Lizards and Life Lessons: How an Australian Odyssey Redefined Work, Connection, and Inclusivity

Sleepy Lizard

Dr. Lynea Witczak Oldfather, Fulbright Future Scholar, Funded by The Kinghorn Foundation | University of California, Davis/Flinders University

My Fulbright experience has forever changed how I approach life and view the world around me.

This is one of the few times in my life when I have been allowed to truly be present, and I am incredibly grateful for all the opportunities my Fulbright has offered. Having just completed my PhD, where it felt like every second of my life was dedicated to science (either through research or teaching), it was liberating to have the permission and time to experience life beyond academia.

When I moved to Australia, I made a promise to myself that I would take in every moment and say yes to as many opportunities as possible. I learned quickly that Australians have a much healthier work-life balance than I did in the US, with people genuinely taking time to grab a coffee to catch up, and leaving work at a reasonable time so they can walk along the beach with family and friends. While it was hard at first to break the habits I had formed over my entire academic career, I found myself more energize and genuinely happy when I could spend a productive day in the lab/field and then spend the late afternoon exploring some new place in the Adelaide area. Bushwalks became one of my favorite ways to unwind and truly get to know this country. And living a mere five-minute walk from the beach was a huge improvement in my quality of life!

Not only did my Fulbright allow me time to explore my surroundings, but it also provided more opportunities to engage with those around me. When I first moved here, I was invited to several coffee chats per week with people. I felt welcomed and accepted right away, and this is a practice that I will carry with me wherever I go in life. When we open ourselves up to curiosity and ask others about their lives and passions, we can truly connect with them. This is something I have been craving my entire life (whether I knew it or not), and I only recently made the connection that this is a driving force behind my research interests. We long to be with others, and we feel calmer and happier when we share a close bond with those around us.

 

Back in 2009, I decided to dedicate my research career to better understanding the mechanisms driving close social bonds, but it was only here in Australia during my Fulbright (nearly 13 years later!) that I understood why this was such an important question to me. We all want to feel connected to others, and we thrive when we have positive social relationships that can see us through the good and the bad. Many of the physiological mechanisms associated with these feelings of love, security, and joy are shared by non-human animals.

While I prefer studying social bonds in sleepy lizards (Tiliqua rugosa), many of the findings from my research can help explain how our relationships can have lasting benefits and why we crave these close connections to others. As a Fulbright Scholar, I was able to establish connections with others to contribute to an incredible research program at Flinders University. Prof. Mike Gardner is leading one of the world’s longest-running studies on any wild animal (the sleepy lizard), and even with four decades of research on these fascinating animals, there is still much left to learn. I was thrilled to share my methods for studying hormones and behavior with students in Prof. Gardner’s lab and am proud of the connections we have made both locally and internationally. Locally, we are teaming up with the Flinders Omics facility to develop a new method for measuring hormones in lizard blood samples. Internationally, we have been working closely with TechnoSmart, an Italian company, to help pilot their new proximity sensor technology for studying social behavior in wild lizards. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that even in a short 10-month fellowship, I was able to contribute to a one-of-a-kind research program and connect with people from around the world. I’m excited to continue collaborating with these teams for the rest of my career.

When I return to the US, I want to share what I have learned from my Fulbright experience with others. I plan to model the healthier work-life balance I’ve seen my Australian friends and colleagues prioritize. I will invite folks to have coffee as a way of getting to know them as a person and take time to live in the moment. I’ve been inspired to continue going out of my comfort zone, saying yes to new opportunities, and learning from others. I will continue learning about indigenous cultures around the world and how different countries have approached reparations and making spaces more inclusive of those who have historically been harmed by colonizing practices. I will continue to strive to create inclusive, welcoming spaces for others wherever I go. I am eager to share the lessons I have learned about needing to listen to others and consider multiple perspectives to help find common goals and bring people together.

I came here because I was excited to learn about lizard sociality, but I’m leaving with lessons on how to truly connect with others.