright program.

In 2019, I submitted my application for a Fulbright Scholarship to Australia. I had been living in Reno, Nevada for almost six years and professionally I started researching wildfire smoke and its impact on human health. Reno, you see, is situated downwind of most of those really large wildfires that happen in California. Every year during summer, for about one month, the sky would fill with so much smoke that you could stare directly at the sun without burning your eyes, and ash the size of bottle caps would fall down from the sky. I decided in 2019 that I wanted to spend time in Australia to learn from some of the world’s best (bush)fire researchers.

Fast forward to 2020, a whirlwind of a year for the world, and for me it was no different. I found out I was awarded the Fulbright Future Scholarship in February 2020, was offered a job at the University of Utah in March 2020, and then the global pandemic shut everything down. I accepted the job offer at Utah and my partner and I decided to sell our home in Reno and move in the summer of 2020. So just as we were supposed to be heading to Australia we were packing up our house and moving into a 20-foot travel trailer (or a “caravan” to the Aussies). We decided to keep our plans to go to Australia, when the borders opened and so we kept putting off buying a new home. We ended up in that camper for almost a year! Finally, in 2022, we moved into a new house in Salt Lake City, I was setting into my job at Utah, and my partner and I got married. At long last, in 2023 we both ventured off to Melbourne — her for five weeks, and me for three and a half months.

I felt I could not share about my Fulbright experience without discussing the journey that led me here. While my life changed considerably during the years I was waiting to visit Australia, my interest and passion to study wildfire and bushfire smoke had only grown. I was still just as excited to learn from the Australian smoke and fire researchers in 2023 as I was in 2019. The difference now was that I had several more years to strengthen my own research program before embarking on my Fulbright experience. This made me want to meet even more researchers in Australia than I had originally intended, and I think I was successful! I gave three research seminar talks and met scientists from all over Australia working on several different aspects of the land-fire-smoke-atmosphere system and learned so much about how they are approaching the problem. I also really enjoyed learning and listening to stories that people in the community had about bushfires and land management. While the wildfires in the U.S. and the bushfires in Australia are both very similar, the way they impact communities and land practices are different. I am grateful for everything I learned professionally during my Fulbright program and it has helped me establish long-term international collaborations for fire, smoke, and health related research.

On the personal side, after convincing my wife to leave our hometown and live in a camper with me for nearly a year, talking her into joining me in Melbourne, in the comfort of a guest house with a pool, was pretty easy. She jumped at the chance to spend five weeks with me in Australia, first touring around New South Wales, staying in Melbourne, sightseeing along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, attending the Fulbright Gala in Canberra, sightseeing in Sydney, and then home. Together we had a lifetime of adventures during her stay in Australia, including watching the women’s final of the Australian Open and stumbling upon street art from a favorite, iconic artist. She only wishes she could have smuggled out one of those cute little penguins from Phillip Island… Not really, but she did settle for a stuffed animal version to take home.

After my wife went home I got a chance to settle into Melbourne and slip into life like a local in Fitzroy. Maybe not truly like a local because I was staying in a residential college. But I had the best of both worlds, breakfasts and dinners with my fellow residents on weekdays and dining adventures on the weekends. I bought a gravel bike and started exploring bike paths, dirt roads, and mountain bike trails in and around Melbourne. This was such a fantastic way to see the city, paths along the river and great views from hills nearby that could be accessed by trails. I also enjoyed walking through Carlton Gardens on my way to Pilates in the evenings, and at night on my way home I loved saying hello to the bats hanging out in the fruit trees. At the end of my stay, one of my favorite things was joining Fitzroy locals at a pub for steak or burger night.

After I completed my work in Melbourne, I spent my last week in Australia touring around Tasmania. I wanted to see the wilderness there and venture out on the trails. All I have to say is – if you haven’t been, go! The landscape is beautiful, all of the water (streams, rivers, lakes, ocean) is crystal clear, and the people are great. I saw several risk reduction burns, so the science side of me got a chance to nerd out. I climbed up the oldest shot tower still standing in Australia, the Taroona Shot Tower outside of Hobart. My favorite Australian mountain bike ride was on local trails in St. Helens, where during my four-hour bike adventure I only saw one other person. On my last day, walking around Hobart while it was drizzling was the perfect way to wrap up my Fulbright experience in Australia. I ate gluten-free fish and chips, saw the CSIRO research vessel (a big ship with tons of atmospheric and oceanic sensors on board), and saw the ghost zoo where the last known thylacine died in 1936.

My time in Melbourne and in Australia in general was very impactful for me both professionally and personally. Professionally, there is so much to be learned about fire and smoke and sharing knowledge with cutting-edge researchers in Australia was very rewarding for me. Also, hearing and learning about the indigenous land management practices and ceremonial activities with smoke was one of my most cherished takeaways from my Fulbright program.